Commentary Magazine

The Modern Rabbi

“The family of Benjamin the Physician used to say: ‘Of what use are the Rabbis to us? They never permitted us the raven, nor have they forbidden us the dove.’” Thus the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b, 100a) reports an early instance of the contemporary American Jewish parlor game of “rabbi baiting.” Benjamin the Physician meant, evidently, that the sources of rabbinic decisions were as available to the layman as they are to the rabbis: for the Bible itself forbade eating ravens, while permitting the eating of doves. And the rabbis had done no tampering with the Biblical law, neither to mitigate it nor make it more stringent. The Talmudic report goes on to say, however, that when dietary questions of a doubtful nature arose in Benjamin’s household, recourse was had to the rabbis, after all. In answering such questions, the rabbis did not fail to append a gloating reference to the rabbinate’s usefulness to society.

But we moderns looking back can see that the ancient rabbinate did far more than hold the key to decisions in doubtful cases. They in fact adjusted more than one Biblical statute to the changing conditions of life, and to men’s increasing moral sensitivity. They interpreted the lex talionis, for instance, in terms of monetary compensation; they virtually set aside the law governing the sabbatical year; and the “rebellious son” law (Deuteronomy 21: 18ff.) they spelled out in such a way as to make its application impossible. The marked aversion of the rabbis to capital punishment was evident in the restrictions they placed on the law concerning it—in contrast to the Bible, which rather freely commands that penalty. As to women, the rabbis allowed them many more rights than the Bible does, and in general the ancient rabbinate laid the foundation of a system of Bible interpretation which made of literalist fundamentalism a heresy.

All this the rabbis did on their authority as “interpreters” of Scripture, an authority which they held by virtue of having accumulated a great store of knowledge—and therefore wisdom. By trade a rabbi might be a woodchopper, a cobbler, a beer-brewer: it was his expertise in the knowledge of the sources which gained him his recognition as “rabbi.” And so even a household as learned in the Bible as Benjamin’s had from time to time to seek an expert rabbinical opinion.

If all this may be said about the rabbi of fifteen hundred years ago, the question arises: does his modern counterpart share with him anything more than the title? There have been many changes in the rabbinate since the time when Benjamin the Physician questioned its usefulness, and one of the greatest of all occurred when it became a profession in its own right. Maimonides, in the 12th century, still made his living as a physician while serving the cause of Judaism in an honorary capacity. It was around the 14th century that the general progress of specialization affected the rabbinate also, and the rabbi—at first not without qualms of conscience—became a paid official. Even then, he remained primarily the community’s expert on Jewish sources: he was the judge deciding questions of civil law and of ritual on the basis of the over-all Jewish code, the teacher transmitting the sacred heritage to the next generation.

With the coming of Emancipation, in Western Europe (and America) the rabbinate took on a new function. Whether the Rabbi’s label was “Orthodox,” “Conservative,” or “Reform,” he more and more—emulating the Christian clergyman—found himself engaged in pastoral work, performing duties which had since time immemorial been deemed to be mitzvoth, incumbent upon all Jews. But, first and foremost, the rabbi became a preacher.



There have always been preachers in Judaism—beginning with the Prophets themselves. We know that some of the early legalists treated their communities to homilies on Sabbath afternoons, just as many early rabbis also seem to have specialized in homiletics; and there is evidence in the rabbinic literature of an actual rivalry, at times, between legalists and preachers for the attention of their public. Yet though the synagogue has at no time been without its preachers, the older rabbi was not necessarily a preacher, nor the one who preached, a rabbi. For the most part, the popular preachers who traveled from shtetel to shtetel in Eastern Europe, regaling congregations with their homiletical skill on Sabbath afternoons, were content to be auxiliary—and subsidiary—to the rabbi.

