Judaism’s Rabbi-Laity Distinction
TO MAKE an arbitrary distinction between those taking the lead in the worship of God and those following is not wise. Those teaching are not in a class by themselves, different from those being taught. This is a point repeatedly made by the great Teacher, Jesus Christ. “But you, do not you be called ‘Rabbi’, for one is your teacher, whereas all you are brothers. Neither be called ‘leaders’, for your Leader is one, the Christ.”—Matt. 23:8, 10; Mark 10:42-44.
◆ That this distinction and division of clergy and laity is not for the best is appreciated even by certain leaders in modern Judaism. Thus Jacob D. Schwarz, in his book The Synagogue in Modern Jewish Life, had the following to say on this aspect of worship in Judaism:
◆ “There was a time in the history of the synagogue when the distinction between the layman and the rabbi as we know it today did not exist. No differentiation in religious duty or responsibility was made. In Judaism, traditionally the leader was not set apart by priestly or ecclesiastical functions. His marks of distinction were two, learning and piety. Any layman with these two qualifications was acceptable to the council of the synagogue and in the performance of many rites and ceremonies as well. He was competent to pray for himself and to lead others in prayer. His participation in the synagogue and in Jewish life was direct and spontaneous.”
◆ In a similar vein one of the more prominent leaders in Conservative Judaism, the late H. Szold, was quoted as saying: “The Jewish doctrine has always been, not as usually stated, that we have no priests, but that we have no laity. ‘A nation of priests’ we are. Paradoxical as it may seem, the greatest effect of the anti-intellectual current [in which Jews objected to learned discussions by their leaders and asked that they be more practical and deal with everyday problems] has been a division of our people into the laity and a priesthood. We are, in fact, closer to having a hierarchy than ever before in our history, not because the priests are too learned, but because the laity are too ignorant.
◆ “The good old times cannot be extolled unreservedly; many of our diseases we have inherited from them. Yet it must be conceded that in the past the Jewish education of the people formed the substantiation upon which the learning of the rabbis rested. The people were intelligent enough to ask questions intelligently. The difference between them and their leaders was one of degree, not of kind. . . .
◆ “At present a gulf yawns between the people and the pastors they have forced their rabbis to become, and the separation exists whether the rabbis are learned or unlearned . . . The modern Jew sells his birthright or individuality and dignity and pays a man of clay like himself to take care of his soul and act as his scapegoat. Thus a new thing is being made in Judaism. No qualification for a position bestows influence; but the ordination conferred by election to the rabbinate of a congregation—an esoteric, mysterious something, often an esoteric, mysterious nothing. Members of the congregation like to quote the opinions of their rabbis upon philosophy, literature, politics and Judaism alike. To my ears ‘the Doctor says’ sounds perilously like ‘my father-confessor says.’ If we persist in our demand for pastors we must inevitably take the retrograde step from . . . teacherhood to priesthood. The doom can be averted, I maintain, not by beginning at the top, with the training of rabbis, but by educating the people.”
◆ Also decrying this trend was one S. Michael Gelber, Jewish traveling lecturer. Addressing an audience at the Theodor Herzl Institute in New York city, early in 1961, on the subject “A Layman Looks at the American Rabbi,” he made a forceful plea for lessening the distinction between clergy and laity in synagogue worship by having the worshipers take an ever more active part in the service.
◆ Not only are the words of Jesus pertinent to the foregoing observations but also the words of Moses. When Joshua heard that two men of the congregation of Israel were prophesying and begged Moses to tell them to stop, how did Moses feel about their prophesying? Far from telling them to desist, he answered Joshua: “Are you feeling jealous for me? No, I wish that all of Jehovah’s people were prophets!” That wish of Moses as well as the rule announced by Jesus finds fulfillment among the Christian witnesses of Jehovah, they being a society of prophets, preachers, teachers.—Num. 11:26-30.