An Outline of Libertarian Judaism
Religious texts are increasingly available to the public in both Hebrew and English.
Learning can be done as a personal exercise more than ever before, no matter the individual’s level.
Rabbis have become officially certified functionaries who are required to go through accredited schools.
Today, a Rabbi’s domain is services rather than unique knowledge or teaching ability.
These certified Rabbis have a monopoly on many functions that were previously available to any Jew and usually filled by the wisest Jews available, like serving on a Beis Din and supervising kashrus issues.
Rabbis have elevated their role to that of priests, contrary to the earlier Rabbis who were scholars.
The role of Rabbi needs to be filled, and it can only be done by individual Jews who take it upon themselves to become the most knowledgeable and wise they can be.
If individuals take such responsibility, the destructively high cost for Jewish schooling, synagogue membership, and kosher meat can be slashed, and processes like conversion and mikvah use can be made available to the interested party without the clumsy and unnecessary clerical oversight that Rabbis have made obligatory.
This movement seeks to give life in the Diaspora a new sense of vitality and opportunity while abolishing Israel’s unique authority on Jewish legal issues.
1. Religious texts are increasingly available to the public in both Hebrew and English.
With Bible, Talmud, and innumerable other writings being widely printed in both their traditional languages and English, there are fewer obstacles than ever to learning directly from any chosen source. Translations of Tanakh are becoming ever more precise while deep translations of the Talmud featuring diagrams and explanations are being produced too. Bible commentaries by Rashi are available widely online, and Nachmanides’ commentaries are available in Hebrew and English. A colossal assortment of Jewish texts like Orchot Tzadikim and the Kuzari are also available in English. With all this readily available from so many sources and from so many perspectives, all that need be done to further one’s understanding is to prioritize doing so.
2. Learning can be done as a personal exercise more than ever before, no matter the individual’s level.
“You shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person, and you shall fear your God. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:14)
Blindness in knowledge is most often voluntary. While it is certainly wrong to mislead someone who does not have the understanding to refute a claim, individual Jews can also build up their defenses to such manipulations and effectively give themselves sight. It is unreasonable to complain about valuables being stolen from one’s home when the front door was left open. Likewise, a person only gains the right to counter manipulative authorities after having thoroughly secured their own mind through knowledge.
3. Rabbis have become officially certified functionaries who are required to go through accredited schools.
The seminary and yeshiva system has become a farce playing off of the equally troubled system of Western higher education. This was done in opposition to the classical academy system that Jewish learning typified. A four-year degree has usurped wisdom as the standard for readiness to act as a learned Jew in the world. The denomination system has exacerbated the problem by demanding adherence to a sect’s standards before admission to a rabbinical school is even possible. Beliefs in gender roles, kosher standards, siddurim, and clothing style all preclude any crossover between denominations in any direction, so Judaism is left with denominations that spiral into smaller and tighter identities that are becoming untenable. Instead of continuing down this absurd path, we can stop the problem and reverse it by returning to a Judaism before all sides of it became bureaucratic nightmares.
4. Today, a Rabbi’s domain is services rather than unique knowledge or teaching ability.
Contrary to what is often heard from traditional Jews, this is true of both sides, only in different ways.
Among liberal denominations, this assertion is completely obvious. Counseling and life cycle events are much of rabbinical school for the Reform and Conservative, and this resembles pastoral training to an uncomfortable degree. This might be a valuable set of skills, but these are not what great rabbis spent their time doing. Even the Mussar movement and books like Orchot Tzadikim, which are about as close as Judaism gets to counseling, are profoundly rooted in the actual texts of the Bible and Talmud. Knowledge of text is fundamental.
Concerning the Orthodox, the focus of Rabbis on services is only slightly better hidden. At first glance, any onlooker can see how seriously Orthodox Rabbis take learning and how much time and resources they devote to the pursuit of such study. This is certainly something to strive for too, but in the next glance it is completely apparent that a huge portion of the Orthodox community invests an equal amount of its time in learning. So, as with the liberal movements, the only tangible distinction between a Rabbi and any other Jew is that a Rabbi performs and presides over services.
5. These certified Rabbis have a monopoly on many functions that were previously available to any Jew and usually filled by the wisest Jews available, like serving on a Beis Din and supervising kashrus issues.