The rabbi himself preached but twice a year—on the Sabbath before Passover, and on the Sabbath before the Day of Atonement; even then, his sermons, dealing with the laws of the imminent Holy Days, were more didactic than edifying. The modern rabbi, on the other hand, has been a preacher primarily. It was the rabbi’s sermon that sounded the battle cry of Reform—or rallied the faithful to the defense of Tradition. It was in the sermon that the “eternal verities of Judaism” were crystallized and distilled for the benefit of a generation which no longer engaged in private Jewish study. In the sermon, too, the rabbi had the chance to exhibit his secular learning and culture, and to prove to his congregation that English (or earlier, German) could be spoken without the trace of an accent. From there, it was but a small step for the modern rabbi to appear before non-Jewish audiences as “ambassador” of the Jewish community—and in so doing, incidentally, furnish compelling proof that a Jew was endowed with neither horns nor hooves. In truth, the impression a candidate for rabbinical office would be likely to make in the Gentile world was—perhaps still is—often the decisive criterion for his employment.

As to the value of “sermonic” Judaism itself, opinions have always differed. A generation ago, Franz Rosenzweig expressed criticism of the rabbi who had “left behind the sober air of daily learning,” and become “more or less dependent upon preaching, a preaching, incidentally, which he can direct only rarely to the large mass of his congregation, a preaching, therefore, without echo.” Rosenzweig adds that “the preacher acts as if he had been asked. But none has asked him. And thus, also from the point of view of the content, all he says seems empty.”1

There are rabbis in contemporary America who share Franz Rosenzweig’s serious doubts about preaching—though not necessarily for Rosenzweig’s reasons. Naturally, those rabbis who are good at preaching, who can “pack them in” and hold a congregation spellbound, do not underestimate the value of the sermon. Yet it would not be charitable, nor even precise, to suggest that the rabbis who tend to derogate the sermon are simply indifferent preachers. For there has been one further change in the development of the modern rabbinate which has yet to be noted.

The sermons of the last generation—whatever their other merits or faults—were, by and large, preached by men with burning religious convictions. The modern American Jewish scene, on the other hand, has become familiar with the rabbi whose own religious commitment is somewhat less than total. Within Reform and Conservative Judaism a new breed of rabbi has appeared, men competent as “technicians” and “group workers,” but evidently beset by doubts as to the basic affirmations of theistic religion—even in its radical “classical” Reform variety. If they are not in the majority, they do exist, and have met with not much opposition from the laity. It can hardly be expected that the “preaching” of these rabbis should be as inspired as the “preaching” of the earlier, God-intoxicated homileticians.

The sermon, indeed, has come by many to be rated far below another activity, one which has increasingly absorbed the modern American rabbi’s attention and time: namely, counseling. The rabbi as counselor is a composite of a number of ingredients. To the extent that the rabbi of an older day used to be concerned with the laws of personal status, he was as a matter of course often involved in the critical moments of his congregants’ lives. For example, while Talmudic law makes divorce possible, Talmudic morality tends to discourage it; and it was the rabbi’s duty to try vigorously to patch up matters, resorting to divorce only when everything else had failed. The rabbi would also visit and console the sick, though no more than any other Jew, since it was a mitzvah. Most directly involved in counseling was the East European Hasidic rebbe, whose advice was sought by his followers in all their affairs, from a guilty conscience to a childless marriage. The modern Western rabbi rather tended to imitate his Christian counterpart in the “concern for souls” (Seelsorge). Then came Psychology. In the United States, particularly, the rabbi eagerly availed himself of its new insights and techniques. To be sure, the rabbinical seminaries keep urging their students to refer cases in need of a specialist’s treatment to a specialist: still many a rabbi finds himself cast in the role of the amateur psychiatrist, and many a congregant finds it cheaper to forsake the psychiatrist’s couch for the rabbi’s study. A variation is the rabbi who likes to spice his utterances with psychiatric jargon, and who finds that Judaism is valuable to modern man because, in so many instances, Jewish religious literature is said to have anticipated Freud. But even where a rabbi has undergone specialized training in order to be of some real use in psychiatric counseling, he may be left with a problem of his own: when, if at all, does he figure as “rabbi”—the representative authority for certain absolute standards governing morals and interpersonal relations? If not, if he cannot be this kind of figure, is he still an honest “rabbi”? Fortunately, the dilemma is not too common: most of our rabbis in their counseling activities do not pretend to usurp the psychiatrist’s function, and they are indeed useful to their congregants insofar as they are looked up to as the authority for a basic system of morality.

