A Jewish rabbi, in the most basic of terms, is a teacher. In the time of Christ, rabbis were respected teachers of the law and religion. Modern Jewish rabbis are specifically teachers of Judaism, the Torah, and the extrabiblical Talmud.
The title rabbi or rabboni came into use among the Pharisees, and it means “teacher” or “master.” Jesus was called a rabbi by many people, including a few Pharisees (Mark 10:51; Luke 19:39; John 4:31). When Nicodemus, a Pharisee, visited Jesus at night, he said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him” (John 3:2). Although the Pharisees themselves assumed the title of rabbi, they proved to be blind to spiritual truths, such as Nicodemus’ confusion over the need to be born again (John 3:1–4, 9). Jesus’ question to Nicodemus applied to the Pharisees then and to modern Jewish rabbis today: “You are Israel’s teacher, . . . and do you not understand these things?” (John 3:10). Despite being called a rabbi, Jesus actually denounced the use of the title, stating “’Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters” (Matthew 23:8, NLT).
The term rabbi continued among the Pharisees’ successors, the Orthodox and Conservative Jews. Today, many rabbis are graduates of rabbinical schools and are seen as masters in the Law and Talmud. The duties of a Jewish rabbi somewhat resemble a Christian pastor’s, such as in the act of giving sermons, serving over a group of people, and being the main teacher of the assembly. Other duties of a rabbi include presiding over Jewish weddings and events, providing instruction in the Torah and Talmud, officiating the ordination of other rabbis, engaging in acts of charity, supervising religious rituals, and providing counseling.
Although most denominations of Judaism limit the role of rabbi to men, Reform Judaism recognizes the ordination of women rabbis. Orthodox and Conservative Jews generally reject the ordination of women rabbis because they believe that the Torah and Talmud present men as the sole occupants of this privileged position of Judaism.
Many modern Jewish rabbis earnestly seek to follow God and to faithfully teach others to do the same. Although they are dedicated to Judaism, modern Jewish rabbis have fallen in the same trap as the first-century Pharisees did. The Pharisees believed that upholding the Law was of sole importance in attempting to please God (Matthew 23:23–26). What the Pharisees and modern Jewish rabbis fail to understand is that following the Law will not make a person righteousness (Galatians 3:11). The Law was never intended to make anyone righteous before God, but to reveal man’s sinfulness (Romans 3:20). Only the perfect sacrifice of the sinless Son of God can provide salvation and present a person as righteous before God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Jesus was a rabbi, but He was also so much more. Jesus revealed Himself to be God the Son, and only by trusting in His death and resurrection can anyone have a relationship with God (John 8:58; Colossians 1:19–20). Modern Jewish rabbis should follow the example of Nicodemus and seek out the truth about Jesus (John 3:1–21). Instead of following human traditions, they need to seek out the One who will set them free (Mark 7:6–7; John 8:36).