Tuesday, July 06, 2004

1966 Letter to Tradition

A reader has e-mailed a letter published in the Fall 1966 issue of Tradition. The letter is a response to an article in the prior issue by Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, who was appointed Chief Rabbi of Britain later that year.


Rabbi Jakobovits in his "Rabbis and Deans" (TRADITION, Summer 1966) gives vent to the feelings of frustration and despair that seemingly envelop much of the Orthodox rabbinate of North America. Probably these feelings increase in proportion to the intelligence and vigor which the individual rabbi brings to his task. It is not difficult for even those who may disagree with much of his diagnosis to sympathize with Rabbi Jakobovits and to understand why his observations have drawn an encouraging response from many readers of TRADITION. But this sympathy should not blur the gratuitous nature of many of Rabbi Jakobovits' remarks, and after much consideration I offer these comments on the rabbi's unknowledgeable dicta regarding Roshei Yeshiva.

The plight of the Orthodox rabbi is real; and, yet, there is no logic or evidence in support of the notion that the problem is somehow rooted in the very recent ascendancy in this country of a small group of hard-working Roshei Yeshiva. The relative success of the deans has not come at the expense of the rabbis, and their loss of function or debunking them will not result in a return to the rabbinate of the functions that are thought to be within its competence.

The key to Rabbi Jakobovits' displeasure is what he regards as "The denigration and usurpation of the role of the practicing rabbi by yeshiva deans" which has undermined the place and functions of the rabbinate. His solution is "the restoration of rabbinic authority."

No, "denigration" and "usurpation" suggest a conscious and deliberate effort by the deans to (1) lower the prestige of the rabbis by (2) unfairly assuming their functions. How the activity of the Roshei Yeshiva has denigrated rabbis is hard to understand, particularly when we consider that a generation ago, when Roshei Yeshiva were not as prominent, many observers of American Judaism predicted the disappearance of Orthodoxy, except if the rabbis have been more lowly regarded because they have suffered by comparison with the deans. As to usurpation, the charge is totally unjustified. The few Roshei Yeshiva have not taken over functions performed by rabbis.

No one will gainsay, I suppose, that the weakness of the rabbinate is part of the more general problem of its dysfunctional (or, non-functional) nature. Except rarely, the rabbi is not the appointed leader of a community (the institution of community being a considerable broader one then the synagogue) but the hired spiritual leader of a synagogue, an institution whose major manifestation is usually a building. Rooted in a synagogue which in turn is rooted in land, the rabbi, with few exceptions, has not been able to establish an organic relationship with the total Jewish community, and thus handicapped he has been separated from the coronary functions of community. For this the Roshei Yeshiva are not at fault and they must not be made to bear the burden for the unfortunate image of rabbis as "expedient fund-raising agents." In fact, I think that there are some rather common-sense explanations for this development; however, if we are to conceptualize, we should recognized that, divorced from community dynamics and without living relationship with Jewish communal functions, functions which throughout much of the history of American Jewry were not alive in the areas where so many of our rabbis practiced, a considerable number of rabbis have rather welcomed the function of fund-raising.

The Roshei Yeshiva have filled a vacuum and are contributing mightily, and at great sacrifice, to the development of a viable Orthodoxy, a functional Orthodoxy. In doing this they contribute to the possible evolution of a more functional rabbinate; no doubt in the course of their activity they become involved (often reluctantly) in many things that take them outside of the yeshiva, including fund-raising. The growing health of religious Judaism is a tribute to their work. We are far better off because of them; this is the meaning of the respect in which they are held by the bulk of the rank and file of committed Jews. To substitute for this meaning the charge of usurpation is not merely to indulge in unfortunate name-calling; additionally, it is to distort the historical record. What Rabbi Jakobovits objects to is the loss of rabbinic authority which he sees as transferred to the deans. I have already said that by and large American rabbis are not communal appointees. Apart from this it is amazing to hear that non-functional rabbis are, by virtue of their contracts, vested with an authority superior to that of Roshei Yeshiva whose authority is earned by virtue of their deeds (and not simply because of "mere wisdom or learning" as Rabbi Jakobovits suggests). And this amazement grows when we recall that a charge leveled against Roshei Yeshiva, most often from the Orthodox left, is that they restrict themselves too much to the yeshivot and do not vigorously lead the Orthodox community at a time when there is a paucity of leaders. In short, what they are advised to do, if we accept Rabbi Jakobovits' classification, is to usurp rabbinical authority. At any rate, the few rabbis who are the heads of kehilot and whose activities encompass a broad range of communal functions, such as chinuch and kashrut, need not and do not feel themselves threatened by the Roshei Yeshiva.