One word more needs to be said about still another new function of the contemporary rabbi. I do not refer to his role as a teacher of children or adults, where he differs from his medieval predecessor only in techniques. I mean his role as ritual functionary, the director of services of worship, and especially of domestic ceremonies. The old-time rabbi did not “officiate” at circumcisions (unless he was the mohel), or tombstone unveilings, or affixing the mezuzah to his congregants’ doorposts. Strictly speaking, once the legal technicalities had been cleared with him, he did not even have to “officiate” at a wedding. Rabbinic Judaism was basically a layman’s religion. Our modern rabbis are all too often regarded as priests and the responsibility for this unwholesome state of affairs is not always the layman’s.



Now, young men may have various reasons for seeking a career in the modern rabbinate; and once he has been ordained, a rabbi may choose to stress one rather than another aspect of the ministry: no single man can excel in all functions. But one thing all rabbis have in common: the desire to communicate, to be leaders and spokesmen. It is, therefore, not surprising that many of our rabbis have felt the urge to publish books—particularly of their sermons. I should like here to examine a number of such recent books which may illustrate some of the points about the modern rabbinate that I have made above.

In Length of Our DaysFocus on Judaism and the Personal Life (Bloch, 103 pp., $3.00), Rabbi Sol Landau devotes two chapters to the history and the present role of the rabbinate. He notes that “the majority of American Jews are not at all certain what the exact role of the rabbi is. This is not only due to lack of historical information, but also because the rabbi does not represent to them the actual world they live in.” To overcome this handicap, Rabbi Landau suggests that the counseling role is “the rabbi’s most acceptable opportunity to reach his people.” But he is also careful to point out that “this does not minimize the continuing place as preacher and teacher in the pulpit and classroom.” Rabbi Landau is on the whole eager to demonstrate that the modern rabbinate is not radically different from the rabbinate of antiquity. “It seems to me,” he says, “that the real change in the function of the rabbinate is one of emphasis.”

Rabbi Kurt Klappholz, author of The Power Within Us (the Torah Institute, Brooklyn, 93 pp., $2.95), would probably not disagree with Landau’s notion of the rabbinate, though his own particular contribution seems to lie in an adaptation of the Norman Vincent Peale type of “Positive Thinking”—Klappholz calls his version “Constructive Thinking.” The following words from his preface give an indication of the book’s style throughout:

The human dilemma of today has been properly summed up by Jascha Heifetz, illustrious American violinist, who remarked: “Man is always trying to make something for himself rather than something of himself.” In this book the author aims to offer guideposts for creative and purposeful living through constructive thinking. He humbly endeavors to show what religion can do for us in terms of personal happiness and inner peace, so vital to healthful living in our time.

The book is studded with such other authorities as James Bender, Joshua L. Liebman, Joseph H. Hertz, Judge Cooper, Spinoza, Charles Kingsley, Benjamin Abrams, Emmet Fox, George Washington Carver, Abraham Lincoln, Drs. Lawrence Hinkle Jr. and Norman Plumer, G. K. Chesterton, Will Rogers, Disraeli, Albert Schweitzer, Norman Vincent Peale, Theodore Parker, William Penn, R. Elimech of Lizansk, Maimonides, R. Nahman of Bratzlav, Montefiore, Judah Halevi, and H. Pereira Mendes. More often than not, these “authorities” merely help to dignify a simple platitude: we read, for example, that “Religion, in the opinion of Disraeli, should be the rule of life, not a casual incident of it”; or, “Religion, in the words of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, like all good things, needs to be shared with others.”

