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Judaism as rabbinical profession and as Jewish way of life


Let us first define Judaism as rabbinical profession and Judaism as Jewish way of life.


Judaism as rabbinical profession has, like any other profession, its higher education institutions the yeshivas with their curriculums, accreditations, alumni-type associations, publications, and of course the spiritual competition among them.


Like in any other profession, there are sages and authorities (rabbinical authorities) such as for example Rambam, Hillel or Lubavicher Rabbi Schneerson – they are the greatest in the profession who earned the trust of their pupils the Jewish majority.


At the core of this profession is the Jewish understanding of God’s guidance in the Torah on the human morality and the rituals in support of this morality.


The professionals in this profession, the Rabbis, have been teaching all that to their pupils in the synagogues and other places of Jewish education.


Judaism as Jewish way of life is the application of the rabbis’ teachings to the day-by-day life of Jewish families – at home, at work, in politics, etc. in the variety of places where Jews may live – how to do the Jewish rituals and how to live morally Jewish.


In the historic Jewish past, there was no misapprehension between Judaism as rabbinical profession and Judaism as Jewish way of life. Judaism as rabbinical profession provided complete guidance on Jewish way of life. That was so since the Jewish communities were separated from the “natives” in countries of Jewish residence and the haredim orthodox rabbis were the ultimate legal authorities on the rituals and the morality in segregated Jewish communities from the birth to the death. The rabbis’ teachings and instructions had no competing forces – it was a sort of spiritual guiding dictatorship.


In the contemporary Jewish life, everything is different – now most of the Jews are exposed to numerous competing spiritual guiding ideas. Only about 20% of Jews are under the old-style haredim orthodox rabbinical guidance. The rest of the Jews are under competing influences of non-haredim Jewish spiritual streams (Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist) and various non-Jewish spiritual streams.


Pew Survey of U.S. Jews shows that less than one-third of American Jews belong to a synagogue. Among them, only twenty-three percent attend synagogue on a regular basis. It looks like only about 20% of the Jews in America have a rabbi as a personal spiritual adviser on the Jewish way of life. The great Jewish majority in America is “under influence” of many non-rabbinical authoritative forces which are shaping their morality – the government, the employment, the neighborhood, the Gentile news media, the Christian and Atheistic realms, the Gentile social circles, etc.


However, and that is very important, in the Jewish families, as Pew Survey of U.S. Jews shows, 96 percent are trying to raise their children as Jews. It means the Jewish majority is eager to preserve their Jewish way of life through their own understanding of Judaism for contemporary diversified life conditions.


That means that nowadays the Judaism as rabbinical profession is separated from the Judaism as Jewish way of life for about 80% of American Jews.


Nowadays no traditional rabbinical authority is directly guiding the Jewish majority in many morality decisions. Here are just a few examples.


Orthodox Judaism maintains the historical understanding of Jewish identity. A Jew is someone who was born to a Jewish mother, or who converts to Judaism in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. However, that is not the case anymore. Many Jews are marrying Christians not to abandon Judaism as way if life but rather to include the newcomers to the Jewish family in the Jewish way of life. They would like to get traditional rabbinical guidance on that but they do not get it. For the traditional rabbinical community the adherence to professional doctrines is more important than helping the intermarried Jewish families preserve their Jewishness in a sort of renovated form. This pushes many Jewish families to the non-traditional rabbinical authorities (Reform, Conservative) and then out of the rabbinical guidance at all.


The politically correct directives of US government on what is Good and what is Bad for the society are changing and challenging the Judeo-Christian definitions on what is Good and Bad. However, there is no traditional rabbinical guidance on all that and the Jews are making their moral decisions here being influenced not by traditional rabbinical authorities but rather by anti-Judeo-Christian forces.


What to do? The answer is obvious: for all Jewish spiritual authorities – traditional and non-traditional, religious and non-religious, pro-Judeo-Christian and anti-Judeo-Christian, political and non-political – get together and propose a set of Jewish morality guidance for the Jews living happily in Judeo-Christian civilization. Could it be done?


Rabbis as authoritarians and teachers

I have posted some articles on this subject describing the overwhelming authoritarian mode-of-operations of many Orthodox rabbis as a reason for the Jewish majority not to follow spiritual guidelines of those rabbis.

Indeed, the Jewish majority defines the mission of a rabbi in the following way:

Rabbi literally means “teacher” in Hebrew. In the Jewish community, a rabbi is viewed not only as a spiritual leader but also as a counselor, a role model and an educator. The rabbi leads spiritual services, such as Shabbat services and High Holy Day services on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  He or she will also officiate at life-cycle events such as Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs, baby naming ceremonies, weddings and funerals.

However, a recent statement by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish matters, took me again to the subject.

Rabbi Melamed:

Concerning a person who contends with his rabbis, our Sages, Chazal said: “Whoever contends against the ruling of his teacher is seen as though he contended against the Divine Presence, Shechinah, and whoever quarrels with his teacher is seen as though he quarreled with the Shechinah” (Sanhedrin 110a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 242:2). They question, resent, quarrel and oppose our teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook zts”l and all his students, among whom are their own parents and teachers.

Rabbi Melamed is changing the very essence of one of the most important Torah concepts. The Torah declares any human is created in the image and likeness of God – rabbi Melamed wants his students-humans to be created in his own image and likeness.

Rabbi Melamed deifies the role of a rabbi – he requires his constituency (in a synagogue, in a yeshiva) to obey his rules of behavior and not to exercise their individual freedom of thinking that may bring a different behavioral decision.

