There’s no business like shul business

There’s no business like shul business

I had a conversation recently with a very pleasant and capable young rabbinic colleague. He had an important position with one of the “mainstream” rabbinical schools, and I inquired as to what was new in the field of educating rabbis for the North American Jewish community.

“Rabbinic entrepreneurship,” he replied.

“Rabbinic what?” I said with no small amount of confusion.

“Rabbinic entrepreneurship,” he continued. “Because there are fewer and fewer rabbinic positions available in congregational life, we are teaching our students to become rabbinic entrepreneurs, to set themselves up in self-created businesses where they can earn a living engaging in rabbinic duties.”

He ran down a list of some recent examples of rabbinic entrepreneurs: a rabbi who charged busy professionals to come and teach them in the comfort of their office or home, a rabbi who set up a “floating” synagogue that moved from house to house and created personalized worship experiences for clients, a small group of rabbis who set up their own school for interested lay persons, rabbis who set up websites, and on and on.

I have no doubt that these examples of successful rabbinic entrepreneurships are contributing to the richness of North American Jewry, but there is something about the whole business, pardon the expression, that bothers me. It was only about 15 years ago that congregational rabbis were expected to transform themselves into managers; lay people and even rabbinic colleagues began to speak of the rabbi as CEO, and a variety of programs emerged designed to impart the latest business knowledge and tools to congregational rabbis (I know; I took some of them).

Half a decade ago, the emphasis shifted from management to marketing; rabbis were expected to learn the skills necessary to “market” their “product” in order to compete in a rapidly shrinking and competitive environment. Now we have reached the logical conclusion, and many rabbis unable to find positions in congregations are now entrepreneurs, selling their knowledge and experience to “customers” while competing with similarly situated business “rivals.”

The collapsing economy has transformed entire businesses and professions, and it is no wonder that the rabbinate has followed suit. Ask any physician or lawyer if practicing their profession is the same as it was 20 years ago, and they will give you an exasperated and scornful (and exhausted) look. But there is something particularly worrisome about the transformation of the rabbi from teacher and preacher and pastor to entrepreneur, and it is not only because I make my living as a congregational rabbi (very happily, I may add).

Two millennia ago the sages cautioned rabbis not to use the Torah “as a spade to dig with,” and that advice is as relevant today as it was centuries ago. The Jewish community needs rabbis to be courageous and inspired teachers of Torah; to be exemplars of a life lived according to the morals and dictates of our tradition; to speak out against injustice, cruelty, hypocrisy, and fraud. In business “the customer is always right” but in the moral and ethical realm in which we rabbis should live, the customer is not only not always right, sometimes she or he needs to be confronted with the full weight and moral power of Judaism. A rabbi whose living depends solely on the success of his or her rabbinic “business” is hardly likely to risk offending his or her only source of income.

My challenge is actually to the members of the laity out there who care deeply about the future of the Jewish people and Judaism. Let rabbis be rabbis. Let them learn Torah and teach Torah and preach Torah. Let them instruct and scold, comfort and cajole. Let rabbis challenge you. Support institutions that employ rabbis — synagogues and houses of learning and yeshivot and day schools. Demand of your rabbi not that she or he know how to market the latest educational or programmatic gimmick or how to post on YouTube. Demand rather that she or he be a literate and deeply knowledgeable Jew who can teach Judaism in a meaningful and inspirational way — a way that can touch your heart and soul.

All of us, rabbis and laity together, will be better for it.

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