Nevertheless, The Power Within Us is a most significant book, for the reason that its author is an Orthodox rabbi. The homely truths he propounds, derived from the sources of traditional Judaism, are here presented with the imprimatur of the excommunicated Spinoza, the baptized Disraeli, the Reform Joshua L. Liebman, and the anti-Semitic G. K. Chesterton. The reading public, the author realizes, has gone beyond “the four cubits of the Halachah”—the teachings of Judaism have now to be judged by the criteria of Western thought. Klappholz speaks of “Religion’s pragmatic usefulness in terms of personal happiness and inner peace.”

Liebman’s Peace of Mind—a much more thoughtful and provocative book than Klappholz’s—is, of course, already dated, and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking has come in for its share of adverse criticism among more theologically minded Protestants. But, then, the book by Klappholz exemplifies an axiomatic truth of Jewish development: Wie es sich christelt, so juedelt es sich—translated freely, As the Christians go, so go the Jews; there is of course an inevitable time lag before the Jews “catch on.”



The rabbi as “ambassador” to the non-Jewish community seems to be the role most highly rated by Rabbi Harry Joshua Stern, in his collected sermons and addresses, entitled Entrusted with Spiritual Leadership (Bloch, 120 pp., $3.00). Again and again Rabbi Stern points with pride to the annual Institute on Judaism for the Christian Clergy which his congregation has been holding for many a year. He sees in it “a unique fruitage of fellowship between Catholics, Jews, and Protestants,” and even “something, too, of the reality of Isaiah’s prophecy that ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’” And he even detects in the participation of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, together with Catholic and Protestant ecclesiastics, in the ceremonies at President Eisenhower’s inauguration, the “fruit of our inter-faith work.”

Rabbi William B. Silverman addresses himself to the American public at large in God Help Me! (Macmillan, 294 pp., $4.95). His is not the task of explaining Judaism to the non-Jew, but of rallying both Jew and non-Jew “From Kindergarten Religion to the Radical Faith,” as the subtitle of his book has it. “Kindergarten Religion” includes anthropomorphic views of God, fundamentalist views of Revelation, and such traditionalist beliefs as those in Resurrection and Original Sin. (Rabbi Silverman’s impartiality manifests itself in his rejection of the third chapter of Genesis together with its Christian interpretation.) The “Radical Faith” consists of good 19th-century liberalism with an application of the Social Gospel. Silverman takes “Prophetic Religion” seriously, and confronts the conscience of modern man with the actual demands of the hour. He spices his presentation with, among other things, Hasidic tales, and he has read Buber’s I and Thou. Still, non-Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch is for him a striking argument against the traditional belief in Revelation—by which one may gauge the depth of his theological understanding.



The books by Landau, Klappholz, Stern, and Silverman—which by no means exhaust the current output—spell out some of the preoccupations and inclinations of the American rabbinate. They also show the Rabbis’ concern for their place and their function. In the privacy of his conscience, if nowhere else, the rabbi has to justify his existence: if he is no longer the authoritative interpreter of the Word of God, he must needs fulfill some other function entitling him to his position and his salary. As we have seen, the rabbi on occasion finds himself threatened in his job of work by competitors. If, for example, he regards counseling as his major effort, there are, after all, psychiatric counselors whose whole training has been in this field and who have, in the world at large, rightly or wrongly, a greater reputation for professional competence. Nor does the rabbi enjoy an undisputed monopoly on interfaith work: thousands of dollars annually are given to “defense agencies,” run largely by laymen—and secularists, at that.

Here, the future may see the rabbi come into his own. After all, the Jewish counterpart to Christian religious bodies can only be the rabbinate—and not Jewish organizations which at best tolerate Judaism. When all is said and done, all will depend on how the American Jewish community looks upon itself: whether as a secular-ethnic grouping, or, primarily, as a religious community on the analogy of the Catholic and Protestant churches. In the process of clarification that is still going on, the rabbi’s major function as religious leader would surely seem to be his firmest ground. Yet it is precisely in his role of religious leader that the American rabbi has come in for criticism.

