Judaism today does not have a single hierarchy. Rather, each community has its own rabbinic leaders. For example, Belzer hasidim are led by the Belzer Rebbe. Other hasidim may consider the Belzer Rebbe a great man, but do not consider his decisions authoritative. Non-hasidic orthodox Jews often consider their rosh yeshivah (dean of a religious academy) to be their leader.
On issues of Jewish Law, there are a number of authorities that are considered the leading decisors ("poskim" in Hebrew), but again, their authority is based on being accepted by a particular orthodox community rather than their being the head of a particular hierarchy.
Today, each Jewish community is autonomous and usually has its
own Rabbi or Rabbis.
In the earliest era, the Hebrews consisted of family-groups (clans; tribes) led by patriarchs. Later, during the three centuries of the Judges, the Israelite nation had sages (led by Sanhedrin-courts) who were consulted in questions of Jewish law and conduct; while individual Judges occasionally unified the people in war against some common enemy.
During the four centuries of the monarchy, the Israelites were
led by three distinct people or groups: the king, the Sanhedrin and
the Kohen Gadol. (See also Deuteronomy ch.17-18.)
- The king conducted the nation and made decisions in most
national matters but was not necessarily one of the leading sages.
It is noteworthy that although the prophets had no temporal power,
they were sent by God not only to exhort the people in general, but
also to rebuke the king when needed.
- The Sanhedrin (court of Sages) was the final authority on
Torah-matters. One of its functions was to ensure that the
Torah-traditions were handed down intact from generation to
- The Kohen Gadol conducted the observances in the Holy Temple, together with the assistance of the rest of the Kohanim and Levites (Leviticus ch.21, Numbers ch.8 and 18). Though the Kohen Gadol had no formal power outside the Temple, he did have great influence due to the prestige of his position. In times of need, he occasionally dealt directly with foreign monarchs (see Talmud, Yoma 47a and 69b).