Eliezer Melamed

The role of a rabbi today

The Status of Rabbis in the Past and their Present Decline

In recent generations, the role of rabbis has become complex and ambiguous. In previous generations the community rabbi, or mara d’atra (local rabbinic authority), was responsible for Torah study and its observance. Under his leadership there were Torah classes for adults, and an educational framework for children. He and his beit din (court) instructed halakha in regards to what was permissible or forbidden, and decided the law in interpersonal relations and between husband and wife. The rabbi was also a party in representing the community before the government.

In the last few generations, the traditional Jewish community has disintegrated. Among the reasons for this: a change in the laws of government that made Jews partners in the overall administration, and thus, reduced the autonomy of the community. In addition, the strengthening of the status of Admorim (Rebbe’s) and Roshei Yeshivot (heads of Torah academies) depleted the role and authority of the rabbis to a large extent. Rabbis were left with the relatively technical role of arranging religious affairs, such as the supervision of kashrut and mikva’s, solving problems concerning Shabbat observance and the synagogue, and laws of marriage and divorce.

Moreover, the social and cultural revolutions caused by modernity created great confusion in respect to rabbis. The values of liberty and freedom eroded people’s attitude towards authoritative figures – particularly when they spoke in the name of religion. Academia taught to raise doubt towards all traditions of the past. The accessibility of information also decreased the status of rabbis, since answers to questions could be found in various books, and nowadays, also in computerized databases.

Questions about the Present Role of Rabbis

So what is the role of rabbis today? Communities searching for a rabbi also ponder this question. Some look for a rabbi who can connect with children and the youth, a young rabbi, happy and enthusiastic – and if he knows how to put on a show, all the better. Others look for a rabbi who can give beautiful and dignified sermons at the celebrations of community members, and knows how to pay tribute to the community leaders and synagogue directors – in short, a rabbi with political skills. In certain communities he will need to wear a frock; others will prefer he wear a jacket and trim his beard. Some congregations look for a rabbi who knows how to unite the community and make peace among its members; preferably, someone who has a degree in psychology, and is relaxed and accommodating. And then there are communities whose members are yireh Shamayim (fearers of Heaven), looking for rabbis who can decide halakha and are experts in the laws of insects and all other matters of caution in the fields of kashrut and tzniyut (modesty) – in brief, a serious and respectable person.

The problem is that many times, even after carefully defining their requirements, the community was proven wrong. The happy rabbi who was able to communicate with the kids had a few discussions and activities in his bag that he remembered from his youth, but beyond that, had nothing to say to the kids. The dignified rabbi found himself additional pursuits beyond those of the community, while the personal problems of the community members and the effort of preparing classes became too burdensome and small time for him. Indeed, the relaxed and accommodating rabbi never quarreled with anyone, but he also failed to uplift the community, and only a few people participated in his classes. Only the yireh Shamayim who searched for a rabbi who could decide halakha were able to find one, because they carefully defined what they were looking for. After a while, though, it usually becomes clear to the members of the community that a rabbi needs spiritual inspiration as well, otherwise, he will not know how to deal with the larger problems.

Torah Study

Indeed, it is extremely difficult to serve in the rabbinate these days. The congregation wants the rabbi to be able to inspire the serious youth, and also prevent the other teens from leaving the fold. He should resolve conflicts, but not be authoritarian. He can rule on halakha for the community and the individual, but on the other hand, his rulings should not offend any of the members. It is impossible to fulfill all these requirements and expectations.

Seemingly, the one solution to all these problems lies in the precise definition of a rabbi’s main role: learning and teaching! Different rabbis have surely done many other important things in their community, but the basis of it all was built on the Torah and its study. Especially today, when doubts abound, we must return to the source, and grab onto it with all our might.

This is the main test of every rabbi: if, thanks to him, the members of the community learn more Torah – he has succeeded. If not – he has failed. And the test is twofold: quantitative, and qualitative. The number of hours the members of the community learn, and the quality of their learning.

How to Achieve This: Torah Classes

For this purpose, the rabbi should establish numerous classes – in halakha and aggadah, in Tanach and mussar – before and after every tefillah. Classes should be held in the synagogue, and also in private homes. And even if in the beginning only a few people attend, he should learn with them, thus improving his ability to explain, and reveal the deep ideas in halakha and aggadah, until more people join the classes. At the same time, he should encourage the other talmidei chachamim in the community to also give classes, thereby increasing Torah study.

Thus, the entire community will go from ‘strength to strength’, peace and joy will increase between husbands and wives, their observance of kashrut and tzniyut will grow stronger, their prayers will be full of meaning, their children’s education will be enhanced, more charity will be given, they will enhance the mitzvoth of Oneg Shabbat, and reveal a willingness to volunteer for community affairs.

If the rabbi tried to teach in various ways for an extended period of time, but was unsuccessful – he probably is not suited for the job, at least not in the same community.

