Hierarchy of Jews During Temple

by Brett Levine
The historic Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York is a National Historic Landmark.

The historic Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York is a National Historic Landmark.

Judaism is a religion that is practiced without hierarchy. Each denomination has its own specific requirements for who must be in attendance for a service to proceed, but as long as a person is willing and able to perform the specific functions necessary to meet the religious requirements, worship may proceed. With that being said, there are a range of defined roles within a traditional Jewish service, and the capacity of a person to fill that role depends on his or her position within Jewish law. Hierarchical organizational structures within congregations also exist.

The Rabbi

A rabbi is a spiritual leader in the Jewish community. Traditionally, a rabbi is also the spiritual leader of an affiliated congregation and therefore leads ceremonies at his or her temple. Although there is a misconception that services cannot take place without one being present, some communities do not have a rabbi, and lay leaders guide their congregations in prayer and ritual. Most synagogues still regard a key component of rabbinical duties as conducting services, making the rabbi the spiritual leader within the temple regardless of the equality of Jews within the more broadly based system of religious worship.

Orthodox Temple Services

In Orthodox synagogues, the roles of each participant are clearly defined, but as outlined above, are non-hierarchical. Traditionally an Orthodox congregation will have a cantor or hazzan, in addition to a rabbi, to meet the different roles defined within the service. Orthodox congregations will also, where possible, have a shatz or leader of the congregation, a person who is the congregation's representative on the pulpit. Many will also have a gabbai, a person whose responsibilities include calling people from the congregation to read from the Torah. While these positions are not hierarchical, it should be noted that in traditional Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox congregations, these positions may not be filled by women as men may not pray in front of women.

Conservative Synagogues

Conservative synagogues also have a rabbi as their spiritual leader, and many also have a cantor. It is less common for Conservative synagogues to have a shatz or a gabbai. The expectation that the rabbi will serve as the leader of the congregation is formally embodied in the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism's "Standards for Congregational Practice." Contrary to Orthodox Judaism, the role of rabbi may be filled by a woman. Structurally, Conservative Judaism also eschews hierarchical organization, although where possible a congregation is led by a rabbi, assisted by a cantor and supported by lay leadership.

The Reform Approach

Reform Judaism was founded on a strong lay-rabbinic leadership partnership. The traditional organizational structure for a Reform congregation would include a rabbi or rabbis, a cantor and lay leadership. As with all other denominations of Judaism, this organization is non-hierarchical in service, but an administrative hierarchy does exist within the temple. This hierarchy normally places a board of trustees or directors at its pinnacle, an employed rabbi at the next level and then a descending structure of assistant rabbis or cantors and general administrative staff. This hierarchy only extends within the administrative aspect of Judaism. Within the worship service, all Jews are equal.

About the Author

Brett Levine is a writer with more than 17 years of experience writing for a range of national and international publications. His articles have appeared in "Art Papers," "B-Metro," "Alabama" magazine, "Object," "Urbis" and "RealTime." He holds a Master of Arts in arts administration.

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