A Jewish community in Europe I know well has, in place of a rabbi, a local neurologist as its “spiritual leader.” His formal Jewish training is non-existent. His knowledge of Hebrew and Judaism seems to be very limited.
When I told the president of his congregation that I’ve always wanted to be a neurologist so that could I come and practise in his city, at least part time, the president was not amused. He was less tolerant of medical than of religious quacks.
Like many others, he assumed that you don’t need rabbinic training as long as you show a measure of competence and confidence on the bimah. How often have I been told – “in jest,” of course – by proud relatives of a bar or bat mitzvah who performed adequately that now my job was on the line and the child would soon take over.
It’s the fact that the rabbinate is held in such low esteem that has made “spiritual leaders” a not uncommon phenomenon. Several congregations in Canada are served by them. These women and men may have been employed, as in the case of the aforementioned neurologist, because it’s difficult to find properly trained rabbis. I surmise, however, that this is not the only reason. Congregations may also want them because it’s easier to control them.
Trained rabbis tend to claim external authority both from tradition and from their professional bodies, which have standards that congregants are expected to respect. And because they have trained for at least five years – as much or more than other accredited professionals – their remuneration should be commensurate. By contrast, “spiritual leaders” (“para-rabbis” often addressed as “Rabbi”) are frequently employed part time. They are both more pliable and less payable.
Sadly, learning and competence have ceased to be priorities in many congregations in favour of “spirituality” and “charisma.” After all, gurus don’t need to go to rabbinic school, and it’s gurus that many congregations seem to want.
I’m all in favour of do-it-yourself Judaism. I know successful groups that function very well without “the benefit of clergy,” because many of their members are sufficiently knowledgeable to conduct services and teach. They don’t need to employ people to do it for them. I suspect, however, that this isn’t the case in the communities that have “spiritual leaders.” Though there is no way of assessing their knowledge, it’s reasonable to assume that they know only a little more than those to whom they minister, and that’s deemed to be sufficient.
The lack of competent religious leadership in a growing number of congregations all over the world is yet another manifestation of the dangers Diaspora Jewry is facing. The prevalence of “para-rabbis” may lead to “para-Judaism” in place of the real thing.