Although viewed as religious leaders within the Jewish faith a Rabbi has not traditionally been seen as the intermediary between man and God. Differing from spiritual leaders in other faiths, who are often considered to have special status conferred upon them by God, Rabbis are simply learned men. In addition to religious duties they have always traditionally acted as both, advisor and spokesman, for the wider community.
The differing role of the Rabbi can also be seen in the fluid evolution of the role, and in the use of the word. Although the word Rabbi itself has meanings close to teacher or master, accompanying duties make it something of a catch-all term. Today, Rabbi refers solely to those who have undergone extensive study in Jewish law, and rabbinical ordination. Early forms had different meanings; for example, sages in Ancient Israel, who mostly acted as judges had the term “ribbi” conferred upon them. Additionally, the word appears in ancient Hebrew as a polite form of address to elders – equivalent to “Sir” today.
The community role of the Rabbi is evidenced in the historical fluidity of what a Rabbi actually
does; for example, in the last 500 years or so, the duties of Rabbi – including giving sermons, and offering pastoral counselling to their flock – have more resembled those of a Christian Minister. The word itself in terms of modern spelling doesn’t appear until Ashkenazi prayer books from the 18th century. Early Rabbis often had another profession in addition to their status as community leaders. By the 12th century, their role was restricted to study of Jewish law and tradition, but modern day Rabbis are just as likely to be doctors, lawyers, or business people in additional to their rabbinical duties.
There are fewer restrictions on who can become a Rabbi than there are on religious leaders for other faiths, for example, aside from Orthodox and some conservative strains of Judaism, there is no restriction on women, or even openly gay and lesbian people becoming ordained. Regina Jonas, the first woman ordained as Rabbi in 1935, died in Auschwitz in 1944.
Modern would-be Rabbis are highly-educated, and tend to have a degree of fluency in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish alongside their study of theology. However, the modern trend to have at the very least an undergraduate degree prior to religious study ensures a firm grasp on an ever-changing world.