However, there could be a case where a rabbi fails to increase Torah study, but is very successful in his secondary roles, for instance kashrut supervision and performing weddings, adding a dignified presence in the members’ celebrations, and leadership in the prayer services and the synagogue. Since he is very beneficial in these fields, it would be a shame for him to leave the leadership of the community, despite failing to fulfill his main role. Nonetheless, he should make use of his position to bring other talmidei chachamim to augment Torah classes in the community.

A Torah Community

As the community becomes more Torah oriented, the rabbi’s role becomes one of a higher quality. He will be required to delve into significant and profound issues, to labor more diligently over his studies and clarify the foundations. He may teach fewer classes, but his lessons will be important and thorough, significantly inspiring the entire community, and all the other classes held there.

Financing the Torah Classes

Presently, almost all classes given in synagogues are done voluntarily. This is very admirable on the part of the volunteers, but in practice, since they work on a volunteer basis, they do not provide a complete solution to all the needs of the community.

It would be fitting to move the majority of kollel’s to cities throughout the country, and establish Torah classes in synagogues that would suit every Jew – young and old, men and women. Classes should be given in all fields of halakha and aggadah, dealing with the individual, the family, and the nation, and a respectable compensation should be provided to rabbis and yeshiva students who teach the classes.

A Proposed Amendment to the Law of Municipal Rabbis

The Justice Minister recently suggested an amendment to the law of municipal rabbis. Until now the authority to decide on the dismissal of a municipal rabbi was in the hands of the rabbinical courts, and the new proposal is that at the head of the panel will sit a secular judge, together with a dayan and a rabbi. The appealing court for their decision would be the secular Supreme Court, and the Justice Minister would be in charge of the process.

This proposal is destructive and should be opposed. If rabbis and judges are already being shuffled, a rabbinical court should have been established to examine the judges themselves, as will be the case, God willing, in the not too distant future. In any event, no secular judge can be appointed to determine the procedures of the Rabbinate.

It is further mentioned in this proposal that prohibitions of “classified political party activities” will be placed on rabbis. In other words, it will be forbidden for a rabbi to voice politically controversial views, or to make statements considered prohibited according to the norms of the secular courts. This means that it will be forbidden for a rabbi to say that we must settle all parts of the Land of Israel, and that any withdrawal from it is forbidden and dangerous. He will also be prohibited from saying that it is forbidden to travel on Shabbat, and that homosexual interaction is forbidden by the Torah; and if he does talk about it, the Justice Minister can act to ouster him.

The role of a rabbi is to study and teach Torah. Since the Torah deals with life, in any case, he is obligated by Torah law to express himself on topical issues in accordance with the conclusions of his studies. Such a bill is aimed directly against Torah study and its authority.

In such a situation, all other proposals of the Justice Minister concerning matters of religion and law should be rejected.

Hidden Unemployment in the I.D.F.

In a recent article in the newspaper ‘Yediot Achronot’ (1/24/14), reporter Yossi Yehoshua wrote that the I.D.F. is trying to handle one of the ills familiar to nearly all Israeli’s – the hidden unemployment of thousands of soldiers on home-front bases. This involves thousands of soldiers who arrive for two or three hours a day, and for only three or four days a week. They cost the army a great deal of money, and are ineffective. According to a senior officer in the Human Resources Branch, “30% of the soldiers serving in administrative positions could be done away with, without anyone noticing”. But in order to sustain the model of a ‘People’s Army’, unnecessary functions were created for them. This is a very sensitive issue from a national and social perspective, expressing the collapse of the model of a ‘People’s Army’. In the meantime, one of the solutions raised in the Human Resources Branch is to shorten compulsory service for soldiers to two years. The problem is, there is a lack of combat soldiers, and consequently, such soldiers must serve for three years. Therefore, a proposal was made to pay them a salary for the third year.

Repeal the Mandatory Conscription Law for Women

Indeed, this is a serious problem. It’s only a shame that all the various experts did not suggest a simple solution that would answer a significant part of the problem – repealing the mandatory conscription law for women. Strange as it sounds, Israel is the only country in the world with a law of compulsory conscription for women. This reality costs a great deal of money to the Israeli economy – both in maintaining the female soldiers, many of whom suffer from hidden unemployment, and also, because it delays their professional studies and entrance into the work force by two years. It also hinders women from starting families. Apparently, the only reason for preserving the compulsory law for women’s conscription in Israel is the devout belief in equality between the sexes. For sure, there are female soldiers who are very useful to the army, but they can serve in exchange for a handsome salary, without obligating all other women to do compulsory service.

Today, roughly 30% of compulsory soldiers in the army are women. If women’s mandatory conscription was repealed, many jobs would be vacated that male soldiers would be able to fill, and thus, the model of a ‘People’s Army’ could be maintained, with all men obligated to do military service.
Additionally, the problem of lack of motivation would also partially be solved, because this problem stems from the fact that soldiers do not have meaningful roles. There is no reason to come and serve everyday when one sits around and does nothing. Their idleness is contagious, and contaminates other soldiers who could have served in battle corps or combat support units.

The issues of modesty and sexual harassment would also be solved, making it easier for the Haredi and Torani communities to serve in the army with greater dedication.

This article appears in the ‘Basheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.


About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed; The writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper; His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English; Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at:
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