Orthodox Rabbinate: Business as Usual

Those who pursue the rabbinate as a career confront a certain amount of cynicism from the broader Jewish community, who, to this day continue to insist that being a rabbi is not a job for a nice Jewish boy. Twenty six years ago when I informed my grandmother that I was going to study to become a rabbi she responded by insisting that I really did not know what I was doing with my life. I often contemplated the roots of this negativity and came to the conclusion that it was an issue of practicality; it is difficult to achieve financial security working on the salary of a rabbi. A few days ago I came across an article in Forbes Israel entitled “Meet Israel’s richest rabbis”, which revealed that this assertion was not necessarily true. The article began with the premise that “giving out blessings proves to be a lucrative business” as the “rabbi industry” bankrolls over one billion shekels a year, followed by a list of the ten richest rabbis in Israel whose fortunes span anywhere from thirty million to over a billion shekel. What’s more, the article claims that the rabbi’s activities are difficult to monitor and therefore not always reported to the tax authority which can give rise to much higher estimates then what was actually reported. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that rabbis have every right to make a good living, in fact I am all for it and would love to experience it one day, however, one who recognizes the value and integrity which the rabbinate should represent must also recognize that the terms, rabbi and industry, should never mix. When giving blessings is coined a lucrative business, then there is something fundamentally wrong and religiously inept with an institution which is supposed to embody modesty, integrity and spiritual substance; particularly an Orthodox rabbinate which claims to be authentic and therefore privy to exclusive halachic authority in Israel.

Perhaps it was not a coincidence that the expose of the rabbi’s salaries was revealed around the same week that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein accepted the legitimacy of rabbis from non Orthodox communities following a long struggle by Reform and Conservative rabbis to be recognized officially and authoritatively by the State of Israel. The ramifications of this so called recognition remains to be seen but as an Orthodox rabbi, while I reject the Conservative and Reform platform and although I believe that the Orthodox voice can and should remain the sole authority in Israel with regards to Jewish law, I recognize that there is a price you pay for waving the banner of halachic legitimacy; one which demands moral and ethical standards of pristine behavior and one which the Orthodox rabbinate has yet to achieve.

The official Orthodox rabbinate in Israel exhibits a lack of diplomacy and sensitivity particularly towards many secular Jews who may not understand nor at this point wish to understand religious law, but are nonetheless subject to it. For example a secular Israeli who wants to marry must register at the rabbinate of their local municipality and pay a considerable fee to a rabbi who they are usually unfamiliar with and who they may meet for the first time at the wedding. This same rabbi will often coarsely ask for payment immediately following the ceremony as he hurriedly leaves the hall. Many times this is the first and last contact the secular Jew will have with an Orthodox rabbi and it can leave the impression that “giving blessings can prove to be a lucrative business”.

The Torah portion of Shlach discusses the sin of the Meraglim; the leaders of the Jewish people who were sent on a mission to scout and assess the land of Eretz Yisrael. There are varied opinions regarding the specific nature of their transgression, one being that the root of the problem began by their declaring,
“the people that dwells in the land is powerful, the cities are very greatly fortified”.
Eretz Yisrael is more then just a piece of real estate; its significance to the future of the Jewish nation is invaluable as it marks the covenant between Hashem and His people; yet in a business like fashion the Meraglim dismissed its significance by convincing their constituents that it was a poor investment. Consequently they revealed that they were not worthy to serve as the “rabbis” of Am Yisrael and their positions were compromised.

Rabbis must adopt diplomacy and sensibility as much as they consider halachic discourse; they have no right approaching religiosity as one would approach a business. I firmly believe that had the official Orthodox rabbinate of Israel been more sensitive in their dealings with Conservative and Reform Jews and their rabbis, by interacting with them, discussing issues with them and inviting them to partake in various forum and even certain official ceremonies, this entire call for recognition may never have surfaced. Instead the official Orthodox rabbinate continues to suffer from its irrelevance as it is not recognized by the Haredi sector, remains ineffective in the National Religious circles, and is perceived as intrusive by secular Israelis.

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