Much of that criticism is behind his back. But one layman has rushed into print. S. Michael Gelber, in The Failure of the American Rabbi (Twayne Publishers, 79 pp., $2.75), holds the rabbi responsible for the boredom from which the layman suffers in Reform and “left-wing” Conservative synagogues. Mr. Gelber does not like the new modern prayers nor the order of service, he would prefer a different seating arrangement, and more color in the vestments of both officiating clergy and laity. Perhaps the rabbi is not solely responsible for all the wrongs attributed to him, and perhaps also the improvements suggested by Mr. Gelber would not suit the taste of all congregants. But Mr. Gelber does make three strong points: (1) he finds the sermons to which he is subjected empty and careless; (2) he would like to see laymen take over more of the routine duties of the rabbinate, and thus free the rabbi for higher intellectual endeavors; and (3) he would like to see the Reform and “left-wing” Conservative rabbis do something about daily prayer.

Mr. Gelber’s three points are not unrelated. A man can only “preach” if he himself has beliefs and convictions; if so, he will also want to pray, and if he wants to say something, he will derive the right to say it from his greater learning. (The rabbi is not a member of a hereditary priesthood.) Indeed, Mr. Gelber’s indictment of the rabbinate reminds us of still another necessary aspect: the rabbi as student.

From Eastern Europe comes the story of a complaint: someone passed by the rabbi’s house shortly before midnight and saw that the lights had already been extinguished. The rabbi was not studying enough!—after all, it was for the time he spent studying that the congregation paid his salary.

American congregations, generally, do not look upon their rabbis in this light. Rare, indeed, is the rabbi of a congregation who is also a student. If he is, he will find that he has to “steal” the time for studying. And many rabbis with scholarly pretensions are to be found on the faculties of the rabbinical seminaries and the universities. Thus the rabbinate often attracts men with little interest in Jewish learning. One can hear rabbinical students gripe: “I want to become a rabbi in order to help people. Why should I waste my time on Aramaic grammar?” And not just Aramaic—the complaint too often extends to studies in Bible and Talmud.

Here we have a vicious circle. Congregations expect their rabbis to have finished being scholars. Men with no scholarly interests are attracted to the rabbinate. The congregations get the men they have sought. In the process, the rabbinate gradually ceases to be a learned profession, rabbis are worried about their source of authority (nor can they communicate, on the same level, with members of their congregation who are trained specialists in, for example, scientific fields), and, here and there, a layman puts the question of Benjamin the Physician: “Of what use are the rabbis to us?”

In the final analysis, whatever other functions the rabbi might choose to undertake, it is his role as student and scholar which is the justification of his profession. This is inherent in the nature of Judaism itself—at least of the kind of Judaism which the ancient rabbis called into being as a nonpriestly layman’s religion. It may well be that the drive toward specialization, affecting all areas of our life today, has made the professional rabbinate a necessity. But the rabbi who sees his major function in anything but the field of Jewish learning and education is a usurper in terms of the tradition he purports to represent.

It would be easy to say that there are many ways of serving the Jewish and the general community, and that men who want to be of help to others, but lack an interest in Jewish learning, should not make the rabbinate their career. But unless and until the congregations themselves insist upon this conception of the rabbinate, there is little hope of seeing Mr. Gelber’s demands met.

To what extent may Mr. Gelber’s book be regarded as a straw in the wind? One thing is certain—when more laymen of Mr. Gelber’s caliber become vocal, we may look forward to a raising of standards all around, to a greater participation of the laity (and, who knows, to the ultimate abolition of the very “unJewish” concept of “laity” altogether), and to the inevitable restoration of the rabbi to his sole rightful place—that of the authority on Judaism within the community.




1 Nahum N. Glatzer, Franz RosenzweigHis Life and Thought.

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