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What is the Office of a Jewish Rabbi?


We again are indebted to the Jewish Intelligence for an interesting article, which we find in the October number, the last which has come to hand. There is among many people a singular misapprehension of the office of the Jewish Rabbi, and we never yet have seen the subject so clearly set forth as in the extract quoted from Dr. Frankel’s lately commenced monthly magazine, which, however, has not yet reached our hands. Our readers will discover, in the introductory remarks by the editors of the Intelligence, some of their peculiar uncandid expressions, which would make one believe that the Jews encouraged the erroneous idea, as though their Rabbis were “high priests.” Still this occasional want of candour must be pardoned in a work whose object is the destruction of our belief, in the face of the high commendation which it ever and anon pronounces upon our teachers and their works. We may pardon a great many offences, when our most active opponents pronounce such unbought eulogies upon the expounders and chiefs of Judaism. Will not the indiscriminate revilers of the Rabbis among Jews, who are so mostly from ignorance, have to blush at such praise from the active opponents of Israel? We trust that they will, and not condemn in future before they have well understood why they should revile.—[Ed. Oc.]

Many persons seem to suppose that a Jewish rabbi is in some sense the priest of his people. The late Chief Rabbi in London was often called, in the popular literature of the day, “the High Priest of the Jews.” This mistaken notion has not infrequently been in some measure encouraged by the Jews themselves, who would gladly persuade us, that their rabbies of the present day may be considered as the legitimate representatives of those whom God appointed to be the guides and pastors of his people.

Nothing, however, can be farther from the truth. The rabbi does not, and cannot, undertake to discharge the solemn duties which the sons of Aaron were privileged to perform. A very slight acquaintance with the laws and customs of the Jews as now established and observed, will suffice to show that, whatever they may say of the excellence and dignity of the office of a rabbi, it has but very little to do with the peculiar service which the priest was to render to God in the great congregation. Although there is one important sense in which the rabbi or any other pious and learned man may supply the place of the priest, inasmuch as like that “messenger of the Lord of hosts,” It is the duty of every one to see to it, that “his lips keep knowledge,” so that others may “seek the law at his mouth,” the peculiar office of the priesthood is unchanged and unchangeable, and can never devolve on any except by the direct appointment of the Almighty.

Every one who has enjoyed the advantage of being personally acquainted with any considerable number of those learned, and, in so many respects, truly estimable persons, who now fill the office of rabbi among the Jews, will gladly bear testimony to their diligence and devotedness. As a body of men they fully deserve our most cordial respect and esteem for their learning and charity, their zeal and disinterestedness; but while we rejoice in that which is good and praiseworthy in the individuals, we dare not shut our eyes to the glaring and awful defects of the system which they maintain: and least of all dare we for one moment cease to remind our Jewish brethren that they have now no such service of the sanctuary as that which God appointed, no sacrifice, no atonement, no priesthood.

A Jewish periodical, edited by Dr. Fränkel, Chief Rabbi of Dresden, entitled “Zeitschrift für die Religiösen Interessen des Judenthums,” contains some remarks concerning the office of rabbi among the Jews, which tend to illustrate what we have said.

We do not quote them as if they contained a complete statement of the duties which the rabbi has to perform, but as they are taken from the writings of one of the most celebrated among the rabbies of the present time, who is regarded by many as an authority, they well deserve notice, and will serve to show the great difference between the rabbinical office and the duty of the priests as ordained by God.

Let us first inquire into the nature of the rabbinical office among the Jews.

It is well known that Judaism knows of no priests, in the sense in which the designation “clergy,” is understood by the Christian church. Judaism does not acknowledge the distinction of clergy and laity, by which is understood that the latter confide to the former the care for their souls. Of the Jew it is expected that he shall pursue the study of the law, in addition to, and in connexion with, his usual occupations; that he shall instruct himself to the best of his ability, and not be a mere machine in the hands of others. As, moreover, Judaism had no mysteries, the study of its doctrines was open to all, no peculiar initiation was required to qualify for entering its sacred courts, and no sanction necessary from any outward ceremony, like the ordination. In Judaism we know of no congregations led by spiritual shepherds, yielding blind obedience to their mandates, and looking up to them as beings of a superior caste; only literary qualifications and proficiency give precedence and elevate to the office of teacher. The appellation “clergy” is unknown to Judaism. It might, perhaps, have been applicable to the priests of the tribe of Aaron, while the temple and its services were in existence: even there, however, not in the sense in which it is now used. The Jew has only teachers; they have neither power to bind nor to loose, their position does not bring them nearer to God, nor are they mediators between God and the congregation. Originally the teacher did not even exclusively represent the congregation. If we look into Jewish history, we do not, until within the last few centuries, meet with rabbies like those of the present day, representatives of their congregations in all matters connected with religion. Jewish rabbies, on the contrary, were but learned men, who in the synagogue propounded their opinions to the people; and this privilege was open to all who, from their learning, had acquired the esteem of their brethren. We can only compare the office of rabbi with that of an academical teacher, who keeps up a continual intercourse with his scholars and with learned friends: the former propose questions to him, the latter sometimes oppose his views; but he addresses also (popular) discourses to the people, in which he propounds his doctrines. The rabbi was not elected to his office by the congregation, but was a teacher by virtue of the wishes of his scholars, or rather from the deference generally paid him. Every learned man could be called upon to expound the law, and he did so willingly, as the qualification for doing so was considered to be the final object of all study. No one was compelled to consult any particular individual, but could apply to any one in whom he placed confidence, whose decision afterwards could not be revoked by another learned man, unless it had been very manifestly wrong. It was not until the sixteenth century that the congregations elected rabbies. Their proper functions were to teach ex officio, and also, assisted by two coadjutors, to form the Beth-Din. But even then there was no intention of a cure of souls: the rabbi’s only qualification consisted in his learning. There were also in the congregation beside him, other learned men, whose acquirements, at times were even superior to his own, and who were also frequently applied to respecting the ritual, so that the congregation was never exclusively represented by its appointed rabbi . . . . . . What has been the personal history of the rabbies? Have they fattened themselves with the labour of the people, seized upon rich benefices, pampered themselves in luxury and affluence, or given offence to the people and scandalized their religion by their morals? No: they were nothing but teachers; their lives were dedicated to study, but also to the care for their daily bread; they struggled against poverty; doctrine and science was their recreation. They lived only for the people, their object was to watch over the maintenance of the law; they required no reward, but were, although not without their human weaknesses, men to whom even the most enlightened age cannot refuse its respect. Wherever endurance or suffering was the order of the day, they stood forward, and kept up the intellectual eminence of their nation. Let us do them the justice to acknowledge this; honour is due to these men, if we will not judge them with partiality, and fail to record what is noble and worthy of remembrance.—(Zeitschrift, June, pp. 95, 98, &c.)