By Rabbi Marmur.
Serving a congregation is arguably the least rewarding occupation for rabbis in Israel. It seems that very few derive professional satisfaction and even fewer can make a living from it. That’s why even those who serve congregations embark on parallel careers say in teaching. Among the very Orthodox, some serve in offices that supervise kashrut and civil status. Others also do administrative or managerial work in institutions, and/or conduct B’nei and B’not Mitzvah on demand, especially for visitors from abroad, sometimes combining it with tour guiding.
Some rabbis are tempted by professional politics. Thus the ultra-Orthodox parties have several members of the Knesset who’re rabbis and, in the outgoing Knesset an American-born Orthodox rabbi represents the Yesh Atid party. Having become something of a spokesman for middle-of-the road Anglos in Israel, he’s said to hope to be re-elected.
Now and again a Reform rabbi tries to find a place on a party list. The latest among them is Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. He tried to get an electable spot on the Labour list last time but came in as Number 28 with no chance of getting into the Knesset. He tried again this time in the primaries earlier this week and came in as Number 32, again with no chance.
This may be disappointing for Rabbi Kariv, who’s a very capable and committed person, but I read his failure as very good news. There’s nothing to suggest that rabbis have made a positive contribution to the political life of Israel and there’s even less to suggest that Reform rabbis would make a difference in this respect.
They shouldn’t be blamed for wanting to matter, especially as they see their American counterparts being involved on the local and occasionally national scene far beyond their congregations. In North America and perhaps Europe, the synagogue has been the most important Jewish institution in preserving and promoting Judaism.
Rabbis have mattered so much to Jews in the Diaspora because the Jews they ministered to were often ignorant and needed someone to be Jewish on their behalf. In Israel that’s not necessary because there’s much more to Judaism in the Jewish state than synagogue and, secondly, because many of those who attend synagogue are sufficiently capable to conduct services and even teach without the benefit of clergy. I know a lot of rabbis who’re members of congregations across the denominational divide without any paid role in the management.
The increased level of Jewish education in the Diaspora has in recent years brought something of the same to Jews outside Israel. That’s one reason for the diminished impact of the mega-synagogues of former generations and the growth of small, often informal, groups that manage themselves quite satisfactorily.
Because rabbis matter less in their congregations, they’ve come to matter less in the community at large. This may be bad for rabbis but it’s good for Judaism. It’s tempting for rabbis to be communal politicians because of the added status it affords, but it’s not good for any manifestation of Judaism, especially of the liberal variety, because politics demands compromise and horse trading whereas Jewish teaching expects consistency and integrity. That’s why I’m among the no doubt few Reform Jews to be relieved that no Reform rabbi in Israel will be a member of the next Knesset.