web analytics
October 20, 2014 / 26 Tishri, 5775
At a Glance
InDepth
Sponsored Post
Meir Panim with Soldiers 5774 Roundup: Year of Relief and Service for Israel’s Needy

Meir Panim implements programs that serve Israel’s neediest populations with respect and dignity. Meir Panim also coordinated care packages for families in the South during the Gaza War.



Home » InDepth » Op-Eds »

No Place For A Chief Rabbi

The absence of a chief rabbinate in America speaks to the uniqueness of the American Jewish religious experience.

Gurock-122812

In 1893, Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Vidrowitz was looking for an advantage in his struggle for leadership of the immigrant Orthodox community on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Two other outstanding rabbinical sages also aspired to have the final say among downtown’s religious Jews.

A far more famous luminary, Rabbi Jacob Joseph, had been brought from Vilna in 1888 by the Association of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations and was trumpeted as “Chief Rabbi of New York City.” He was charged to lead a “religious revival” in Gotham. But Rabbi Joshua Segal, of Galician stock, had preceded Rabbi Joseph to the U.S. and was unwilling to play second fiddle in town and gathered around him a score of congregations that designated him “Chief Rabbi of the Congregations of Israel of New York.”

To put his calling card in higher relief against such stiff competition, Rabbi Vidrowitz declared himself “Chief Rabbi of America.” When asked by contemporaries, or so the story goes, “Who gave you the right to be so designated?” the unapologetic candidate replied, “I hired a sign painter; the shingle that we hung out was all that I needed.”

And why, he was asked, did he go the extra yards and arrogate to himself supreme religious authority for an entire nation? The rabbi, who hailed from Moscow but clearly had come to understand much about American Jewish conditions, replied, “It would be well-nigh impossible for all the Jews of America to gather together to depose me.”

This newcomer’s whimsical aside spoke to the endemic problem of disunity, voluntary allegiance and lack of control that undermined Judaism in America. For the record, none of the three opponents was able to gain a permanent foothold among lay leaders who controlled the shuls and the men and women in the pews.

In truth, even in other modern countries, where the office of the chief rabbi is a respected institution, the eminences reign far more than they rule. Just ask Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain, who is soon leaving his post after a notable and sometimes controversial career, how many Jews feel the right and use the opportunity to either ignore or dissent from his decisions and proclamations.

Nonetheless, the hallowed post – if not the occupant – is largely revered by the Jewish rank and file as a statement that they, as a minority religious group, are present and respected within a host gentile society.

American Jews clearly have not felt the desire for that sort of formalized religious recognition. After, all, since there is no established church or chief Christian prelate in a country that hallows church-state separation, why need there be an established synagogue leader in our midst?

Recently, a young Orthodox rabbi in Washington, D.C., hoping to revive a congregation in decline, decided to call his shul “The National Synagogue,” arguing that there was already in town a “National Cathedral” where presidents often pray. Other, longer-tenured rabbis in town were not exactly pleased with this promotional move. Somewhere, Rabbi Vidrowitz must be smiling.

The point is that most Jews have not shown much interest in surrendering even a wit of their religious autonomy to their clergy. The only place in the world where chief rabbis have real political power and wield enormous internal communal clout is, of course, in the one place where Jews are in the majority – the state of Israel.

In the decades that followed the combative downtown rabbinical troika, supporters of esteemed rabbis lavished the largely honorific title of “chief rabbi” of specific hometowns upon their leaders. In the interwar period, Rabbi Tobias Geffen of Atlanta was revered both in that city and all over the South. In more recent times, Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, who unquestionably held sway among his minions in Elizabeth, N.J., comes to mind. But if they – and other compatriots – had any power, it was solely in the realm of persuasion.

Only among postwar chassidim have rabbinical chiefs, largely known by their European countries of origin rather than their locales in America, both ruled and reigned. Their followers have voluntarily ceded to them in a religiously free United States the right and power to direct their lives. Nonetheless, except for Lubavitch, whose outreach efforts are legendary, these sectarian leaders have shown no interest in extending their suzerainty beyond their loyalists.

The absence of a chief rabbinate in America speaks to the uniqueness of the American Jewish religious experience.

About the Author: Jeffrey S. Gurock is the Libby M. Klaperman professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University and author of “Orthodox Jews in America” (Indiana University Press, 2005).


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “No Place For A Chief Rabbi”

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
Aerial view of Yemenite Village of HaShiloach, Old City of Jerusalem and Mt. of Olives.
Jews to Double Presence in Old Yemenite Village of Shiloach, Silwan
Latest Indepth Stories
Arab children look at pictures of two of a kind - Arafat and Barghouti.

What was the world reaction to a relatively light blockade of Gaza compared to the deliberate killing of Jews and destruction of Israel? A rebuke at the nature of the collective punishment on all of the people in Gaza. Consider the Sayreville, NJ case again. Imagine the football team, school and community participated in all […]

Jordan's King Abdullah

The Arab Spring has challenged Jordan with the task of gradual reform with regard to its monarchy.

The Kinneret/Sea of Galilee

Israel offered Syria the entire Golan Heights, only to find that the Syrians were demanding MORE!

Bibeye doctor

Israeli hasbara too can be described at best as pathetic, at worst non existent.

A ‘good news’ story from the Nepal avalanche disaster to warm your heart. Take out your Kleenex.

Journalists see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as morality play: Israel=evil; Palestine=innocent

Warsaw Ghetto: At its height, the Nazis walled in some 500,000 Jews within the1.3 square mile area.

While police officers face dangers every day on the job, Jews also face danger in their daily lives.

Carter developed a fondness for Arafat believing “they were both ordained to be peacemakers by God”

If Hamas is ISIS, the world asks, why didn’t Israel destroy it given justification and opportunity?

That key is the disarming of Hamas and the demilitarization of Gaza – as the U.S., EU, and others agreed to in principle at the end of Operation Protective Edge.

We have no doubt there are those who deeply desire to present themselves as being of a gender that is not consistent with their anatomy, and we take no joy in the pain and embarrassment they suffer.

Does it not seem ironic that just on the day all of Israel is joyously celebrating another year of having concluded the public reading of the entire Pentateuch, we must mournfully and even tearfully commemorate the death of the individual who imparted to us God’s Torah in the first place?

Why is “Palestine” worthier of “statehood recognition” than ISIS, another terrorist gang seeking it?

More Articles from Jeffrey S. Gurock
Gurock-122812

In 1893, Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Vidrowitz was looking for an advantage in his struggle for leadership of the immigrant Orthodox community on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Two other outstanding rabbinical sages also aspired to have the final say among downtown’s religious Jews.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/no-place-for-a-chief-rabbi/2012/12/26/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: