The New Rabbi

The changing role of the pulpit rabbi in America.

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If there's any constant in Jewish life, aside from Torah itself, it may seem to be the role of the rabbi. Spiritual leaders in a lineage stretching back to the earliest days of Judaism as we know it, rabbis have always been the teachers and scholars who instill in Jews knowledge and commitment and ensure the continuity of Judaism itself. A long beard, a head buried in a book or peering out from the bima, he--for, throughout history, they were only men--is the face of Judaism, the embodiment of Torah and love of God.

A job description that never changes, right?

Not so fast.

A Juggling Act

It's true that these traditional responsibilities remain at the heart of a rabbi's job, but as with so much these days, the life of a rabbi has become a complicated juggling act. He or she--since all but the Orthodox movement ordain women today--must also play the role of politician, marketing expert, administrator, fundraiser, salesperson, and financial-management guru, as well as personal spiritual guide, therapist, and interfaith ambassador.

Even the traditional clerical roles--teaching and preaching--have grown more complex. "Paternalistic," "lone-rangers," and "hierarchical" are some of the words scholars today use to describe the way rabbis worked under the former model of religious leadership.

These days, however, unquestioned authority does not pass muster. A growing number of American Jews no longer see traditions, organizations, institutions, or even highly certified leaders as inherent sources of authority. They refuse to be bound by categories of the past--such as denominational labels--and instead seek their own personal spiritual paths, drawing from whatever and wherever they find inspiration.

And while these trends are especially true in the non-Orthodox denominations--Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist--even some of the most traditionalist, cloistered ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities are affected by them in some, albeit less blatant, ways.

The Spiritual Marketplace

Part of the individual focus of religion is the blurring of traditional denominational lines and boundaries. Conservative and Reform synagogues may both have instruments on Shabbat, while Reform services are employing more Hebrew than in the past.

Moreover, an increasing number of synagogues and minyanim are cropping up that intentionally shun denominational membership. Even among the ultra-Orthodox, where allegiance to tradition and fidelity to rabbinic leadership is the highest, modern life has affected the rabbinate, in part thanks to the Internet, which has opened every rabbi's decisions or proclamations to be dissected, discussed, and opposed far beyond the cloistered walls of his own community.

Some have referred to this new reality as the "religious marketplace," where individuals go "shopping" for the faith or denomination that fits them best--or, more likely, the various pieces of different faiths or denominations that they then cobble together into their own individualized religious practice, often with little regard for the traditions or denominations in which they were raised.

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Michael Kress

Michael Kress is the executive editor of Parents.com. He was also the the VP of Editorial and Managing Editor at Beliefnet and the founding editor-in-chief of MyJewishLearning.com.