Defending the Rabbinate

The past few years haven’t been good for the image of the Modern Orthodox Rabbinate. From the Lanner scandal and subsequent OU cover-up, to the most recent frustrations with YU, it isn’t surprising to find Modern Orthodox Jews who are suspect if not disgusted with the institution of the Rabbinate. I’ve personally heard claims of malicious dishonesty, where if you’re part of the “old-boys club,” you can get away with whatever you want.

Most Modern Orthodox Jews will blame the “system” or Rabbinic intstitutions for perpetuating a corrupt system. The Rabbis are simply looking out for themselves, and so continue the patterns of dishonesty though their schools and organizations. But while there may be some merit to this position, it fails to address why such a system is allowed to exist and to continue. Assuming that the Rabbiniate is as bad as some people say – a presumptuous suggestion in its own right – then what would the factors be that caused this unfortunate situation?

First we have to distinguish between the system and the individuals. For any given cross-section of a society, you will find ethical and unethical people and the Rabbinate is no different. While there is a valid assumption to hold the Rabbi to a higher moral standard, this does not mean that all rabbis are ethical. To the best of my knowledge, no Rabbinical school in the world has a morality quotient for accepting or ordaining students. For the Rabbinical schools, as with any other professional school, the competency and morality or its graduates is dependant on the state of the students before they enter the institution. No matter how good the school is, its success is always limited to some extent by the caliber of its students it accepts.

Furthermore, the school is limited in whom they can accept for admission, and they cannot always be as selective as they may like. Schools must accept a minimum number of students to maintain its academic reputation and in some cases financial obligations. While they will still have academic standards, necesity forces schools to admit less than totally ideal students. Stronger applicants will normally become stronger graduates and vice-versa for the weaker ones. However, if the applying class is weaker overall, a school may be forced to accept weaker students, even at the expense of its production quality. In this way, Rabbinical schools are not only affected by the nature of the students who attend Rabbinical school, but also by those who decide not to attend Rabbinical school.

If Rabbinical schools can only produce Rabbis as good as their students, then presumeably, better and more ethical students would produce a better and more ethical Rabbinate. The question then should be why do the potentially better Rabbinical students not go enter the Rabbinate altogether? Offhand, I can think of several people from my computer science classes who are smarter, more knowledgeable, and more personable than I am. Their abilities and commitment rival if not surpass many professional Rabbis.

Why do these highly capable Jews shun the Rabbinate?
As the old joke goes, “it’s not a job for a nice Jewish boy.”
Despite the glibness, this old yiddish joke is characteristically astute. When looking at the realities of what a typical Rabbi has to go through, it’s amazing that anyone at all would take the job.
My copy of MSDCS’s Current List of Congregations Seeking Rabbis, reads like a shidduch form. Popular descriptions include “passionate, energetic, dynamic, thoughtful, and energetic” among many others. Of course, what each shul means by any of these terms is ambiguous at best.

Most shuls have common requirements such as delivering sermons, preparing and presenting weekly, bi-weekly, or even daily shiurim to various audiences, while being accessible to his congregant’s needs. The Rabbi will hear personal halakhic questions, provide private counseling, train Bar Mitzvah students, perform weddings and funerals, and even when not officiating, he must attend every congregant’s life-cycle events.
Oh – and Shuls which don’t plan on paying much money “encourage the Rabbi to seek other options for parnassa” while fulfilling his obligations to the congregation.

Some congregations stipulate that the job permeate the Rabbi’s personal life. Some congregations expect the Rabbi’s house to be a warm and welcoming place for the entire community, defined of course, by the discretion of the shul. Furthermore, some shuls looking for Rabbis are also looking for official, yet unpaid, Rebbetzens. One congregation, paying about $47,000 writes, “While his wife should feel comfortable pursuing her own career, as the Rebbetzen she will relish the opportunity to give shiurim and welcome people into their home.” Another synagogue expects the “wife, while pursuing her own career, embraces the role of Rebbetzen as an active partner with her husband in communal affairs.” The congregation not only dictates the Rabbi’s professional career, but it also imposes itself on his personal life.

And it gets worse.

Despite dedicating his life to his congregation, the Rabbi has embaressingly little job security. Few Rabbis are given lifetime contracts, and are therefore up for review ever few years. The Rabbi has no official bosses, but a board which is subject to constant change and its own craziness and infighting. In any given congregation, a wealthy or insane congregant can hold a grudge – real or imagined – and make it his or her mission to get the Rabbi fired. The Rabbi will be blamed for the productivity of his office staff, but will be denied the ability to hire and fire appropriate personell. If not enough shul members participate, the Rabbi will be critizied for not getting people involved. On the other hand, if the congregants who participate are incompetent, the Rabbi will be blamed when programs fail. There doesn’t need to be any rationality. If just one machar in a 500 familly shul wants the Rabbi out, he’ll work to get him out, or make the Rabbi’s life a living hell until the Rabbi leaves willingly.

The difficulties are not just in the social areas of management, but they also extend to areas of halakha where the Rabbi can be fired for actually having intellectual integrity. For example, a Rabbi in a shul is faced with a controversial halakhic topic – let’s say women’s prayer groups. The Rabbi does his research and reaches his conclusion based on however he was trained, and reaches his conclusion. He may think it’s permitted and should be done, permitted but shouldn’t be done, or his research could honestly lead him to the conclusion that women’s prayer groups are intrinsically forbidden. He could be right, he could be wrong, but the Rabbi researched the issue as honestly as he could have. But regardless of his ultimate decision, the Rabbi’s rulling will inevitably alienate members of his congregation. If the upset members are on the board, or are upset enough to eventually become members of the board, the result may be the Rabbi’s contract not being renewed.

And what does it mean for a Rabbi to lose his job? For one, the Rabbi loses his salary, perhaps at an age where he is too old to find other employment, but too young to retire. If the Rabbi was living in a wealthy neighborhood, what little salary he was getting probably was spent towards costs of living. Speaking of which, if the Rabbi’s housing was part of his contract, then when his contract isn’t renewed, the Rabbi is also homeless.
And this happens all over, all the time.

Cheerful thought, eh?

This should not in any way be taken as a defence of rabbinic corruption. Rabbis who behave unethically deserve to be criticized. I don’t blame the Jewish community for the corruption of some rabbis, but I do hold them responsible for pre-emtively chasing away the moral, competent, and committed, people from the Rabbinate. The congregational system is itself obtrusive for a Rabbi to act with integrity and honesty, for the Rabbi is under constant evaluation and any given decision may determine his future employment.

To lesser extents, these difficuties apply to other Jewish professions. High-school teachers, youth directors, and others, all service a very demanding and impatient community. To keep the diverse interests in check the Rabbi needs to be a politician and stroke the right egos and consistently compromise, or worse, manipulate, simply because this is what he needs to do to keep his job.

Holding Rabbis accountable for their misdeeds appropriate, crucial, and I could even say halakhically obligatory. But the sanctimonious question, “why aren’t the rabbis ethical” is only part of the story.

We also need to be asking “why aren’t the ethical becoming rabbis?”

I’m not sure we’d like the answers.

I know the past few posts have been somewhat pessimistic. The next few ones will be a little more positive.


  1. insanecongregant
  2. Dave Kent
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