Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

How are Jewish religious leaders chosen and given authority?

In biblical times religious authorities and specialists came largely from hereditary lines within particular tribes that traced their sacred mandates back to the Mosaic revelation at Sinai. Post-biblical developments gradually moved away from hereditary models of religious leadership to a parallel model in which one leader passes on authority to a successor by laying on of hands (called semikhah in Hebrew). Thus did Moses “ordain” Joshua and the seventy elders (Numbers 11:16-25, 27:18-23). Members of the Sanhedrin were likewise ordained. But post-biblical communities in the Middle East eventually did away with formal ordination, preferring only to require that prospective rabbis were thoroughly versed in Talmudic and legal studies. A number of modern seminaries, (or rabbinical colleges as some are called), have broadened their curricula to include nontraditional studies to better equip future rabbis to engage more broadly educated congregations. The rich, age-old ritual of semikhah, imposing hands, survives largely in the practice of Orthodox rabbinical academies.


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