Who Deserves to Be Called Rabbi?
AN UNSUSPECTING tourist had little hope of getting to the airport on time. Hundreds of police attempted to direct traffic while guarding the more than 300,000 mourners who packed the streets of Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Post called it “a funeral procession of the size generally reserved only for presidents, kings or totalitarian dictators.” Who could have caused such an outpouring of devotion, paralyzing Israel’s capital for hours? A respected rabbi. Why does the position of rabbi command such respect and devotion among Jews? When did the term “rabbi” first come into use? To whom does it rightly apply?
Was Moses a Rabbi?
The most respected name in Judaism is Moses, the mediator of Israel’s Law covenant. Religious Jews call him “Moses ‘our Rabbi.’” However, nowhere in the Bible is Moses referred to by the title “Rabbi.” In fact, the term “rabbi” does not appear at all in the Hebrew Scriptures. How, then, did Jews begin to refer to Moses in this way?
According to the Hebrew Scriptures, the responsibility and authority of teaching and explaining the Law was given to the descendants of Aaron, the priests of the tribe of Levi. (Leviticus 10:8-11; Deuteronomy 24:8; Malachi 2:7) However, in the second century B.C.E., a quiet revolution began within Judaism, indelibly affecting Jewish thought from that point on.
Regarding this spiritual metamorphosis, Daniel Jeremy Silver writes in A History of Judaism: “At [that] time a class of nonpriestly scribes and scholars began to challenge the legitimacy of the priestly monopoly of Torah [Mosaic Law] interpretation. Everyone agreed that priests were necessary as Temple functionaries, but why should they have a final voice on Torahic matters?” Who were the instigators of this challenge to the authority of the priestly class? A new group within Judaism called the Pharisees. Silver continues: “The Pharisees based admissions to their academies on merit, not on birth [priestly descent], and they brought a new class of Jews into religious leadership.”
By the first century C.E., the graduates of these Pharisaic academies came to be known as teachers, or masters, of Jewish law. As a sign of respect, other Jews began to refer to them as “my teacher,” or “my master,” in Hebrew, rabbi.
Nothing could give more legitimacy to this new title than to apply it to the one viewed as the greatest teacher in Jewish history, Moses. The effect would further diminish the emphasis on the priesthood while bolstering the image of the increasingly influential Pharisaic leadership. Thus, over 1,500 years after his death, Moses was retroactively designated “Rabbi.”
Imitating the Master
While the expression “rabbi” (“my master”) was sometimes used by the masses to refer to other teachers to whom they accorded respect, the term was usually applied to the prominent teachers among the Pharisees, “the sages.” With the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. effectively ending the authority of the priesthood, the Pharisaic rabbis became the uncontested leaders of Judaism. Their unrivaled position encouraged the development of a type of cult centering on the rabbinic sages.
Discussing this first century C.E. transitional period, Professor Dov Zlotnick comments: “‘Attendance upon the Sages,’ became more important than the study of Torah.” Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner further explains: “The ‘disciple of the sages’ is a student who has attached himself to a rabbi. He does so because he wants to learn ‘Torah.’ . . . Torah is not learned through the law, but through seeing the law embodied in the gestures and deeds of the living sages. They teach the law by what they do, not alone by what they say.”
Talmudic scholar Adin Steinsaltz corroborates this, writing: “The sages themselves said, ‘Random conversations, jests, or casual statements of sages should be studied.’” To what extent could this be applied? Steinsaltz notes: “An extreme example of this was the disciple who was reported to have concealed himself under the bed of his great teacher in order to discover how he behaved with his wife. When queried on his inquisitiveness, the young disciple replied: ‘It is Torah and deserves to be studied,’ an approach accepted by both rabbis and students as valid.”
With the emphasis on the rabbi rather than Torah—learning Torah through the rabbi—Judaism from the first century C.E. forward became a rabbi-oriented religion. One drew close to God, not through the inspired written Word, but through a personal exemplar, a master, the rabbi. Thus, the emphasis naturally switched from inspired Scripture to the oral law and traditions taught by these rabbis. From this point on, Jewish literature, such as the Talmud, centers more on the discussions, anecdotes, and behavior of the rabbis than on the pronouncements of God.
Rabbis Through the Ages
Although wielding tremendous authority and influence, the early rabbis did not earn a living from their religious activity. The Encyclopaedia Judaica states: “The rabbi of the Talmud was . . . completely different from the present-day holder of the title. The talmudic rabbi was an interpreter and expounder of the Bible and the Oral Law, and almost invariably had an occupation whence he derived his livelihood. It was only in the Middle Ages that the rabbi became . . . the teacher, preacher, and spiritual head of the Jewish congregation or community.”