A Beis Din does not require three Rabbis. This is simply a fact, and pretending it is not a fact serves only to ensure that Judaism is impotent and ineffectual. A Beis Din traditionally requires three mere men. If the issue on the table is criminal or a serious marital issue, it is easy to understand why the most learned men available would be good choices to fill the roles. However, a Beis Din for something like a conversion requires little unique knowledge because they are convening mainly to act as witnesses. Making this distinction would enable a smoother flow of so much of Jewish life. Someone overseeing kashrus should and must continue to be a trustworthy Jew who is knowledgeable about kosher laws, but there is no added value if they have a spectacular understanding of Rashi’s commentary on Genesis. The same applies for a shochet or any other position requiring specific skills. Rabbis have little if anything to add to these skillsets that an apprenticeship alongside normal learning would not fully provide. Moreover, eliminating the rabbinic monopoly would also allow Jews to get involved in their religion in ways that would prevent the aimlessness that so often accompanies religious life in the modern era.
6. Rabbis have elevated their role to that of priests, contrary to the earlier Rabbis who were scholars.
“They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly?’” (Numbers 16:3)
Today’s Rabbis think themselves the likes of Moses and Aaron. While Moses and Aaron had legitimate claim granted directly to them from God, the Rabbis of today believe they have claim given to them by a diploma from an institution. While Moses fell on his face after becoming disheartened by hearing this question, the congregation ought to have the same reaction to the Rabbis’ response today. Rabbis do not speak with God, but they feel uniquely entitled to speak for Him. While the congregation made a mistake supporting Korach’s claim against God’s legitimate arbiters, it is no mistake to oppose those who would appoint themselves to be the peers of prophets.
7. The role of Rabbi needs to be filled, and it can only be done by individual Jews who take it upon themselves to become the most knowledgeable and wise they can be.
If certifications and degrees are forgotten, Judaism can once again be headed by the wisest people available, and this would be the natural order anyway. If we do not require a diploma from a yeshiva, it will by consequence make the most respected and wise men rise to the top as it was before. Whether it is through writing, speaking, teaching, or leading programs, impressive and respectable Jews will rise. We live in a time in which it is remarkably easy to find out if someone is running a scam or has an abusive history, so now more than ever it can be trusted that the best will rise on their own. Meritocracy has been the backbone of Judaism for millennia. Solomon is not loved for being the son of David; he is loved for being great on his own merits, and this is proven by how Solomon’s son Rehoboam is remembered for being greedy, acting foolishly, and causing the division of the kingdom by consequence. Even hereditarily, merit is what makes the man in traditional Judaism. We should prize this standard over the absurd system of expecting everyone who graduates a program to be an admirable Jew worthy of leading a congregation and guiding the thoughts of his generation. Wisdom and righteousness should not be in contest with certification and accreditation.
8. If individuals take such responsibility, the destructively high cost for Jewish schooling, synagogue membership, and kosher meat can be slashed, and processes like conversion and mikvah use can be made available to the interested party without the clumsy and unnecessary clerical oversight that Rabbis have made obligatory.
“Do not make the Torah a crown to magnify yourself with, or a spade with which to dig.” (Mishnah, Avot 4:5)
Being a Rabbi must no longer be a career or a money making enterprise. We must make it a temporary service and a title given up immediately upon completing the task at hand. If done in this impermanent way, Rabbis cannot make their living off of the payments of Jews who only wish to follow God’s will. Additionally, ephemeral authority would preclude Rabbis from demanding acceptance of their personal beliefs and agendas as a prerequisite to performing mitzvos.
9. This movement seeks to give life in the Diaspora a new sense of vitality and opportunity while abolishing Israel’s unique authority on Jewish legal issues.
“He would also say: Do not judge on your own, for there is none qualified to judge alone, only the One. And do not say, ‘You must accept my view,’ for this is their [the majority's] right, not yours.” (Mishnah Avot 4:8)
Reforming the Beis Din system and the conversion process would be an impactful step for Judaism. This would make conversion practical and available throughout the Diaspora by allowing any three learned Jews to serve on the Beis Din to oversee a conversion. Outside of Israel, this would make small Jewish communities viable and give them the power they deserve. Someone who wants to convert should not have to move to New York or Los Angeles to do so as though such a move were Aaliyah. Moreover, empowering Jews to take responsibility for their own communities would confiscate the authority Israel has seized to determine which Diaspora rabbis are sufficiently obedient to be trusted for the oversight of conversions. No Jew is closer to God than another.