For much of Jewish history, the rabbinate was not a full-time profession. In fact, until the Middle Ages, it was against Jewish law for rabbis to receive payment for their services. The earliest reference we have to the rabbinate being a paid profession is from the end of the fourteenth century.1 We know that some of the outstanding rabbis in Jewish history had other vocations. One of the most brilliant commentators on the Bible, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki) was a vintner. Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), who left a prodigious legacy of philosophical and legal writings, was a physician to the royal court in Egypt. The rabbis and sages who appear in the rabbinic classics such as the Mishnah and Talmud held every imaginable job, from the most modest to the most sophisticated: Shammai was a builder,2 Rabbi Oshaiyah made sandals,3 Rav Yosef was a miller,4 and Rav Huna raised cattle.5 The modern rabbinate as we know it only emerged in the emancipation era and may prove to be an anomaly in Jewish history.6
It is helpful to view the transformation of the rabbinate within the general context of the restructuring of just about all industries and professions. For example, if you speak with a group of sixty-year-old medical doctors about the disruption of their practices with the introduction of health maintenance organizations (HMOs), you may gain some insight into the kinds of changes the rabbinate is experiencing. I vividly remember a conversation I had in 1985 with a doctor who was an active member of my congregation in Minneapolis. He spoke about how rapidly his practice was changing. Minnesota gave birth to HMOs, and the kinds of pressures doctors still often feel came to Minnesota early. This doctor was a caring and successful specialist, and while he earned a comfortable living, he worked hard and gave of himself to his patients and to the Jewish community. When I met him, he was in mid-career, and I imagine he still maintained a mental picture of what a long, successful practice of medicine looked like, an image based on the experiences of his teachers and mentors.
However, he shared that he was finding that he needed to devote significantly more time to insurance companies, having to balance his belief in high-quality care with the demands of insurance companies that increased his patient load. What was his financial reward? A decrease in compensation! While the current state of health care is still highly problematic and contentious, doctors have had to adjust their practices. Some of these changes are positive. For example, being more discriminating about tests and procedures, involving patients in achieving and maintaining good health, and developing patient outcomes are generally positive trends. Still, doctors face uncertain times and the health-care industry is anything but stable after several decades of change and reform.
This conversation has remained with me after all these years because it gives me context for understanding the restructuring of the rabbinate. Individuals can access educational, spiritual, and cultural resources on their own, independent of congregations. The Chabad movement continues to expand its network of synagogues, minyanim, religious schools, preschools, camps, and college campus houses, and undoubtedly is planning new initiatives. This movement abandoned the typical synagogue financial membership model of “joining” a synagogue for a relationship-based model of involvement. They understood that people who are emotionally connected to a rabbi and community are willing to contribute voluntarily. Chabad’s global reach and its ability to work with families over a lifespan has been a disruptive force for many established synagogues. Similarly, Jewish cultural and social-justice organizations have siphoned interest in Jewish life away from synagogues, causing further instability in the congregational world.
Synagogues and all Jewish organizations must deal with the realities of demographic shifts. Although there is some dispute about the precise percentage, it is likely that the intermarriage rate during the past fifteen years has remained steady, at close to 50 percent.7 Additionally, Jewish fertility rates are very low, and 20 percent of the Jewish population is elderly—a percentage that will continue to grow as the Jewish Boomer population ages.8 When these Jews move to warmer climates, as they often do, they are not always interested in expensive synagogue memberships. Absent a serious investment in strategies to grow the Jewish people through outreach and conversion, demographics present an ominous challenge for synagogues.
We may well be approaching a time when the rabbinate does not offer as many full-time positions as it did in the past century. Even if the congregational rabbinate recovers some of its full-time positions, it seems unlikely we will see a return to the level of full-time employment that existed prior to the economic crash. The congregational and Jewish communal rabbinates are contracting, more because of social, technological, and demographic changes than economic ones. But even with this kind of future, and with awareness of the current structural and economic changes, the rabbinate can hold tremendous fulfillment for those who choose it, as it has throughout the ages.
I hope that the rabbinical seminaries, rabbinical organizations, and congregational organizations will jointly develop a strategy that takes into account these economic and cultural realities so that the highest caliber women and men will enter the rabbinate. Here are some of the questions that I hope a plan would address:
- Is expecting a five- to six-year rabbinical-school education at current tuition levels realistic? As an alternative, could instructional time focus on core requirements in Jewish religious civilization, while also requiring continuing rabbinic education over several years, and, combined with mentoring, supply “practical rabbinics”? Another possibility might be to move the internships, mentorships, and pastoral and organizational curricular components into continuing rabbinic education.
- If stakeholders in rabbinical education would project the number of rabbis that the U.S. Jewish community is likely to need and find that there is a problem of overproduction, would they consider capping academic admissions?
- What are the essential services and roles for congregational rabbis?
- How can rabbinical organizations provide support to rabbis who are experiencing the dislocation of a rabbinate in transition?
Rabbinical education is like highway construction. By the time the work is completed, its capacity is often insufficient, or it does not solve the problems for long. The pace required for rabbinical curricular change does not match the typical institutional review processes generally in place. These issues require a new level of collaboration and creativity. Just as rabbis and congregants must rise to the challenge of collaboration, working together to create a shared, sustainable vision of a positive Jewish future, so must the triad of seminaries, rabbinical, and congregational organizations.
1. See “Rabbinate,” Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem, Israel: Keter Publishing House, 1971), columns 1445–58.
2. Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 31a.
3. Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 113b.
4. Talmud Bavli, Gittin 67b.
5. Talmud Bavli, Megillah 28b.
6. See “Rabbinate” and David Star, A World within a World: The History of the Modern Synagogue,” Re-envisioning the Synagogue, ed. Zachary I. Heller (Boston, MA: National Center for Jewish Policy Studies and STAR [Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal], 2005) 44–49.
7. “Rates of Intermarriage,” National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) 2000–2001, Sept. 2003, http://www.jewishfederations.org/page.aspx?id=46253 .
8. “NJPS: The Elderly,” NJPS 2000–2001, January 21, 2011, http://www.jewishfederations.org/page.aspx?id=45896.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog
Excerpted and adapted from Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today: Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life by Hayim Herring, copyright © 2012 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today: Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life
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Leader: Larry Peers, Alban Senior Consultant April 24-26, 2012
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