When rabbis began to turn their position into a salaried occupation, some spoke out against it. Maimonides, the renowned 12th-century rabbi who earned his living as a physician, railed against such rabbis. “[They] fixed for themselves monetary demands from individuals and communities and caused people to think, in utter foolishness, that it is obligatory and proper to help [financially] sages and scholars and people studying Torah, thus their Torah is their trade. But all this is wrong. There is not a single word, either in the Torah or in the sayings of the sages, to lend credence to it.” (Commentary on the Mishnah, Avot 4:5) But Maimonides’ denunciation went unheeded by future generations of rabbis.
As Judaism entered the modern age, it divided into factions of reform, conservative, and orthodox belief. For many Jews religious belief and practice became secondary to other concerns. In turn, the position of the rabbi was undermined. The rabbi, for the most part, became an ordained head of a congregation, acting as a paid, professional teacher and counselor for members of his group. However, among the ultraorthodox Hasidic groups, the concept of the rabbi as master and exemplar evolved even further.
Notice the comments of Edward Hoffman in his book about the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement: “The early Hasidim also stressed that in every generation there exists a single Jewish leader, a zaddik [a righteous one], who is the ‘Moses’ of his time, one whose scholarship, and devotion to others is unequaled. Through his awesome piety, each group of Hasidim felt, their Rebbe [Yiddish for “rabbi”] could even influence the Almighty’s decrees. Not only was he revered as an exemplar through his revelatory discourses, but his very quality of being (‘how he ties his shoelaces,’ as it was put) was seen to exalt humanity and impart subtle indications of the path to the divine.”
“Do Not You Be Called Rabbi”
Jesus, the first-century Jew who founded Christianity, lived at the time when the Pharisaic concept of the rabbi was beginning to overtake Judaism. He was not a Pharisee, nor had he been trained in their academies, yet he too was called Rabbi.—Mark 9:5; John 1:38; 3:2.
Denouncing the rabbinical trend in Judaism, Jesus said: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the seat of Moses. They like the most prominent place at evening meals and the front seats in the synagogues, and the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called Rabbi by men. But you, do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your teacher, whereas all you are brothers.”—Matthew 23:2, 6-8.
Jesus warned against the clergy-laity distinction that was developing within Judaism. He denounced giving such undue prominence to men. “One is your teacher,” he boldly declared. Who was this One?
Moses, “whom Jehovah knew face to face” and who was called “our Rabbi” by the sages themselves, was an imperfect man. Even he made mistakes. (Deuteronomy 32:48-51; 34:10; Ecclesiastes 7:20) Rather than highlighting Moses as the ultimate example, Jehovah told him: “A prophet I shall raise up for them from the midst of their brothers, like you; and I shall indeed put my words in his mouth, and he will certainly speak to them all that I shall command him. And it must occur that the man who will not listen to my words that he will speak in my name, I shall myself require an account from him.”—Deuteronomy 18:18, 19.
Bible prophecies prove that these words have their fulfillment in Jesus, the Messiah.* Not only was Jesus “like” Moses; he was greater than Moses. (Hebrews 3:1-3) Scripture reveals that Jesus was born a perfect man, and unlike Moses he served God “without sin.”—Hebrews 4:15.
Follow the Exemplar
The intense study of a rabbi’s every action and word has not brought Jews closer to God. While an imperfect man might be an example of faithfulness, if we study and imitate his every action, we will imitate his mistakes and imperfections as well as his good points. We would be giving undue glory to the one created rather than to the Creator.—Romans 1:25.
But Jehovah did provide an Exemplar for mankind. According to Scripture, Jesus had a prehuman existence. In fact, he is called “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Colossians 1:15) Having served in heaven for untold millenniums as God’s “master worker,” Jesus is in the best position to help us come to know Jehovah.—Proverbs 8:22-30; John 14:9, 10.
Therefore, Peter could write: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you a model for you to follow his steps closely.” (1 Peter 2:21) The apostle Paul encouraged Christians to “look intently at the Chief Agent and Perfecter of our faith, Jesus.” He also explained that “carefully concealed in him are all treasures of wisdom and of knowledge.” (Hebrews 12:2; Colossians 2:3) No other man—not Moses nor any rabbinic sage—is worthy of such attention. If anyone should be closely imitated, it is Jesus. Servants of God have no need of a title such as rabbi, especially in view of its modern-day connotation, but if anyone deserved to be called Rabbi, it was Jesus.
For more information on evidence that Jesus is the promised Messiah, see the brochure Will There Ever Be a World Without War?, pages 24-30, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
[Picture Credit Line on page 28]
© Brian Hendler 1995. All Rights Reserved