Rabbis have been serving as leaders of the Jewish people for more than a thousand years.1 The Jews’ survival under conditions of exile, absent an overall social, political, or religious structure to which they could look for guidance, naturally enhanced the importance of community leadership. As a key part of this leadership (alongside other groups, such as notables and dignitaries)2, rabbis have played a crucial role in not only the spiritual, but also the physical sustenance of the Jewish people.
The changes wrought by history have provided the Jewish people with new leaders, however. The establishment of a Jewish and democratic nation-state has produced institutions—the Knesset, the government, and the judiciary—that together hold most of the decision-making authority over the Jewish collective in Israel.3 In addition, the decline in religious persuasion among many contemporary Jews leaves the rabbi little room for action; today’s openness to the non-Jewish world and global cultural trends has arguably impeded rabbis’ ability to lead the Jewish people, both in Israel and abroad, on the basis of a uniquely Jewish system of values. All this raises the question: Are rabbis still relevant as leaders in our generation?4
In the following essay, I will begin by exploring some of the general social difficulties—those, in other words, that have nothing to do with rabbis themselves—that obstruct the rabbis’ attempts to assume significant positions of leadership. In the second section, I will discuss those problems that lie in domains of life over which rabbis may exert influence, if they so choose. (I will not consider, in this context, the important issues of a rabbi’s personal conduct, and organizational and institutional methods. Rather, I will look at the challenges rabbis face as a result of their approach to ideological questions.) In the third section, I will examine the actual conduct of contemporary Israeli rabbis in light of the problems already discussed. I will propose a distinction between the way rabbis function within the religious and traditionally minded community—in which their leadership is dominant—and the way they function in the larger national context, in which it is almost meaningless (excepting those matters in which rabbis hold legal authority, such as marriage and divorce). Finally, in the fourth section, I will consider how modes of rabbinic leadership need to change. Specifically, rabbis’ dedication to the interests of the religious and traditional public, though worthy of the greatest respect, must to an extent be circumscribed, so as to reduce the scope of their responsibilities. This would then allow them to fulfill their potential and value as true community leaders. By contrast, I will conclude, the rabbis’ role on the national level requires the opposite remedy: In order to take their place as leaders of the nation, they must be cognizant of a number of issues that require their attention. The essay will then finish with a tentative outline of the required changes.
Yedidia Z. Stern is a professor at Bar-Ilan University and vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute. The original version of this essay was published in Rabbis and Rabbinate: The Challenge, eds. Shuki Friedman and Yedidia Z. Stern (Jerusalem: Israel Democracy Institute and Am Oved, 2011), vol. 1, pp. 79-106 [Hebrew].