B etween 1991 and 1994, the American Jewish community lost its rabbi (Louis Finkelstein), its rav (Joseph Soloveitchik) and its rebbe (Menachem Mendel Schneerson).
Taken together, these three deaths are best understood as marking the end of the era of the great rabbi in American Jewish life — a time when leaders not only dominated their respective religious camps, but also radiated influence and commanded respect beyond their denominational and sectarian boundaries.
From his perch at the helm of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Finkelstein, known to admirers as “the Rabbi,” served as the unquestioned architect and leader of the Conservative movement. He also was Judaism’s top public ambassador at a time when American Jews were shedding their status as second-class citizens and fully integrating into American society.
Soloveitchik, a rosh yeshiva, or rabbinic dean, at Yeshiva University known simply as “the Rav” to thousands of disciples, was the religious leader of the Modern Orthodox camp at a time when it dominated Orthodox life in America. His theological teachings and philosophic writings could not be ignored by opponents on the left or the right; for decades he set the terms of cooperation and theological dialogue between Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis, as well as between Orthodox rabbis and Christian clergymen.
And finally, Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe, revived his nearly extinguished Hasidic sect following the Holocaust, and miraculously transformed it into a global religious movement, leading some fervent followers to declare him the messiah. While cultivating a loyal army of thousands of emissaries who would become models of religious outreach for rabbis of all denominational stripes, Schneerson transformed Hasidism into a dominant force in contemporary Jewish life.
In a similar vein, Finkelstein –– who, in 1991, became the first rabbi to grace the cover of Time magazine –– and, albeit to a lesser degree, Soloveitchik, helped make Judaism the respectable third leg in the Jewish-Catholic-Protestant tripod model of American society that took hold in the decades after World War II.
Today, it could be argued, the rabbi most likely to land on the cover of a major newsweekly is Philip Berg, the head of the controversial Kabbalah Center and the religious adviser to a growing list of celebrities. His most famous follower is Madonna, who, during her current tour, is refraining from performing on the Jewish Sabbath and reportedly has taken to being called Esther. Berg is no Rabbi, Rav or Rebbe — but then again, the same thing is often said about the current crop of rabbinic leaders. Go to almost any corner of Jewish religious life, and you will detect a strong sense of nostalgia for the previous generation of rabbis.
This notion of lamenting the disappearance of great leaders should, of course, be taken with a grain of salt, considering it has marked every generation of Jews since the death of Moses. The great 20th-century rabbis in America — most of them European immigrants, including Soloveitchik and Schneerson — openly yearned for the high level of scholarship and piety of the Old Country’s rabbinic giants.
But this idealized view of the past, which often could be attributed to a mix of humility, deference and habitual gloominess, now seems to have taken on the added, convenient characteristic of being true: The ranking rabbis of today do not, in terms of stature and influence, come close to measuring up to their predecessors of the 20th century.
It would be enough to note that no rabbi today can truly be said to tower over the denominational landscape of American Jewish life. But the reality is even more stark. No rabbi, with the possible exception of Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, can be said to dominate his own religious camp: No heir emerged to fill Schneerson’s shoes; Soloveitchik’s left-wing and right-wing followers are now divided chronically;and, since Finkelstein’s retirement, the dominance of JTS and its chancellor within the Conservative movement has faded.
The list does not stop with the three Rs. Other rabbis have left seemingly permanent voids, including Mordechai Kaplan, who influenced multiple camps as he navigated the denominational spectrum from Orthodoxy to Conservative Judaism to Reconstructionism; and Moshe Feinstein, who has no successor as the Orthodox world’s unchallenged arbiter of religious law.
None of this need signal an alarm. Times and needs change. A mostly immigrant community struggling to pull itself up and gain a solid footing on American soil was more dependent on its religious leaders. Likewise, nascent religious movements and institutions required dynamic, dominating visionaries who could will their dreams into reality.
One could argue convincingly that what is being experienced now is not a famine of leadership, but a stage of development to be cheered: It is not that we no longer have great rabbis, it is that they no longer are needed. Take, for example, the Conservative movement’s new biblical commentary, “Etz Hayim,” or Tree of Life, a metaphor used in rabbinic literature to describe the Torah. For most of the last century, Conservative synagogues, as well as many Orthodox and Reform ones, relied on the so-called Hertz Bible — viewed as the work of one great rabbi, J.H. Hertz, who came from Europe to be educated at JTS before becoming chief rabbi of England. In contrast, the new Conservative commentary represents the collective efforts of dozens of American-born rabbis, writing for what they assumed to be a more Jewishly educated laity than existed in Hertz’s day.
Perhaps Hertz and other sage rabbis of the past seem like branches on a tall tree — too high for our outstretched arms to reach. But the fruits of their efforts have fallen into our hands, leaving us sustenance for today and seeds with which to plant for the future.
Ami Eden is the national editor of the Forward.