Reading Rambam on the Rabbi-Community Relationship

-Initially posted on

Contemporary Halakhah, the study of a set of texts with an eye toward legal application, is a well-trodden, time-honored approach to Torah study. But there is a potential cost to this goal-oriented method of learning: when we examine selected sources in an attempt to derive practical conclusions, we tend to view the subject matter incompletely, and run the risk of missing key insights along the way.

In this vein, it is worth (re)examining Rambam’s classic comments regarding accepting handouts in exchange for Torah study. The stinging criticisms that appear in his Commentary to Avot (4:6) and his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Torah Study 3:101) are commonly considered in light of the current controversy surrounding studying in kollel. Indeed, these analyses have yielded many important avenues of inquiry. Viewing Rambam’s position through a historical lens, some have hypothesized that Rambam was responding to a contemporary situation he found loathsome.2 Others have underscored just how innovative and controversial Rambam’s ruling was and remains.3

But these vantage points are limited, and, as noted by Jay Handel, can lead one to miss key elements in Rambam’s thinking. This essay aims to fill in that lacunae, and to demonstrate another contemporary perspective – if not Halakhah per say – that emerges from a careful reading of the relevant texts. To get there, let’s start from the beginning: what reasoning does Rambam provide for his sharp censure?

Bases for the Objection

In his Commentary to Avot, Rambam hints to one basis for his objection:

For [the rabbis] already warned against unnecessary consumption, and they said: “Any Torah scholar who engages in many meals in any location, etc.” And they said: “Any meal that is not tied to a mitzvah – a Torah scholar may not derive benefit from it.”

This monastic motif is especially accented in Mishneh Torah, where Rambam dedicates the four preceding halakhot (Laws of Torah Study 3:6-9) to insisting that one who wishes to study Torah must subsist on “bread with salt” (3:6) and get along with a frugal lifestyle. Moreover, “the words of Torah will not be found in the arrogant or in the hearts of the haughty, but rather in the humble and lowly, who sit in the dust at the feet of the Sages and remove the desires and pleasures of the times from their hearts” (3:9). Against this backdrop, Rambam transitions into his treatment of handouts, implying that one may not accept charity in exchange for Torah study because such behavior contravenes the humble ethos of the aspiring scholar. In adopting this position, Rambam echoes Max Kadushin’s depiction of rabbinic abnegation,4 which Norman Lamm once called a sort of “soft asceticism.”5 For Rambam and the rabbis, carnal pleasure is not, as many Christian thinkers maintain, intrinsically repugnant, but nonetheless should be dramatically curtailed by one who aspires to mastery of Torah.

Beyond the scholar’s austere lifestyle, however, there is a second concern at play. In opening his treatment in Mishneh Torah, Rambam thunders:

Anyone who believes in his heart that one ought occupy oneself with Torah and not work, but support oneself with charity, behold, this one desecrates the Divine name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil to oneself and forfeits life in the world to come, because it is forbidden to benefit from the words of Torah in this world.

In what way does such an individual desecrate God’s name and dishonor the Torah? While in Mishneh Torah the precise nature of this hilul Hashem is not immediately clear, Rambam clarifies in his Commentary to the Mishnah:

This is a desecration of God’s name for the masses, for they will think of the Torah as a profession like any of the professions, and he will thus render it “the despised word of God.”

In other words, one who accepts community funds in exchange for learning diminishes public respect for the Torah scholar, for such behavior will lead people to “think of the Torah as a profession like any of the professions.” Rambam reserves perhaps his sharpest tongue-lashing for those who, by accepting aid, devalue the unique position Torah scholarship ought occupy in our community’s constellation of values.

This final explanation accounts for another noteworthy element of Rambam’s position. Due to the focus on the contemporary kollel question, it is often overlooked that Rambam’s prohibition applies to both learning and teaching. For instance, in the Commentary to Avot he writes: “And they made the Torah appointments as tax law,” clearly outlawing the appointment of individuals to rabbinic positions. He continues later:

For if we examine the generations of the scholars, we will not find among them placement of obligations upon individuals, nor collecting money for elevated and honored yeshivot, nor for exilarchs, nor for judges, nor for Torah disseminators, [nor] for those appointed [by the community], nor for other people…

Here, Rambam prohibits a host of communal rabbinic positions. This makes sense. If Rambam’s fear is (partly) that accepting money for Torah diminishes its stature, this desecration logically should extend to any case in which one treats Torah as a profession. Rambam’s injunction rightly encompasses both Torah study and a rabbinic career.

