Shalom Hammer

Orthodox rabbis: Business as usual

Forbes' list of Israel's richest Jewish clerics highlights an Orthodox establishment that could use a new set of priorities

Those who pursue the rabbinate as a career confront a certain amount of cynicism from the broader Jewish community, which to this day continues to insist that being a rabbi is not a job for a nice Jewish boy. Twenty-six years ago, when I informed my grandmother that I was going to study to become a rabbi, she responded by insisting that I really did not know what I was doing with my life. I often contemplated the roots of this negativity and came to the conclusion that it was an issue of practicality; it is difficult to achieve financial security working on the salary of a rabbi.

A few days ago I came across an article in The Times of Israel entitled “Meet Israel’s richest rabbis,” which revealed that this assertion was not necessarily true. The article began with the premise that “giving out blessings proves to be a lucrative business” as the “rabbi industry” bankrolls over one billion shekels a year, followed by a list of the ten richest rabbis in Israel whose fortunes span anywhere from 30 million to over a billion shekel. What’s more, the article claims that the rabbi’s activities are difficult to monitor and therefore not always reported to the tax authority, which can give rise to much higher estimates than what was actually reported.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that rabbis have every right to make a good living; in fact I am all for it and would love to experience it one day. However, one who recognizes the value and integrity that the rabbinate should represent must also recognize that the terms “rabbi” and “industry” should never mix. If giving blessings is coined a lucrative business, then there is something fundamentally wrong and religiously inept with an institution that is supposed to embody modesty, integrity and spiritual substance; particularly an Orthodox rabbinate that claims to be authentic and is therefore privy to exclusive halakhic authority in Israel.

Rabbi Nir Ben-Artzi is one of Israel's richest rabbis according to Forbes, with an estimated worth of NIS 100,000,000 (photo credit: CC BY-SA אמת ואמונה, Wikipedia)
Rabbi Nir Ben-Artzi is one of Israel's richest rabbis according to Forbes, with an estimated worth of NIS 100,000,000 (photo credit: CC BY-SA אמת ואמונה, Wikipedia)

Perhaps it was not a coincidence that the exposé of the rabbi’s salaries was revealed around the same week that Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein accepted the legitimacy of rabbis from non-Orthodox communities following a long struggle by Reform and Conservative rabbis to be recognized officially and authoritatively by the State of Israel. The ramifications of this so-called recognition remains to be seen, but as an Orthodox rabbi — while I reject the Conservative and Reform platform, and although I believe that the Orthodox voice can and should remain the sole authority in Israel with regards to Jewish law — I recognize that there is a price you pay for waving the banner of halakhic legitimacy, one that demands moral and ethical standards of pristine behavior and one which the Orthodox rabbinate has yet to achieve.

The official Orthodox rabbinate in Israel exhibits a lack of diplomacy and sensitivity, particularly toward many secular Jews who may not understand — nor at this point wish to understand — religious law, but are nonetheless subject to it. For example, a secular Israeli who wants to marry must register at the rabbinate of their local municipality and pay a considerable fee to a rabbi with whom they are usually unfamiliar and whom they may meet for the first time at the wedding. This same rabbi will often coarsely ask for payment immediately following the ceremony as he hurriedly leaves the hall. Many times this is the first and last contact the secular Jew will have with an Orthodox rabbi, and it can leave the impression that “giving blessings can prove to be a lucrative business.”

Rabbis must adopt diplomacy and sensibility as much as they consider halakhic discourse; they have no right approaching religiosity as one would approach a business. I firmly believe that had the official Orthodox rabbinate of Israel been more sensitive in its dealings with Conservative and Reform Jews and their rabbis — by interacting with them, discussing issues with them and inviting them to partake in various forums and even certain official ceremonies — this entire call for recognition may never have surfaced. Instead, the official Orthodox rabbinate continues to suffer from its irrelevance as it is not recognized by the Haredi sector, remains ineffective in national religious circles, and is perceived as intrusive by secular Israelis.

About the Author
Rabbi Shalom Hammer currently serves as a lecturer for the IDF to help motivate troops in all divisions and infuse Jewish Identity. In addition he is currently involved in his own initiative offering lectures throughout the country on the basics of Judaism to many Secular Kibbutzim and Moshavim. He also serves as a lecturer for The Menachem Begin Heritage Center and has authored four books. Rabbi Hammer is a renowned guest lecturer for communities throughout the Diaspora.