Will the great American rabbi please stand up?

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Sept. 7 2010 1:31 PM

Will the Great American Rabbi Please Stand Up?

Jewish America seems to have lost its chance to foster home-grown rabbinical sages.

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Schachter-Shalomi is also the product of Orthodox Judaism, the more traditional and conservative of the Jewish streams. Another obstacle to the growing of a homemade great American rabbi is the fact that most American Jews belong to the more progressive streams (Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist)—and the more progressive the stream, the less likely it is to foster rabbinical "greatness." Those streams just find it harder to make students invest as many hours, days, and years in studying Judaism. The followers of these streams—not as zealous as the more conservative in their religious life—usually find total devotion to Judaic scholarly life less appealing.

It was men of Europe and Orthodoxy, then, that swelled the ranks of American rabbinical greatness. And, of course, it was also the times. Can rabbis even aspire to greatness in a society in which rabbis are ranked on an annual basis? Perhaps more important, achieving sagely status becomes much trickier when potential leaders find themselves in an era when religion is more a matter of feel-good individualistic practices—when it is "increasingly personalistic, voluntaristic and non-judgmental," as one scholar put it. There's hardly any agreement between streams, congregations, and individuals as to what exactly makes a rabbi "sagely."

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The American Orthodox community used to provide great American rabbinical leaders respected by both the orthodox and more progressive Jewish traditions. Yet it, too, has failed to provide strong leaders for the 21st century. Why is that?

Here another phenomenon plays a role in serving an obstacle to sageness. Progressive Judaism has never taken hold in Israel, leaving America the global center of that community. Orthodoxy thrived in both places, but in recent decades Israel is increasingly becoming the unrivaled center of the Orthodox world. In "The Future of American Orthodoxy," historian Jonathan Sarna identified a "significant brain drain" in the American Orthodox community: American Orthodoxy is sending its "best and brightest to Israel … and unsurprisingly many of them never return."

With this shift, America might have lost its only chance to be the Petri dish for true rabbinical greatness. For those hoping that American Judaism will keep thriving and will be able to stand on its own feet, this might be a challenge that needs to be grappled with.

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Shmuel Rosner blogs daily on Rosner's Domain.