Here we may inquire, following the lead of the historians referenced earlier (note 2), whether any of Rambam’s life experiences sensitized him to the pitfalls of reducing Torah to mere professional status. It is hard to say for sure. We know that he engaged in fierce battles with Abu Zikri Sar Shalom, also known as Zuta, for the position of ra’is al-yahud, head of the Egyptian Jewish community; Rambam spoke disparagingly of Zuta and viewed him as a functionary, not a scholar. Indeed, he spoke negatively about rabbinic titles in general, dismissing many of the established authorities as incompetent when he first arrived in that country.6 Rambam also might have been an astute observer of the sometimes-dysfunctional relationship between the Gaon and the Exilarch. Although long before his time, the titanic power struggles between Saadiah and David Ben Zakai may well have been familiar. Indeed, he generally maintained a dim view of Geonic authority, and his Mishneh Torah was fiercely opposed by the contemporary Gaon Shmuel ben Eli.7 Possibly, Rambam drew on these observations in noting the challenges confronting rabbis, and the sometimes-unqualified stature of those who sought to usurp authority from those who were genuinely qualified to serve.

While it is hard to know what personal experiences might have motivated Rambam’s strident language, additional evidence confirms that Rambam understood well the difficulties inherent in reducing the rabbi to the position of employee. For in a letter to Yosef ibn Aknin, the student for whom he penned his Guide to the Perplexed, Rambam offers his mentee remarkable advice on the subject of whether or not to pursue a career in the rabbinate. Because of its importance and relevance, Rambam’s comments are worth citing at some length:

With regard to the matter you mention about going to Baghdad, I have already sanctioned your plan to open there a house of learning where you wish to expound the Law with my Code as a text book. I fear, however, that you will be constantly involved in disputes with those people and fail to achieve your proper objectives. Moreover, if you assume the practice of teaching, your business affairs will be neglected and you dare not accept any financial reward from them. It is far better for you to earn a single drachma as a weaver, tailor or carpenter than be dependent on the license of the Exilarch. If you dispute with any of them, you will lose your earning. And if you accept from them favors you will be humiliated. My advice to you is to pay full attention to your trade and the practice of medicine, and at the same time continue to study Torah voluntarily.

Rambam’s message is clear: one who is employed as a paid rabbi runs a significant risk of being dismissed upon disagreeing with his superiors, and of being demeaned upon accepting favors from community leaders. Part of Rambam’s outspoken opposition to the professional rabbinate, in other words, stemmed from his appreciation of the inherent dangers and limitations of one who is employed by the community. Rambam’s acute awareness of these pitfalls led him to recommend to his student a life of poverty over and above subservience to the community.

Contemporary Application

At this point, the relevance of Rambam’s position becomes clear. Well beyond its applicability to the modern kollel system, Rambam’s reasoning clearly bears on the contemporary rabbi-community relationship. The critical importance of this institution notwithstanding, Rambam recognized that any arrangement in which the rabbi is financially dependent on the community runs significant risk of devolving into an antagonistic relationship. Moreover, even where devoid of conflict, the very structure itself runs the risk of diminishing respect for Torah. Yet, after accounting for a few outstanding exceptions, this is precisely the format of the rabbinate in many Orthodox communities throughout the world, and it has been this way for hundreds of years. Indeed, we are all-too-familiar with the many challenges confronting rabbis and their communities. To be sure, we do not accept Rambam’s position as a matter of practical Halakhah, both regarding kollel and the rabbinate. Moreover, I personally believe that this work is crucial, and, as the OU’s rabbinic panel urged, that we have a responsibility to urge the next generation – males and females alike – to seriously consider pursuing careers in avodat ha-kodesh. Still, Rambam’s strict censure compels us to carefully consider how we can best anticipate and address the inherent shortcomings of the contemporary lay-rabbinic relationship.

What ought be done to address this difficulty in the modern context? There is no easy answer, but a few observations are in order. First, it’s worth noting in this connection the Chabad model, which is built on a self-employment/fundraising model instead of an employer-employee relationship. This approach comes with plenty of its own challenges – especially when funding dries up – but the greater financial independence does grant the Chabad rabbinic leadership increased autonomy. Similarly, for a wide variety of reasons we are witnessing the evolution of more independent models of rabbinic leadership, both in Israel and America. Still, at present, radically different paradigms seem rather unlikely to develop in our established synagogues.

