The Changing Character of the American Rabbinate: Some Reflections

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

During the first two hundred years of the American Jewish venture, this nation was without an indigenous rabbinic presence. With the arrival of such figures as Rabbis Isaac Leeser and Isaac Mayer Wise, American Jewry would ultimately move to create its own distinctive rabbinic voice, with the founding of seminaries and the ordination of generations of rabbinic leadership.

The roles performed by American rabbis have been evolving for decades, and in the process of redefining their place within this society, the rabbinate is also reshaping the image and status of American Jewry. But such transitions have occurred in stages.

If we could identify an elitist, high profile American rabbinate covering the four decades, 1930 through 1970, as represented by such extraordinary personalities as Stephen Wise, Abba Hillel Silver, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. In the decades that would follow one could document a push back on the part of both Jewish lay leadership and other Jewish professionals, designed to reign in and reconfigure the balance of power between the American rabbinate and its communal elites. The “church-state” divide that had been constructed in American Jewish life, separating the functions and roles of the world of the synagogue from that of the federation system would also experience a recalibration of authority in the post-1967 era, as a new cadre of leadership would emerge to capture the Jewish political stage. Rather than being seen as setting the agenda for American Jewry during the later decades of the 20th century, rabbis were often not acting as central players to the American Jewish story.

Rather than seeing the rabbinate continue as marginal to the shaping of 21st century Jewish life, we are beginning to observe a growing presence of a new generation of rabbinic voices that are committed to both reshaping American Jewish life and impacting the public discourse beyond the Jewish world.

Today, one finds a renewed American rabbinic voice, not limited to such extraordinary public figures as Rick Jacobs, David Saperstein or Avi Weiss but by the emergence of a new generation of rabbinic activists who are in the process of reinventing the rabbinic presence within American society. The power of the pulpit, once seen as lost or marginalized, appears to be in a stage of renaissance as rabbis now are identified as group on the basis of their influence and standing, including such high profile congregational figures as David Wolpe, Peter Rubenstein, Rolando Matalon, and Ed Feinstein.

During the post-Second World War era, we could identify a number of rabbinic public servants who fulfilled important organizing roles that would both reshape Jewish communal life and the role of Jews within the broader society. Rabbi Herbert A. Friedman was the architect during the 1960’s in the successful creation of the United Jewish Young Leadership Cabinet. Through the efforts of Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum of the American Jewish Committee, a new chapter in Catholic-Jewish relations was initiated, resulting in Nostra Aetate. Today, we are beginning to witness within the public square and elsewhere the reemergence of these type of rabbinic role models.

Their growing presence can be documented in a number of distinctive areas, including the public square, where rabbis are asserting once again a high-profile political presence through work in the social justice arena and with regard to public policy concerns. The concept of Just Congregations as envisioned by Jonah Pesner represents but one of these new expressions of congregational engagement, designed to reinvigorate Jewish social consciousness. The writings and activities of Jill Jacobs has added another dimension to this story of the growing presence of rabbis in blending the religious imperatives with the political.

Just as we could account for rabbinic leaders as builders of our seminaries, more than one hundred years later, rabbis have assumed a significant role in creating new models of worship, community, and study. Today, one finds an extraordinary number of younger colleagues implementing new visions of Jewish public and religious expression. As a part of the reinvention of Jewish life, rabbis have become identified with an array of new ventures covering interfaith relations, Israel affairs, and community-building projects. Sharon Brous, Asher Lopatin, Naomi Levy and Sharon Kleinbaum represent only a small sample of the growing power of the next generation of rabbinic voices exploring new avenues of religious and communal expression.

Well beyond their longstanding commitments within Hillel, the contributions of rabbis to the intellectual and academic environment have been significant and continue to be so, whether within the seminary world as reflected in the leadership of such figures as David Ellenson who successfully joined his research interests with his presidential portfolio or across the landscape of America’s premier universities, where rabbis are engaged in building Jewish studies programs.

Today, new generations of rabbis are performing essential and extraordinary roles as chaplains within our hospitals, military, and universities. Often their impact on the lives of those they encounter can be life altering.

Yet the story that continues to unfold is the growth of the American rabbinate in terms of the number of new seminaries that have emerged and the reassertion of American Orthodoxy, as represented in part by its rabbinic presence. Chabad must be seen as a primary force in expanding and reinventing the rabbinic presence.

When the conversation today turns to the idea of re-imaging community and recapturing meaning in the lives of people, the rabbis have increasingly come to understand the changing social construct with its focus on the culture of entrepreneurialism and experimentation.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball campus in Los Angeles of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His complete writings can be found at thewindreport.