Corruption in the rabbinate is upsetting, but unsurprising. We deserve integrity and honesty, we should expect and demand it, but in the end, people are people, and it’s only natural that, given temptation and power, some will falter. What is far more upsetting, even tragic, is the corruption of the very concept of the rabbinate.
In Israel, the word most closely associated in people’s minds with ‘rabbi’ is ‘coercion’. I’m not only talking about the understanding of secular, or anti-religious Israelis. Depending on religious outlook, some people may see this coercion as more or less positive, or more or less necessary. But all share the axiom: bakers bake, teachers teach, and rabbis try to make you do things.
This misconception of the function of the rabbi is the natural outgrowth of something which initially seemed like a great boon- the return of real rabbinic power in the state of Israel, which had essentially disappeared in the modern era. This gift has become a curse, as reliance on power has replaced persuasion, and coercion has replaced conversation. Why rail and sermonize about keeping Shabbat, Kashrut, or family purity laws when you can simply legislate it?
Where did we go wrong?
In chapter 35 of Bamidbar, spiritual leadership goes local. Replacing the priests who starred in the book of Vayikra, it is the Levites who have taken a central role in Bamidbar. But as the Jewish people are preparing to enter the land of Israel, the way to fill that role is about to change. As holiness in the book of Vayikra moved from being centralized in the Mishkan to being diffused among all the nation, the tribe of Levi move from being concentrated together surrounding the Mishkan, to being scattered amongst all the tribes.
‘Levi’ literally means to be a companion. The role of the Levi is to provide spiritual accompaniment. What else are they doing in the cities of refuge, if not providing solace and spiritual guidance to ordinary people whose tragic circumstances have turned them into killers? The tribe that carried the burden of the Mishkan moves to the cities to carry the burdens of the Jewish people.
What is the proper function of a rabbi? Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik quoted this answer from his grandfather Reb Chaim: “To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.”