Judaism: The Role of a Rabbi Today
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
In recent generations, the role of rabbis has become complex and ambiguous. In previous generations the community rabbi, or mara d’atra (local rabbinic authority), was responsible for Torah study and its observance. Under his leadership there were Torah classes for adults, and an educational framework for children. He and his beit din (court) instructed halakha in regards to what was permissible or forbidden, and decided the law in interpersonal relations and between husband and wife. The rabbi was also a party in representing the community before the government.
Moreover, the social and cultural revolutions caused by modernity created great confusion with respect to rabbis. The values of liberty and freedom eroded people’s attitude towards authoritative figures – particularly when they spoke in the name of religion. Academia taught to raise doubt towards all traditions of the past.
The accessibility of information also decreased the status of rabbis, since answers to questions could be found in various books, and nowadays, also in computerized databases.
So what is the role of rabbis today? Communities searching for a rabbi also ponder this question. Some look for a rabbi who can connect with children and the youth, a young rabbi, happy and enthusiastic – and if he knows how to put on a show, all the better. Others look for a rabbi who can give beautiful and dignified sermons at the celebrations of community members, and knows how to pay tribute to the community leaders and synagogue directors – in short, a rabbi with political skills. In certain communities he will need to wear a frock; others will prefer he wear a jacket and trim his beard.
Some congregations look for a rabbi who knows how to unite the community and make peace among its members; preferably, someone who has a degree in psychology, and is relaxed and accommodating. And then there are communities whose members are yireh Shamayim(fearers of Heaven), looking for rabbis who can decide halakha and are experts in the laws of insects and all other matters of caution in the fields of kashrut and tzniyut (modesty) – in brief, a serious and respectable person.
After a while, though, it usually becomes clear to the members of the community that a rabbi needs spiritual inspiration as well, otherwise, he will not know how to deal with the larger problems.
It is extremely difficult to serve in the rabbinate these days. The congregation wants the rabbi to be able to inspire the serious youth, and also prevent the other teens from leaving the fold. He should resolve conflicts, but not be authoritarian. He can rule on halakha for the community and the individual, but on the other hand, his rulings should not offend any of the members. It is impossible to fulfill all these requirements and expectations.
This is the main test of every rabbi: if, thanks to him, the members of the community learn more Torah – he has succeeded. If not – he has failed. And the test is twofold: quantitative, and qualitative. The number of hours the members of the community learn, and the quality of their learning.
For this purpose, the rabbi should establish numerous classes – in halakha and aggadah, in Tanach and mussar – before and after every tefillah. Classes should be held in the synagogue, and also in private homes. And even if in the beginning only a few people attend, he should learn with them, thus improving his ability to explain, and reveal the deep ideas in halakha andaggadah, until more people join the classes.
Thus, the entire community will go from ‘strength to strength’, peace and joy will increase between husbands and wives, their observance of kashrut and tzniyut will grow stronger, their prayers will be full of meaning, their children’s education will be enhanced, more charity will be given, they will enhance the mitzvoth of Oneg Shabbat, and reveal a willingness to volunteer for community affairs.
A Torah Community
Financing the Torah Classes
It would be fitting to move the majority of kollel’s to cities throughout the country, and establish Torah classes in synagogues that would suit every Jew – young and old, men and women. Classes should be given in all fields of halakha and aggadah, dealing with the individual, the family, and the nation, and a respectable compensation should be provided to rabbis and yeshiva students who teach the classes.
The Justice Minister recently suggested an amendment to the law of municipal rabbis. Until now the authority to decide on the dismissal of a municipal rabbi was in the hands of the rabbinical courts, and the new proposal is that at the head of the panel will sit a secular judge, together with a dayan and a rabbi. The appealing court for their decision would be the secular Supreme Court, and the Justice Minister would be in charge of the process.
It is further mentioned in this proposal that prohibitions of “classified political party activities” will be placed on rabbis. In other words, it will be forbidden for a rabbi to voice politically controversial views, or to make statements considered prohibited according to the norms of the secular courts. This means that it will be forbidden for a rabbi to say that we must settle all parts of the Land of Israel, and that any withdrawal from it is forbidden and dangerous. He will also be prohibited from saying that it is forbidden to travel on Shabbat, and that homosexual interaction is forbidden by the Torah; and if he does talk about it, the Justice Minister can act to ouster him.
In such a situation, all other proposals of the Justice Minister concerning matters of religion and law should be rejected.
In a recent article in the newspaper ‘Yediot Achronot’ (1/24/14), reporter Yossi Yehoshua wrote that the I.D.F. is trying to handle one of the ills familiar to nearly all Israeli’s – the hidden unemployment of thousands of soldiers on home-front bases. This involves thousands of soldiers who arrive for two or three hours a day, and for only three or four days a week. They cost the army a great deal of money, and are ineffective. According to a senior officer in the Human Resources Branch, “30% of the soldiers serving in administrative positions could be done away with, without anyone noticing”. But in order to sustain the model of a ‘People’s Army’, unnecessary functions were created for them. This is a very sensitive issue from a national and social perspective, expressing the collapse of the model of a ‘People’s Army’. In the meantime, one of the solutions raised in the Human Resources Branch is to shorten compulsory service for soldiers to two years. The problem is, there is a lack of combat soldiers, and consequently, such soldiers must serve for three years. Therefore, a proposal was made to pay them a salary for the third year.
It’s a shame that all the various experts did not suggest a simple solution that would answer a significant part of the problem – repealing the mandatory conscription law for women. Strange as it sounds, Israel is the only country in the world with a law of compulsory conscription for women. This reality costs a great deal of money to the Israeli economy – both in maintaining the female soldiers, many of whom suffer from hidden unemployment, and also, because it delays their professional studies and entrance into the work force by two years. It also hinders women from starting families. Apparently, the only reason for preserving the compulsory law for women’s conscription in Israel is the devout belief in equality between the sexes. Certainly, there are female soldiers who are very useful to the army, but they can serve in exchange for a handsome salary, without obligating all other women to do compulsory service.
Additionally, the problem of lack of motivation would also partially be solved, because this problem stems from the fact that soldiers do not have meaningful roles. There is no reason to come and serve everyday when one sits around and does nothing. Their idleness is contagious, and contaminates other soldiers who could have served in battle corps or combat support units.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.