Looking for leaders, rabbis explore a changing society

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

NEW YORK — The great rabbis of the recent past wielded more authority than their present-day counterparts because society has changed, according to three well-known rabbis from different denominations.

The clergymen came together under the aegis of the New York Board of Rabbis last week to answer the question: "Where have all our leaders gone?"

Each rabbi, speaking in the vernacular of his own movement, provided essentially the same response: Rabbis today are just as terrific as those who emerged as the philosophical and spiritual leaders of their movements in the past.

But, they said, because the world around the rabbinate has changed, few today have attained the same level of broad respect and authority enjoyed by past greats such as the Reform giant Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, the Conservative legend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Orthodox sage Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik.

What's more, said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive director of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis, Jewish history's great rabbis would never be considered as great today as they were then if they were alive.

In previous eras, "the rabbi was the most educated individual in the community, often the only one who had gone to college and usually the only one to have a graduate degree," Menitoff said.

"The rabbi was elevated to a certain position by virtue of his education," he said. But "today it is not unusual to have a number of Ph.Ds in Jewish studies" sitting in the pews while the rabbi gives a sermon.

"Also different is the view of authority, which was held on a pedestal in the past. Today it is very different. Today the atmosphere isn't as conducive to creating these super figures nationally or within an individual community," Menitoff said.

"If any of the greats who are all in our minds were alive today, they would have the same difficulties and not emerge as the leaders they were" in their own time, he said.

Rabbi Herschel Schacter, an Orthodox rabbi and spiritual leader of Bronx's Mosholu Jewish Center, agreed.

"In comparison to our predecessors, our leaders seem inadequate," he said.

But he said such a sense of inadequacy was inevitable when any generation of Jews compares itself to an earlier generation.

Even previous generations of rabbis felt inadequate compared to their predecessors, such as Rabbi Akiva.

"We may think we are dwarves, but we are the fortunate beneficiaries of days gone by," said Schacter.

Rabbi Bill Lebeau, vice chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and dean of the Conservative movement's rabbinical school, offered yet another explanation.

Rabbinic "leadership today is on the local level" rather than the type that leads to the development of a nationally respected figure, Lebeau said.

The rabbi's role "is more as teacher, darshan (preacher) and counselor" than national figure, he said.

Though the Jewish community could benefit from powerful and charismatic leadership, Lebeau said, such leadership should come from many rabbis, not one.

"I'm well aware of our dying" as a community, he said. "We're awaiting not one giant to lead us, but a chorus of courageous leaders who will help us transform the shudder of a dying people" into something new.