Written by: Allan Nadler
Although in modern times the pastoral role of contemporary rabbis has greatly expanded to include responsibilities toward their congregations such as personal counseling and social work, similar to those of Christian ministers and priests, the classic role of the rabbi until the modern period was limited to teaching Torah, occasional preaching, and most importantly adjudicating halakha. Rabbinical "ordination," which, during the Second Temple period, did once involve anointing with oil and entry into a spiritual order, akin to the consecration of Israelite priests of ancient Israel, has since the early Middle Ages involved no more than attaining the equivalent of a law degree; specifically an advanced degree in Talmudic law and classical rabbinic texts.
Rabbis do not perform miracles or hear heavenly voices and their prestige is directly proportional to the level of their Talmudic scholarship, not their personal spiritual charisma. The one notable exception to this criterion for rabbinical leadership is to be found in the Hasidic community whose religious leaders, known as zadikim (the righteous) or rebbes (an intimate form of the term rabbi) did claim supernatural abilities, including direct communion with God and performance of miracles, and whose authority stemmed less from their Talmudic learning than from their charismatic powers.
The other major Jewish religious leaders are cantors, who are laypersons trained to chant the classical Hebrew liturgy in accordance with the traditional nusach or cantillation. In Europe since the Renaissance period, cantorial music was greatly influenced by western musical trends, and in the modern period especially by opera. Cantors were increasingly expected to possess exceptional vocal skills, akin to those of opera singers, as well as improvisational talents, akin to those of jazz musicians. Particularly in eastern Europe and America, the cantorial arts, known as Hazanut, reached their apex in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, referred to as the "Cantorial Golden Age," during which cantors were treated in major Jewish communities, from Warsaw to New York, as the rough equivalent of rock stars. People flocked to synagogues to hear the great cantors perform musically complex compositions.
Since the second half of the 20th century however, there has been a considerable shift in cantorial culture, dictated by the changing musical tastes of both American and Israeli Jews. The decreasing appetite for the subtleties and complexities of classical Hazanut, and especially an impatience with the length of formal cantorial services, has resulted in the fact that the large majority of cantors today lead their congregations in communal singing, only rarely performing the classical pieces of the cantorial repertoire. This has radically changed the musical aesthetic of synagogue services from formal choral concerts to participatory communal singing.
1. How did an oral tradition help to shape the leadership within the Jewish community?
2. Where do rabbis receive their authority?
3. What is the role of a contemporary rabbi? How are they educated?
4. Who are cantors? What do they contribute to the Jewish community?