Monday, January 5, 2009

Love Work and Despise High Position

Prior to the Yavneh period Torah scholars received minimal support from Temple funds, however during the Yavneh period a tradition began emerging where community was encouraged to support its rabbis. However many if not most scholars were reluctant to accept support from the community. They continued to practice their skills and crafts as cobblers, smiths, scribes maintaining their independence and intellectual integrity. They based this position on the Tanna D’bei Eliahu 5:2 which believed that a scholar should live off his own toil.

Throughout the centuries some of our greatest Torah scholars actually worked for a living (astonishing, but true). The Ibn Ezra, the Rambam, the Ramban, the Ran, the Sforno were physicians. Others such as Bahya Ibn Pakuda the Ravad and the Ralbag were philosophers or astronomers. Sages such as Rabenu Tam, the Rashba were involved in finance. Others were involved in the trades. Rava Abaye traded in wines. Some such as the Rashbam was a sheep farmer and the Ramchal was a diamond cutter. Rashi was a vintner. Later scholars like the Hafetz Chaim maintained a grocery or made their livings in other mundane ways.

Clearly our tradition encouraged work, looking unfavorably at being “professional” Jews. Pirkei Avot 1:10 clearly prefers work when it states “love work and despise high position (interpreted to be the rabbinate). Somehow the Jewish community over the years has taken this statement from Perek and stood it on its head – inverting the paradigm. Now it would appear that “loving a high position and despairing work” is the operative message. There was good reason for this somewhat cynical approach. By being independent of the community leadership the rabbi was able to exercise moral and ethical leadership over a community that was in need of his spiritual counsel. Receiving a paycheck from the very same community would have compromised this ability. Rabbis of today are in a far distant place from their predecessors. The rabbis of today, regardless of affiliation are knee deep in dirty politics and the politics of survival. They are compromised the moment they sign the contract. In essence they have abnegated their ability to lead as required by the semicha tradition they have received.

Now however there is a new twist, one that further eviscerates the position of the rabbi in the community. He has been reduced to being a CEO or a COO depending on the configuration and needs of the board. He is no longer the wise sage of the community, but one who gets down and dirty in the quagmire of fund raising and management of funds and people. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business has started a new executive education program for rabbis. Accordingly, the program has been designed to teach rabbis how to manage and run the synagogue as though it were a business and they were businessmen. This is in answer to the current economic downturn (recession) which has adversely affected synagogues. Membership in synagogues and temples are at all time lows and this is compounded by the fact that many members have been affected by the recession causing them to triage their expenditures. Paying synagogue dues may no longer be a priority.

The big budgets of the synagogues can no longer be met by the conventional methods hitherto used. Kellogg has stepped in to assist and in so doing has repackaged and redefined the rabbi’s position, rendering him yet another “shick yingel” for the board. Some of these rabbis are so far gone that they actually believe this training will render them more effective rabbis. One rabbi in particular had the temerity to say “that we have such a rich rabbinic training with so little management training….” It would appear that this pathetic rabbi never understood what the role of a rabbi is or how he should lead.

Perhaps this new Kellogg program which will undoubtedly proliferate around the country is a good thing. Perhaps it is really the proverbial writing on the wall. Maybe the days of the big synagogue like the outdoor theater is a thing of the past as is the “big three”. As the “big three” have become dinosaurs, struggling to survive for one more quarter so too the big synagogues are doing their swan dance. Perhaps the time has come when we downsized to smaller prayer communities, to chavurot, to personal and intimate places of learning where there are no big building funds no big budgets and dapper CEO’s serving as rabbis.