A Rabbi’s Changing Role


The job of rabbi has clearly evolved over the centuries, the idea of a “pulpit rabbi” being a thoroughly modern invention. There were no rabbis, as we think of them, in Judaism’s formative biblical times, and the earliest rabbis were teachers and masters of jurisprudence, not clergymen. To this day, it is still not universally accepted in the synagogue world that a rabbi must deliver a weekly sermon, as would a Christian preacher.

With each landmark advance, from the printing press to the telephone to the Internet, halachic rulings and erudite teachings became accessible to Jews beyond the confines of geography. From the earliest beginnings of the rabbinate, visiting the sick and comforting those who are in mourning and grieving was always part of the equation, to some extent. But the revolution of chasidim and the rebbe-chasid relationship increasingly shifted the dynamic to the interpersonal. And the job of rabbi continues to evolve, with the modern synagogue expecting that a rabbi be a pastor, social worker or counselor, as much as anything else, and often on weekdays and on late nights, rather than on Shabbat mornings alone.

The problem, such as it is, concerns how rabbis are trained to reflect the new demands and circumstances. As vast are the Talmud’s gleanings regarding pastoral care, the task of preparing new rabbis for the field is increasingly understood as demanding a pastoral professionalism far beyond what can be expected from those whose expertise is primarily in Jewish law and liturgy. Last week’s Pastoral Education Conference, hosted by UJA-Federation of New York, underlined a heightened sophistication and respect for such professional expertise, an expertise that was rare to find in some rabbinic circles as recently as two decades ago.

Today, there is not a mainstream denomination whose rabbinical schools aren’t placing pastoral care in the realm of the requisite, rather than the elective.

Additionally, as we report this week, rabbinical schools are increasingly making clinical pastoral education (CPE) mandatory, an approach with its own accreditation, curriculum and professional practitioners, while putting apprentice rabbis, under supervision, into face-to-face interaction with those who are looking for solace.

This is not just a welcome development but a holy one, reminding us that rabbis are not just on the front lines of scholarship but on the front lines of caring for souls.