The Orthodox rabbinical majority agrees with the definition of rabbi as authoritarian. I know it firsthand. For many years, I have been trying to discuss with many orthodox rabbis in Israel and the USA the application of Torah guidance to my own Jewish life in political, social, scientific and spiritual realms of the Judeo-Christian countries where I has been living. And I discovered that for a truly orthodox rabbi a Torah-based discussion with an ordinary Jew is a sort of insult to his position of authority – he believes he is to rule, not to discuss.

A truly orthodox rabbi may believe he is not an authoritarian – he is a teacher. If it is so, what kind of teacher is he? There two types of teachers.

Some teachers teach the dogmas in their fields of education and demand from the students to follow unquestionably the dogmas. Those teachers believe in the unchangeable world – they believe what God created at the Beginning remains unchangeable. If it is so, the dogmas created at the beginning are applicable nowadays.

Other teachers teach how the dogmas were created and how to change them if the life-changing circumstances make the dogmas inapplicable. Those teachers believe God created the world developing – developing along the laws of nature created by God Himself. As a scientist, I am with this group.

Rabbis’ spiritual authoritarianism vs. Jews’ individual freedoms

Yes, everybody knows every rabbi is trying to impose on his Jewish constituency the Torah guidance in the interpretation of his ordination institution as the only truthful “Service to God”, and everybody knows every Jews is a profoundly independent individual with his own opinion on everything, who does not like to follow the crowd.

Many know the old joke about the Jew stranded on a desert island. When he is finally discovered after many years, his rescuers find that he has constructed two synagogues. One, he goes to – its prescripts are tailored to his individuality. The other? The other he would never set foot in – it follows wrong prescripts.

However, until the 19th century, this touchy combination was working nicely with no rift between rabbis and their Jewish constituencies.

It was so because until the 19th century the Jewish majority lived in spiritually isolated Jewish communities/ghettos with no competing prescripts on how to be Jewish and be in “Service to God”. For the Jews, living in isolated communities with no significant interactions with the outside gentile world, the definition of a rabbi on the meaning of “Service to God” was as a sort of final word from God for his community. A rabbi’s direction on what to do in a personal life to be a “servant to God” was not for a discussion. Any attempt by a Jewish individual to suggest a competitive interpretation to being “servant to God”, based on the individual’s personal understanding of the Torah guidance, was considered a sort of blasphemy.

In the 19th century, many in the Jewish communities began to question the traditional rabbinical definition of “Service to God” and rabbi’s exclusive role in its presentation that led to creation of non-traditional streams of Judaism and to abandoning rabbis as exclusive spiritual advisers.

This anti-rabbinical trend (which is not an anti-Judaism or anti-all-rabbis trend) was definitely evident in the discussion panel on contemporary Jewish identity, to mark holiday of Tisha B’Av mourning, conducted by the Jewish alumni network Reshet Ramah. This alumni network unites the Jews who were born and raised in the Haredim communities, and then left them in search for a more tolerant Torah-based spiritual environment.

The Reshet Ramah discussion for one of the participants, Srully Stein, Tisha B’Av is about more than commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples: it represents the loss he faced after he decided to leave the ultra-Orthodox community he was born into. Hailing from a rabbinical dynasty, Stein, 23, grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family in Williamsburg, New York. At age 18, he met his wife for just a few moments before they were engaged. They had a son, but he dreamt of college and the world outside his insular community. After struggling with conflicting feelings, Stein left the insular community and divorced his wife. As he stated, for him leaving was kind of a destruction of his own personal temple; he personally lost everything he had – his community, his job, much of his family, and he had to rebuild his own spiritual and personal life.

Srully Stein is hardly alone. Why he and many others like him are abandoning their Haredim rabbis, synagogues and communities – not to stop being “servant to God” but to being “servant to God” in a completely different way? They have done it to recreate their own personal temples they lost in the Haredim communities. That is why on Tisha B’Av, they mourn the destruction of a personal temple as well.

What is the true meaning of a personal temple? Any spiritual temple is a place where people learn how to be “Servant of God” – in their own individual image of “God”. Why an individual image – not collective? That is because we are created in the image and likeness of God who is a unique individual. God (in any of His possible images) did not created us as an impersonal flock – He created us as individual Adams and Eves, Abrahams and Mosess, Isaacs and Jacobs with our own personal spiritual temples that we create around us. Unfortunately, the rabbinical majority of the past neglected this – instead of teaching how to build and enhance a personal Jewish temple in coherent coexistence with the collective Jewish temple, they taught how not to create a personal temple and to obey only the directives of the collective temple.

Finally, the Jewish majority has realized that and revolted, and the stories of Srully Stein and many others tell it all.

So, what the rabbis can do and what they cannot do?

Rabbis can provide us the Jews with the knowledge of Judaic sources and of how various sages, prophets and authoritative rabbis tailored the unchanging Torah guidance to the changing historic circumstances of their times. Rabbis can provide us with the knowledge of rituals and proper behavior in the surroundings of our families, communities and synagogues.

However, rabbis are not able to tailor the Torah guidance to the little known to them our Jewish life outside the isolated, insular Jewish communities in the gentile environment, where most of the contemporary Jews spend most of their time – in schools, at work, in social circles, at travel, at charitable activities, in political circles, in government, in arts and science, etc. Outside the isolated Jewish communities, the Jews are performing their mission of the Chosen – the Chosen by God for Tikkun Olam to build a better world for everybody along the lines of Torah guidance.

We the Jews know much better than our rabbis the life outside Jewish communities in the gentile environment, and that is our responsibility to tailor the Torah guidance to this life using our God-given intellect.

We have to build our own personal spiritual temples around us and make our personal temples compatible with the collective temple, and the rabbis should help us to do this – not to force us to suppress our personal temples for the sake of the collective one.

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