Gavin Michal

Corporate Judaism

The other day I saw a Meshulach standing at the gate of a friend’s house. He wanted a donation. He was holding a large leather bag. I later asked my friend what was in the bag.

It was a laptop. He must have been a corporate Meshulach.

Yes we have truly arrived at the dawning of a new age.

I remember years ago, listening to visiting Torah speakers who had come to talk to us and inspire us. They taught because they loved to teach. Today, however, many of these speakers are so polished, sophisticated and professional, that they will not speak without a fee. Their PowerPoint presentations are just as audited as are their finances.

There is a growing trend for youngsters to get paid to attend shiurim and even dinners. (Yes I’m aware of all the arguments in support of such practices, but still something about it doesn’t seem right.)

Unsuspecting congregants are often invited to Shabbat dinners at the private homes of communal leaders. The guests feel so honored and get so excited. Little do they realize that they sometimes merely fill mealtime quotas required by legal contracts between the community and its rabbi.

Torah schools are starting to ‘upgrade’ as well. Corporate principles and good governance  practices are grafted onto old establishments. The results are often top heavy, tiresome and bureaucratic, but without the prestige or share options offered by the secular institutions they try emulate. And the children pay the price for an education that is too well oiled and clinical.

I know of an instance where a rabbi has to forward copies to the lay leadership of all proposed talks, for prior approval. So much independence of thought must surely be lost when a rabbi is ‘upgraded’ to the level of a professional employee.

I also know of a rabbi who was asked not to bring his children to shul with him, because professional people do not go to work with their children.

Yet, notwithstanding all the above, the amazing thing is – it works!

This is how modern day religious Judaism operates.

All these social constructs are in fact necessary for the day to day functioning of the communal machine.

The question, though, is what exactly are you looking for?

Do you just want to be a member of a comforting whole, or are you looking for greater meaning and depth?

Do you know the difference between ‘community’ and ‘spirituality’? Or, as Rabbi Soloveitchik says, between religious culture and religious faith.

The Kotzker Rebbe says; “One should only seek the path of Torah from a person who is not subjugated to anyone or anything in this world. Only he who is free and not subservient, is a worthy teacher. Furthermore, this freedom must be so real that he knows it and feels it in his heart.”[1]

In this statement, the Kotzker makes the point that as long a spiritual leader is beholden to something that others may not even be aware of – while he might still be effective and professional, he may not be a real Torah leader.

This sweeping view probably disqualifies much of our contemporary religious leadership worldwide, but the point is nevertheless well taken: The Torah is called ‘cheirut’ (freedom). It makes sense then for some of that freedom to be more pervasive.

In a striking example of how subservience clouds the mind of the Torah teacher, I heard about one of the great modern rebbes who was known to be rather strict in his teachings and rulings. Apparently though, his nature was the exact opposite. He was more lenient and far less pedantic than his followers realized. His assistants, however, had to continually demand that he come across stricter than he really was. They said that he would lose credibility among his own followers were he perceived to be too open minded. He obliged. Only a handful of people knew about this, and the question begs as to how true his teachings were, even though they were widely accepted.

On the other hand, take someone like the Maharal of Prague (1525 – 1609). He proposed some rather radical teachings. He was not pressured to simply supply what was demanded. He said that he did not have to worry about the influential few, as he had sufficient means of his own to comfortably ignore them. That’s exactly what he did. And now we have a collection of his writings expounding some of the deepest teachings ever.

How can we find a teacher in this slick modern world of ours, who does not have to depend on one form of subservience or another?

Why did we create this covertly hierarchical system of Torah transmission where our leaders are becoming more like CEO’s than CEO’s?

Where can we learn Torah from the mind of a teacher who is strong enough to, as the Kotzker says, know and feel freedom in his heart?

[1] Emet ve Emunah, p. 119, par. 4.

About the Author
Rabbi Gavin Michal is fascinated by the psychology of belief, the difference between belief and superstition, and by whether religion makes people better or worse. Besides being a community rabbi, he is also a helicopter pilot, builds drones for anti-poaching, and restores vintage aircraft to flying condition.