This article reexamines the role of rabbinical leadership among Ottoman Jews. It defines the Ottoman Jewish experience by rabbis' ability to enforce a communal culture in which the center of individual and collective life revolved around Jewish law; by the part rabbis and lay leaders played in sustaining communal institutions and services; and by the links between Jewish communal organization and that of the Ottoman state. I argue that up to the mid-nineteenth century, rabbinical leadership failed to impose Jewish law broadly, as a principle guiding the lives of individuals and congregations. It was rather loose and lacked a clear hierarchical structure. Rabbis, alongside lay leaders, were instrumental in shaping communal services, from schooling to charitable foundations. Such involvement enabled scholars, and lay leaders, to achieve high status among their followers, mirroring the prestige sultans and other Ottoman officials enjoyed by becoming patrons of their subjects through sustaining foundations. Relationships between commoners and leaders were by definition pious, grounded in religious practices and rites, and eminence was earned through legal and scholastic erudition rather than through official positions. Lay leaders were generally more influential than rabbis politically. As I maintain here, lay leaders had the final say on most communal matters, even when decisions did not align well with the rabbis' interpretation of Jewish law. This article therefore seeks to reduce rabbinical titles, previously assumed to designate official, authoritative positions, to general designations of eminence, and ascribe a circumscribed role to scholars within their communities.


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pp. 323-353
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