A Rabbi’s Role

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by R. Gil Student

What does a rabbi do? What is his role in the community? In a 2011 article (PDF), Rav Hershel Schachter quoted Prof. Saul Lieberman’s responsum demonstrating that ordination includes permission to serve as a rabbinic judge (dayan). We can look at other evaluations and see similar sentiments.

Not long ago, I discovered a book by Rav Moshe Lowenthal titled Serarah She-Hi Avdus: Sugyos Be-Rabbanus Ha-Kehillah. [1]Jerusalem: n.p., 2007 In a compelling style, freely mixing halakhah, history, advice and personal experience, Rav Lowenthal explores at length the roles, responsibilities and opportunities of a community rabbi. In section 2 chapter 1, he quotes historians and halakhists who discuss the primary functions of a community rabbi. Everything I quote here is from his book, but I cannot quote everything. Note that these are just brief lists of a rabbi’s main tasks. It is not surprising that scholars disagree about which are considered “main.”

Many like to cite Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s quote from his famous grandfather, Rav Chaim, that the main job of a rabbi is to look after the underprivileged. [2]Halakhic Man, pp. 91-92 This is certainly true but does not represent Rav Soloveitchik’s full view. Rav Lowenthal quotes an important footnote in Rav Soloveitchik’s Chamesh Derashos that I present here in the translation found in The Rav Speaks (p. 189 n. 6):

If the position of the Rav [community rabbi] were connected solely with halachah, Din Torah and the spreading of Torah knowledge, then the halachah that one may not appoint a leader without first consulting the community would not apply. Rabbinic appointment would in that case be in the category of the appointment of a Sanhedrin or a Judge, which is effected from above…

If, however, the Rabbinate finds expression in socio-political functions (care for general welfare, kindness, charity, representation and the like), then he is not only a Moreh Hora’ah and Dayyan but also a leader and his appointment requires the sanction of the community. It is unnecessary to stress that the history of the Rabbinate endorses the second definition. The Rav has never been only the Moreh Tzedek, but also the faithful shepherd of his flock…

Rav Soloveitchik directly addresses the important point that rabbis today function in many spheres. Some are more social workers than judges. Rav Soloveitchik concludes that rabbis are both and have always been. Perhaps today the balance has shifted more toward administrator and pastor but that is a change in emphasis, not a historical break. Note, also, that Rav Soloveitchik uses the category of a judge to evaluate the legal side of a rabbi’s function. In contrast to Rav Soloveitchik’s vision of a dual role, Rab Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos Ve-Hanhagos 2:722) rules that many rabbis serve only as social workers and therefore lose all tenure rights reserved for halakhic leaders.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch describes the following primary tasks of a rabbi in a letter to a student:

  1. Fearless devotion
  2. Studying Torah
  3. Dedicated leader
  4. Role model
  5. Education of children

Rab Yitzchak Shmelkes [3]Beis Yitzchak, end of Orach Chaim, Tzela’os Ha-Bayis 4; Divrei Yitzchak, end of vol. 1 lists the following functions in two separate places, which explains the slight overlap:

  1. Studying and teaching Torah
  2. Defending the faith
  3. Supporting the poor
  4. Arousing love of the nation
  5. Encouraging fear and love of God
  6. Teaching torah and judging cases
  7. Encouraging peace and mutual support

Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski [4]Quoted in Teshuvos Ve-Hanhagos 1:844 requires three things of a rabbi:

  1. Teaching Torah and halakhah
  2. Establishing Jewish education, availability of kosher, an eruv and a mikveh
  3. Caring for the underprivileged

Rav Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg [5]Lifrakim, pp. 287-292 writes that a rabbi’s job is to:

  1. Teaching Torah
  2. Ruling on Jewish law, both as a posek and as a dayan
  3. Preaching and imbuing religious spirit
  4. Caring for the underprivileged

Rab Meir Bar Ilan [6]Mi-Volozhin Ad Yerushalayim, p. 297 asked Rav Chaim Soloveitchik and Rav Yechiel Mikhel Epstein (Rav Bar Ilan’s grandfather) what a rabbi’s job is. Rav Soloveitchik responded: Ensuring that the city’s religious institutions function properly. Rav Epstein replied: Answering halakhic questions and judging civil cases. (Rav Bar Ilan also asked Rav Raphael Shapiro, who responded in silence.)

Rav Lowenthal quotes Rav Mordechai Auerbach, the rabbi of central Tel Aviv, who explained the above disagreement between Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Epstein. Each emphasized the area in which they excelled. They certainly agreed that a rabbi must do many things but each focused on their personal area of expertise.

Elsewhere in the book (p. 291), Rav Lowenthal quotes Rav Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg in the name of Rav Azriel Hildesheimer that, in the latter’s time (mid to late nineteenth century Germany), it was insufficient for a rabbi to only know Jewish texts; he also had to know how to reach out to the public and teach them about Judaism. Rav Shlomo Dichovski quipped that in our day (contemporary Israel), the issues are reversed. It is not enough for a rabbi to know how to influence the community; he also has to know how to decide on matters of Jewish law. As Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik said, both areas are important rabbinic roles.

Some prior posts on rabbinic ordination:

(adapted from a June ’14 post)


1Jerusalem: n.p., 2007
2Halakhic Man, pp. 91-92
3Beis Yitzchak, end of Orach Chaim, Tzela’os Ha-Bayis 4; Divrei Yitzchak, end of vol. 1
4Quoted in Teshuvos Ve-Hanhagos 1:844
5Lifrakim, pp. 287-292
6Mi-Volozhin Ad Yerushalayim, p. 297

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. “(Rav Bar Ilan also asked Rav Raphael Shapiro, who responded in silence.)”

    Lest people be totally baffled by the above words, I want to share that I recall once reading somewhere that R. Refoel Shapiro was a שתקן גדול – someone who was very into the practice and discipline of silence.

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