Chief Rabbinate: Career or Calling

Is the Chief Rabbinate a career that affords monetary benefits and power or is it a spiritual calling to be approached with humility and trepidation.

Rabbi Berel Wein

Judaism מועצת הרבנות הראשית
מועצת הרבנות הראשית

There was a time not that long ago when those entering the field of the clergy did so in response to what they felt was a calling. This meant that there was somehow a Heavenly instinct within them that called them to the service of their faith and its adherents. This idea was promulgated and publicized especially after the Reformation changed the face of religion in Europe in the non-Jewish world.

But its basis, as is true of much of the ideals and mores of the modern Western world, lay deeply embedded in Jewish thought and tradition. Judaism never considered teaching Torah or helping those in need, of leading and guiding people according to the values system and way of life of Torah – in short, serving as communal rabbi - as being a career.

When our teacher Moshe installed the tribe of Levi as being the “professional” religious leaders of the people he admonished them: “Do not think that I am granting you power or office. I am granting you servitude!” And that has pretty much been the general attitude towards serving in the rabbinate throughout Jewish history.

In fact, the concept and custom of communal rabbis drawing a salary from public funds does not appear to have taken hold in Jewish life until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Ashkenazic Europe. And even then, many rabbis struggled mightily to earn their own way in life and not to be beholden to the community coffers for their sustenance. In this fashion the rabbinate was seen as a calling and not as a career.

Understandably, not every rabbi was the paragon of altruism and purely devoid of self-interest. Human nature is human nature and rabbis are not immune to the pitfalls that human nature poses for all people. Yet, generally speaking, the honor afforded to Torah scholars and especially to rabbis was recognized as being honoring Torah and not necessarily personal in nature to the scholar or rabbi himself.

Slowly, over the centuries, the concept of the rabbinate as being a career and not a calling seeped into Jewish life. We have records from eighteenth and nineteenth century Jewish Europe of rich relatives “buying” rabbinical positions for their family members and of the emergence of dynastic families controlling the rabbinate of certain communities for many decades and even centuries.

With the rise of Hassidism in those centuries, one can easily make the case that being a rebbe also became a career for which one required training and pedigree. Naturally, there were and are always exceptions to this observation but in the main, the shift in religious Jewish life from calling to career was gaining momentum.

In the American Jewish community in the twentieth century, the rabbinate became an almost pure profession requiring certain training and skills, while the spiritual component of the position was diminished and even ignored. America has witnessed openly atheistic "rabbis", as incongruous as that sounds. But once the rabbinate became only a career, such incongruities are easily understandable.

The current goings on regarding the Chief Rabbinate in Israel is a clear example of where careerism and dynastic interests lead. In my opinion, the Chief Rabbi need not be the greatest Talmudic scholar in the land, though he must certainly be a great Talmudic scholar, nor need he be the most gifted orator in the land. The task certainly involves being politically savvy, but he should not be a politician.

Independence of agenda and freedom of action are necessary requirements.

The careerist feels answerable to humans and humans can be manipulated and fooled. The one who feels called to public service feels one’s self answerable to Heaven.
But above all, he must view his position as being a calling and not the culmination of a career. In Avot we are told that one should not advance one’s own personal interests and monetary gains by the exploitation of Torah for one’s personal benefit.

The careerist is the one most susceptible to fall into that disgraceful trap. The careerist feels answerable to humans and humans can be manipulated and fooled. The one who feels called to public service feels one’s self answerable to Heaven and therefore has a different attitude towards the tasks and challenges at hand.

Legend has it that when Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant instructed his disciple Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer (Peterburger) to assume the position of rabbi in then St. Petersburg, Rabbi Blazer told him: “Master, I am afraid to do so!”  To which Rabbi Yisrael responded: “Well then whom shall I send, someone who is not afraid?!”

The careerist is never afraid. The one who feels called always has the necessary amount of trepidation to see the issues and problems of public service correctly and vividly.