Instead of advocating for a new model, then, it may suffice to observe that mutual acknowledgment of these challenges can go a long way. As in any relationship, when rabbis and community members enter with the understanding that some amount of conflict is all-but-inevitable, our communities stand the best chance of success. Moreover, we must continue to develop and offer outstanding mentoring for rabbis and lay leaders around negotiating these complex dynamics. Our rabbis and shul trustees must be trained in best practices regarding sensitive matters such as hiring, contract negotiations, providing rabbis with feedback, and evaluation protocols. Perhaps above all, rabbis’ independence in matters of psak halakha and determination of hashkafic policy must be clearly spelled out – when this is not taken for granted, it can be a source of great tension – and the balance between the rabbi and community regarding gray-area scenarios must be delineated as clearly as possible ahead of time. As in any other relationship, ongoing healthy communication around questions that arise is also a prerequisite for success.

Similar structures, with proper modifications, must be set in place for additional shul employees and other Jewish community professionals, including school administrators and non-profit executives. If we wish to attract and retain top-flight talent for our community organizations, we must give priority to ensuring that our leaders are set up for success.

Moreover, healthy rabbinic-lay relations are crucial for the hinnukh we provide our children. When these relationships are fractured, our children tend to hear negative talk about the rabbi at the Shabbat table. Of course, engaging in such conversation within earshot of children is almost always ill-advised, but where the rabbi-community relationship is unhealthy, banter tends to happen anyway. This gossip can all-too-easily breed in our children an unhealthy aversion to any sort of religious leadership. While a healthy skepticism toward blind submission to rabbinic authority is a necessity in an age of rabbinic scandal, when taken too far, this cynicism can carry terribly detrimental consequences for our children. Conversely, when rabbinic-lay relations are healthy, our children are better able to imbibe a healthy respect for measured but meaningful rabbinic authority.

In sum, a close examination of Rambam’s view reveals an entirely new perspective on the nature of his fierce objection to professional Torah study and rabbinical work. Although we don’t rule in accordance with Rambam’s position, his profound concerns about rabbi-as-community-employee should inspire us to work toward ensuring the strongest possible working relationship between our community’s religious and lay leadership. If the high emotional pitch of Rambam’s opposition is any indication, the success of our communities depends heavily on it.

  1. For our purposes, we will omit discussion of Rambam’s hortatory comments at the conclusion of The Laws of the Sabbatical Year and Jubilee (13:12-13). As Radbaz (13:13 s.v. ve-lama) notes, Rambam’s language there indicates that one who dedicates his life to religious service will merit sustenance due to divine intervention, not community support.
  2. For instance, Isadore Twersky (Introduction to the Code of Maimonides, pgs. 82-83) suggests that Rambam objected to corruptions in the Gaonate, which relied on massive, debilitating community contributions to support the Gaon and the associated yeshivot. Others have cast blame for Rambam’s wrath on the dysfunctional contemporary charity situation in 12th century Cairo, which saw the poor receive a mere 10% of community handouts, and scholars a full 90%. Indeed, Rambam’s comments in his Laws of Charity (10:18), in which he censures individuals who unnecessarily rely on the community and accept charity, imply that he was especially concerned about siphoning off community funds from those truly in need.
  3. Rambam makes the point himself in his Commentary to the Mishnah, where he confesses, “I know that my words will not be desirable to most great Torah scholars, perhaps all of them.” Indeed, the overwhelming majority of decisors rejected Rambam’s opinion outright, including R. Tzemah ben Duran (Tashbetz 1:142-148), Abravanel (Commentary to Avot 4:7), R. Yosef Karo (Kesef Mishnah to Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:10, Beit Yosef (Yoreh Deah 246 s.v. Kol), Bah (ibid.), Drisha (Yoreh Deah 246:10) and Rama (Yoreh Deah 246:21).
  4. Organic Thinking: A Study in Rabbinic Thought, p. 53-55
  5. Personal conversation.
  6. See Commentary to the Mishnah Bekhorot 4:4.
  7. See Maimonides: Life and Thought, Moshe Halbertal, pgs. 19-20, regarding Rambam’s attitude toward the Geonim and his struggles with the entrenched powers of the Egyptian Jewish community.