Lack of a Rabbi in the Modern Era

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by R. Gil Student

I. Non-Believing Jews

The modern era presents unique challenges to traditional religion. Most changes are matters of a phenomenon’s extent, quantity rather than quality. However, a greatly expanded phenomenon may require a different response. The example we will discuss here is the growth of secularism in the community. While atheists and religious deniers always existed, in the modern era they have become the majority of the Jewish community. A religious leadership may respond differently to a few non-believers than to a strong majority. The practical aspects of leadership require political analysis but I would like to focus here on the theological implications of this change.

Perhaps the first Jewish thinker to propose a widespread model was Rav Ya’akov Ettlinger, the innovative 19th century rabbi of Altona, Germany. In a posthumously published responsum (Binyan Tziyon 2:23), categorized as theoretical by his son and editor, Rav Ettlinger questions whether Shabbos desecrators attain a status of gentiles in some respects, as the Gemara implies (Chullin 5a; Rashi, ad loc., s.v. ella lav). Rav J. David Bleich (Contemporary Halakhic Problems, vol. 7, p. 140ff.) breaks down Rav Ettlinger’s argument into three distinct claims:

  1. Because sadly Shabbos violation is so common, people effectively think it is permissible.
  2. Some Shabbos violators pray and recite Kiddush, thereby affirming Judaism’s truth claims.
  3. Most Shabbos violators were raised in environments in which full observance is not taught. They are like Jewish children captured and raised by gentiles, without a proper Jewish education.

The first and third arguments raise a similar point. The lack of a strong religious community render people less culpable for their sins. According to the first argument, they are close to intentional (karov le-meizid). According to the last argument, Shabbos violators in the modern era are classified as inadvertent sinners (shogeg). Rav Ettlinger’s ruling has been thoroughly debated over the past 150 years, with the majority of authorities reluctantly accepting it in one form or another, albeit with a minority rejecting it. However, setting aside the legal aspects, Rav Ettlinger twice discusses the underlying theological premise of this ruling.

II. Leadership and Intent

In his commentary to the Torah (Minchas Ani, Korach, s.v. aval ke-she-ra’ah) and to the Talmud (Arukh La-Ner, Sanhedrin 98a s.v. ein), Rav Ettlinger offers a justification for Aharon’s participation in the Golden Calf (Ex. 32:1-6). Aharon wished to remove guilt from the people by taking it on himself. He instructed them to build it so they would be inadvertent sinners, listening to their leader. Religious community requires bold leadership that warns against following the wrong path. When leadership fails, community members cannot be blamed.

With this, Rav Ettlinger explains the Gemara’s statement (Sanhedrin 98a) that mashiach will only come in a generation that is completely innocent or completely guilty. When a community sins against the warning of its leadership, the members are guilty. However, if the community lacks leadership with the backbone to chastise the people against sin, then the members are innocent. When no one leads, would-be followers cannot be blamed for going down the wrong path.

In Judaism, ignorance of the law is an excuse, at least to remove blame. Guilt — culpability — requires warning, education, an understanding that there are binding laws. Rav Ettlinger continues that when leadership rejects the Torah, the entire community lacks guidance. Such people have no one to teach them that they must live a Torah life and what that entails.

III. Failure of Leadership

In addition to the three points above, Rav Ettlinger makes an important claim that is unique to the modern era — the impact of failed leadership. In Medieval times, communal leadership was more or less faithful to the Torah, despite its many failings. In the modern era, that changed as Jewish organizations were manned by non-believers. Increasingly, communal leadership at the very least did not encourage Torah observance, often actively discouraging it. Too often, rabbis were bullied into silence or adopted the ideology of a watered-down Judaism. When religious leadership fails to teach Torah obligations, community members cannot be held liable for failing to observe.

Rav Ettlinger was discussing the extreme case in which there are no leaders at all because everyone has rejected religion. However, this seems like an exaggerated case because Judaism will never be totally abandoned. More likely, he is speaking locally, when people lack faithful religious leaders. Places where there is no Orthodox rabbi or he has learned his place and does not chastise people for their sins, or he only reaches a limited audience of like-minded people. Most Jews in the world grow up without a religious role model, without anyone teaching them how to distinguish pure from impure. According to Rav Ettlinger, such Jews who have no rabbi from whom to learn can only be categorized as accidental sinners.

From one perspective, this can be seen as an apology for selective leadership, which to some degree it is. Rabbis need to know when to remain silent, when to refrain from teaching a particular lesson that will go unheeded. On the other hand, when rabbis do not teach, people take their values from elsewhere. While this may relieve the people from blame, it still leaves them ignorant and religiously deficient. This approach must be adopted in moderation or else many Jews will quickly drift from Judaism.

However, this is also a lesson in the effectiveness of religious leadership. A rebuke may seem pointless, unheard or even mocked, but it has the power to change community members. God would not punish people arbitrarily. If the lack of a rabbi absolves people from guilt, he must play a life-changing role. The theological repercussions of hearing a rebuke implies that it must impact the listener — at least potentially — in a transformative way.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief 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 of New Jersey, 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 recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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