Who needs rabbis?

“You shall be a nation of priests”

This quote is from the Torah portion in a few weeks, Yitro. That’s what G-d says to the Israelites right before they receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. Back then, “cohen” was the top job in the religious hierarchy. Today, however, I think the quote would have been said: “You shall be a nation of rabbis.” Or a “nation of philanthropists” or a “nation of Jewish mothers.” Pick your word for your idea of the Jewish leader today.

Among the many newsbreaking items over the past few weeks in Israel, one was the publication of a letter signed by 39 rabbis employed by the government to be the appointed rabbi of a city that declares a “halacha” (Jewish law) against being able to sell or rent to non-Jews in Israel (aimed mainly at Arabs and foreign workers/refugees). In case you don’t know, there is an official rabbinate in Israel and a Ministry of Religion. These bodies appoint neighborhood, city, and regional rabbis to attend to the ritual needs of their communities. Of course, these are all Orthodox rabbis.

Most of the responses to the letter have furiously decried the letter including my liberal Reform Movement and the National Religious Movement (moderate Orthodox), on the basis of ethical and moral values based in the Torah, to the ultra-Orthodox Lithuathian Rabbi Eliyashiv, on the basis of not encouraging anti-Semitism in the world.
My favorite response was the first response which came out the day after the letter was published – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu immediately condemned the letter by quoting the Torah “And you shall love the stranger and you shall have one book of law for the stranger and the citizen in the land.” He was quoting loosely verses from Deuteronomy and from Exodus. (The “ger” (stranger) is mentioned 33 times in the Torah total.)

What is so striking about this? The prime minister of Israel was fighting Torah with Torah. He has not studied in a yeshiva. He does not have rabbinical ordination. But he was putting himself on the same level as the local rabbis and holding a public Torah debate with them.

Who needs rabbis?

Who needs rabbis when there are other people who are highly educated and understand Judaism and can engage in Jewish intellectual debate?

In many places in Israel, there are new batei midrash (houses of study) not taught by rabbis but rather but educators and tour guides. Some of the most popular lecturers on Jewish topics like the Torah portion of the week are journalists, and the writer of a modern commentary on the Ethics of our Fathers is a professor. Congregations are popping up whose prayer services are led by people who attended workshops or visited in other synagogues and learned their melodies.
What is the role of a rabbi in 21st century Israel today?

I am struggling with the answer. Here is what I think it is right now.

A rabbi is someone who is there for people when they have Jewish questions of a personal nature, questions that are about themselves as a Jew, not just general knowledge about Jewish history, culture, or texts. When a person wants to know: how does this text relate to me? And they go to the rabbi because they know him/her, respect him/her and trust him/her.

Therefore, a rabbi has to be a pillar in the community (community with the loosest definition). Someone who is there, who demonstrates his/her presence, acceptance, and love.

A rabbi is someone who makes people think – about their lives, about their role in the world, about the existential questions in life. Whenever someone tells me, “I think about what you said, and that is how I try to live my life,” whether they heard it in a sermon during a service, a teaching at an event, or in personal conversation. When I hear a bar/bat mitzvah deliver their d’var Torah and the wonderful ideas that they share, I know that it came because I forced them to sit with me and then afterwards on their own and think about the Torah and what it means, and also what it means for them.

A rabbi gets people together – for prayer, for study, for doing social justice. And when they get together for these activities, the participants feel Jewish. They feel good about being Jewish. They feel proud of being Jewish.

This most recent matter of the letter issued by the local rabbis made it even more blatantly clear that at least in today’s world, we cannot structure our lives based on halachic rulings. A day after this “halachic ruling” was issued forbidding the sale of property to non-Jews, a different “halachic ruling” by another group was issued permitting the sale of property to non-Jews. Which one was “right”? If this is the rabbi’s sole role – to deliver halachic rulings – than the institution of the rabbinate will not survive long in the world. In this case, the halachic rulings only divide rather than unify, and they do not provide the everyday person with a definitive answer (if such a thing is possible).

In Israel, where authority is generally bucked – in a place where people have fulfilled the prophecy of the Torah where we are truly a “nation of priests” where everyone sees himself as just as much an authority as the next guy whether he is a rabbi, the prime minister, or the landlord…. In Israel, where there are so many smart people who can quote facts, explain texts, and put together entertaining lectures…. In Israel, where there are so many people who have received training to lead spiritual journeys – yoga masters, medidation, artistic song….

What is a rabbi supposed to do?
These are my blogger thoughts at this moment – I’d love to hear yours.


One Response to “Who needs rabbis?”

  1. Benjamin Sperber Says:

    If the reader has not yet discerned R. Stacey’s brilliance, I would be disappointed. After ten days of meeting with some of Eretz Yisrael’s
    finest minds (and the settlements and the West Bank), I still seek
    the words of the Rav of Kehillat Darchei Noam.
    Here in the Diaspora, many seek to find wisdom and comfort and
    guidance in the Tanak and the Pirkey Avot. We form “minyanim”, often
    lay led, to satisfy our need for relevant and personal observance or
    ritual. Yet, as I have shared with my fellow Hollywood temple members,
    being with the Good Rabbi of Ramat HaSharon in her not yet closed
    doors (they were delivered incorrect?) was being in a kaddosh space.
    Now to read such words of humility from perhaps the most special
    rabbi of my children’s generation, it brings me to tears and anger and
    The role of the Rav, the teacher, is that. Born in the Diaspora,
    the young teacher from Cleveland, Ohio, has brought wisdom and
    courage to her adopted land. Just as those who followed the Bescht
    were to be greater in history (Schneur Zalman of Liadi), so has the
    student of Rav Maya Leibovich begun her journey.
    Israel is not an easy place to care about her people and Hashem.
    No one is a better rabbi to care about the ethics and actions of
    this “stiff necked people” than this rabbi with each arm filled with
    the hope of a nation.

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