The short answer to Rabbi Jakobovits' complaint that rabbinic jurisdiction - essentially the determination of Jewish law - has been transferred to "academic scholars" is that American rabbis regularly serve as the transferring agents when they go to Roshei Yeshiva for guidance on halakhic matters.

Rabbi Jakobovits' solution for this problem (I am, of course, unconvinced that there is a problem) is based primarily on his analysis of three desiderata that are inherent in the exercise of rabbinical jurisdiction and which are not present (when they decide questions) in "yeshiva deans who are remote from the concerns of contemporary society." The three requisites are relevance, sweet reasonableness, and a measure of tolerance. How and why practicing rabbis are automatically vested with these virtues I do not know; nor can I accept the crude, stereotypic, non-intellectual, blanket description of Roshei Yeshiva, particularly the ironic assertion that they are lacking in tolerance. Is this true of Rav Moshe Feinstein, a Rosh Yeshiva in the United States for about thirty years? Is he remote from contemporary society, "shielded from pressures of public opinion, and conditioned by the unquestioning loyalty of ... (his) yeshiva students"?

Rabbi Jakobovits says some sensible things about the role and training of a posek. Unfortunately he misdirects his attention to Roshei Yeshiva who, in fact, by and large, are not poskim. Perusal of Hapardes and Hamaor will show that it is the rabbis who produce the responsa. Indeed, the two cases included in the blanket condemnation of deans find Rabbi Jakobovits in support of the rulings of a Rosh Yeshiva and in opposition to many rabbis. Thus, the "violent agitation" that he speaks of against liberal decisions regarding artificial insemination and the Manhattan eruv mostly came from rabbis - and the leading rabbi-critic, the Satmar Rov, has credentials as the appointed leader of a community that may well be unmatched by any other rabbi in America.

Another charge is that yeshivot dicourage rabbinical careers. There is no evidence to support the allegation and I know of no Roshei Yeshiva who prefer that their musmachim go on to college to become accountants and lawyers rather than practicing rabbis. It may well be that the constant talk of American rabbis, of the low state of their profession, of the compromises and hardships, contributes significantly to the unattractiveness of the profession in the eyes of yeshiva graduates; my notion is that all this has little to do with rabbinical recruitment, that external factors such as the accessibility and attractiveness of other professions usually determine yeshiva student attitudes toward the rabbinate as a profession.
It is hard to understand Rabbi Jakobovits' criticism of yeshivot for not producing Zevuluns, devout businessmen and professionals. For, in fact, this is what the American yeshivot of today are doing their best; each year they graduate many hundreds of committed Jews who go on to college and then a career. Rabbi Jakobovits seems to recognize this elsewhere in his discussion; at least he should not criticize the yeshivot for discouraging rabbinical careers and also for not producing sufficient number of Zevuluns.

The indictment that yeshivot (and by implication, Roshei Yeshiva, too) stifle a sense of communal responsibility is unfortunate - and untrue. For example, "the dearth of Torah-committed members in our major Orthodox synagogues does not excuse the yeshivot - it indicts them," is both reckless and in disregard of the historical record as we know it. It is much more valid, although still somewhat shoddy from the historical standpoint, to indict the rabbis and synagogue leaders for their failure to develop a chinukh system which might have prevented the depletion of the synagogues.

Finally, I cannot accept Rabbi Jakobovits' tortured conception of communal responsibility "as expressed, in the first instance, by active membership in established congregations." Membership in a synagogue alone indicates nothing about the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the Jewish community; certainly most synagogue members are nothing more than just that. On the other hand, deprecation of shtibels as "communally ineffective" is an unjustified canard that unfortunately finds acceptance in certain supposedly sophisticated sections of the Orthodox community. There may be some good reasons for criticizing the shtibels, but I doubt that the lack of communal responsibility is one of them. I happen to belong to a shtibel consisting of about one-hundred young American men. I also happen to believe that no synagogue in America has a better record of community support than this shtibel.

These and other similar comments by Rabbi Jakobovits mar whatever value there is in certain of his points regarding the state of the American rabbinate. By gratuitously and unfairly condemning Roshei Yeshiva he lost an opportunity to discuss, in an enlightened way, the means by which we can have a true restoration of rabbinic authority.

Marvin Schick
Bronx, New York.