Is the Title “Rabbi” Too Toxic to Work in Israel?
July 20, 2021

The Setting
Prestigious gathering of American and Israeli philanthropists and professional leaders. 

The Dialogue
Bill Lipsey: I’m excited.  I’m starting a family foundation hoping to seed and support the growing field of Israeli community rabbis working to broaden the renaissance of Israeli Judaism.  

Israeli leader: Bill, you don’t understand; in Israel rabbis are shit.

Wow. Talk about conversation stoppers…

Now while the Israeli leader’s response was particularly coarse, the sentiment is not an outlier.   The title “rabbi” has come under hard times in certain segments of Israeli society.

Judaism is making a strong comeback but the term “rabbi” is often still confined to the penalty box. 

As we all know, the title “rabbi” has suffered from charlatans who prey on people’s vulnerabilities and those who have perpetrated horrible abuses of power. We have plenty of this in the States.

But often the title “rabbi” in Israel serves as a lightening rod for people’s pain and anger against the coercive power of the State enshrined Rabbinate

At The Honey Foundation for Israel our mission is to support and enable the developing field of communal spiritual leadership that is building inspiring communities across the broad spectrum of Jewish expression in Israel.  So, we are asking the question – “Is the title “rabbi” too off-putting to the very Israelis we hope to engage?!” 

Is the disaffection in Israeli society so great that even an effort to re-appropriate the term for good would be counter-productive? 

Moreover, what about the Orthodox women leaders who aspire for public communal leadership roles and have yet to settle on titles? And how might we include secular communal leaders who are using Judaism as the organizing conversation to build more connected communities?  What language might we use at the Foundation that would create a welcoming home for all these leaders and their work?  

The Foundation is excited to introduce the language Spiritual Entrepreneurs into this growing field of communal Jewish leadership in Israel. 

The Foundation is committed to elevating the role of communal rabbis within Israeli society.  And we believe the term Spiritual Entrepreneurs, along with serving as an alternative title, has something important to contribute to the traditional work of rabbis.

Our Spiritual Entrepreneurs

Professor Howard Stevenson at The Harvard Business School defined entrepreneurship “as the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled.”

Given our work in Israel with religious leaders who do not have access to the resources that State sponsored religious groups have, we think this sentence perfectly frames the work we wish to catalyze and support.

Others in the business world have unpacked Stevenson’s definitions and we would like to like to offer our own midrash on this sentence and highlight some of the qualities that – in our mind – define entrepreneurial leaders.

Pursuit” – describes a relentless and resilient push towards a clear goal. Our Spiritual Entrepreneurs have an exciting vision of Judaism lived in community that they want to share with others.  A stumble here, and an obstacle there, won’t cause them to abandon their life’s mission. 

Opportunity” – No matter how complicated or how dark the conditions seem to be, the entrepreneur sees the world through the lens of opportunity and possibility.  We recognize the eventual limitations of our various resources: time, money energy, hope. But Spiritual Entrepreneurs transcend narrow thinking to help others see possibility. This optimism emerges out of a religious sense of gratitude (hakarat ha-tov). They deeply feel the great blessings of this moment in history where more and more Israelis are searching within Judaism for authentic and meaningful responses to life’s great questions.  

Our Spiritual Entrepreneurs have the conviction and the confidence that the content of their message has the power to change people and the world.   They possess a flexibility to learn from their mistakes and adapt.

Lastly, the Spiritual Entrepreneur is not afraid to take risks as she pursues her ambitious goals.  The uncertainty of resources or public support will not frighten her into inaction. 

What we find compelling about the term Spiritual Entrepreneur are these future-looking, creative qualities for engaging this work.  

What we find precious about the title “rabbi” is what it stands for.  The title rabbi receives its power and its potential from the discourse it represents, from a three-thousand-year old conversation of meaning-making.  

A rabbi is someone who has taken on a life-mission of service to bring others into a covenantal relationship with Judaism, God and community.

Rabbinic leadership uses Jewish symbols, language, myth and metaphors in order to build communities that feel a sense of responsibility for their members and the larger world.  This sense of connection and responsibility is core to rabbinic work.

Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk (1853-1918) is famously reported to have said that the role of the rabbi is “to redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor and to save the oppressed from the hands of oppressors.”  

This sentence is remembered because it is unexpected.  Rabbi Soloveitchik was a Torah luminary of his generation.  No one ever questioned his commitment to learning or stewarding the spiritual lives of the Jewish people.  The chiddush (novelty) of this statement emerges from the fact, he – as a premier teacher of Torah – expanded the definition of rabbi beyond teaching and learning.  He believed the “rabbi” must assume responsibility for all the needs of the entire community. 

If we make explicit the assumptions behind Rabbi Soloveitchik’s insight, perhaps he would have said:  The role of the rabbi is to teach Torah – broadly understood – in such a way that connects the religious life to the realization of justice and human dignity in the world.  In this way, a rabbi, like an effective entrepreneur, is a disrupter, an agitator, inspiring the community to reach for an aspirational goal.  

The Honey Foundation for Israel will continue to help Israelis reimagine the title “rabbi” and the nature of rabbinic communal work, so that it may have broader resonance within Israeli society.  We are also excited to expand the definition of Jewish communal leadership in Israel by cultivating and supporting those leaders who do not define themselves as rabbis.  

We are proud to partner with a new generation of Israeli Spiritual Entrepreneurs – some of whom call themselves rabbis –all of whom are harnessing the energy of entrepreneurship along with the transformative power of Judaism.