What must Orthodox rabbinate do for recognition?

Rabbis have no right approaching religiosity as one would approach a business.

June 20, 2012 06:26
3 minute read.
Rabbis (illustrative)

Rabbis 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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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 titled “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 NIS 1 billion a year, followed by a list of the 10 richest rabbis in Israel whose fortunes span anywhere from NIS 30 million to over NIS 1 billion. What’s more, the article claims that the rabbis’ activities are difficult to monitor and therefore not always reported to the tax authority, which can give rise to much higher estimates than 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 rabbis’ 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 platforms 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.”

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 forums 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 nationalreligious circles and is perceived as intrusive by secular Israelis.

The author, a rabbi, teaches at Yeshiva Hesder Kiryat Gat and serves as a lecturer under the Harel Division for the IDF. He is also an author and lecturer on Israel, Religious Zionism and Jewish education.


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