Leadership vs. Authority: The Role of the Rabbi

“Rabbi, what do we believe about an afterlife?”
“Rabbi, we wait three hours between meat and milk, don’t we?”
“Rabbi, we don’t think that abortion is murder, do we?”

As a rabbi, I often meet with Jews eager to learn about their heritage. Their enthusiasm and their willingness to grow as Jews remain an endless source of inspiration to me. But even as I marvel at their passion and persistence, I must also make a confession: I find those questions bizarre. After all, I know what it is that I believe. And I know what it is that Judaism teaches. But how can I possibly know what it is that “we” believe, or what it is that “we” do or don’t do?

The only way I can make sense of this type of question is to assume that the questioner has left a neutral space that he or she will fill with whatever answer I give them. If I say that “we” do believe in an afterlife, then my questioner will believe that too. If I had said the opposite, then that would have been what my questioner believed. While the question is an assertion of belonging (that there is a core of beliefs worth sharing just because we’re both Jews), it also represents an uncomfortable abdication of religious responsibility. I am, after all, only a rabbi. I am not the messiah, I am not a prophet, and I am not God. I can convey information and make a case for one set of beliefs or practices rather than another. But education and persuasion can only happen when two responsible souls meet in a moment of shared learning, prayer, or the performance of a mitzvah.

At the core of this dilemma is the role of the rabbi as a spiritual leader. The late Erich Fromm noted that most people fear freedom, and seek to escape it by turning to a leader who can relieve them of any responsibility for their identity, character, and future. Many people treat their rabbis as such shields against accountability. But that is not the Jewish way. Ultimately, a rabbi who agrees to serve in that capacity is an accomplice in stunting someone’s spiritual maturation, depriving them (and God) of the distinct rewards of an adult faith.

Rather than imposing a dictatorial control on the seeker or believer, the rabbi is, above all, a teacher. Indeed, that is literally what the Hebrew word “rebbe” means: “my teacher.” Teaching happens only in an environment of freedom and curiosity, of commitment freely entered and community voluntarily joined. Far different than indoctrination or compulsion, the classical Jewish model is one of a people who choose to be bound, who consent to covenant. At the foot of Mt. Sinai, we proclaimed, “we will do and we will hear.” For the mitzvot (commandments) to count in our favor, they must be willingly performed. Robots are not told to “choose life that you may live,” nor are computers informed of the consequences of their choices. But the people Israel is, because God cherishes our voluntary service and our obedience freely offered.

In that journey, no Jew is under the compulsion of another. We have not given up an Egyptian Pharaoh to take on a rabbinic one. Instead, God has liberated us from the very model of despotism, of ever abdicating our souls to another human being.

Rabbis traditionally do not seek to deaden the mind or to stifle the heart. We provide authoritative information about what the Torah teaches and what the Lord requires of us. We embody (or seek to) the best of what Jewish living and Jewish values can attain. As teachers and as role models, rabbis are essential to Jewish survival. But when acting as vicarious Jews (living a Jewish life and thinking Jewish thoughts so the rest of us don’t have to) or as externalized authorities (making all the tough choices), some Rabbis and their followers subvert the very tradition they claim to love. 

Instead, as partners, by meeting our congregants and students in the sea of Torah, we navigate together those ancient words and powerful insights. Rabbis are the merchants in the shuk, offering the shimmering wares of Torah, seeking to entice a sale. But the Jew, each Jew, must decide for him or herself: do I buy it? Do I cherish it? Do I care for it so I can transmit it to my children?

In answering those questions, our tradition has great wisdom to offer. As we journey through life, our Torah can provide guidance and compass. Our rabbis can point to the path and provide encouragement and assistance along the way. But it is our feet that must do the walking, and it is our efforts that will allow us to reach the mountaintop.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (http://www.bradartson.com) is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).