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Guest Blogger: If There is Flour, There is Torah! Rabbis as Entrepreneurs

Rabbis who work as entrepreneurs seem strange at first glance. Especially if we understand “entrepreneurship” according to its original meaning, “making economic profit.” It seems to contradict the value to learn Torah li-shma, for its own sake. However, rabbis have always been pragmatic, too.

If there is no flour, there is no Torah; and if there is no Torah, there is no flour (Pirkei Avot 3:21).

This well-known saying in Pirkei Avot reflects a realistic world view—and that’s how rabbis in antiquity indeed behaved. Some of the most famous rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud earned their livelihood thanks not to their scholarly expertise, but to their successful entrepreneurship. For instance, Rav Papa was a wealthy beer brewer, and others worked as shoemakers, tailors, cotton dealers, merchants or field workers.

If there is flour, there is Torah. This may have been their motto.

Earning their livelihood by themselves, they could teach as independent scholars. In Medieval Ashkenaz, rabbis took advantage of the fact that moneylending had become one of the very few occupations permitted for Jews. Moneylending was not time consuming, so they could focus plenty of energy on their studies. Other rabbis were successful matchmakers, proudly saying that they did not depend economically on their wives.

However, since the Middle Ages, rabbis became economically more and more dependent, not only on their wives—who as “women of valor” supported their husbands’ studies economically—but also upon the lay leaders of the congregations (the parnasim, who decided on their parnose, or maintenance) and, increasingly, on non-Jewish authorities.

The more the hierarchical system of Jewish communities developed during early modern and modern times, the more rabbis became like public servants, whether serving the interests of the congregation in the best way, or being subjected to the interests of the congregation in the worst way, with the result: no flour – no Torah!

Even today, congregational rabbis may feel dependent on the benevolence of their congregations, afraid that their existence is at stake if they dare to utter criticism. A liberal rabbi in Germany told me that serving three communities simultaneously has one huge advantage: should he come into conflict with one, there will always be two others left!

Other rabbis have become freelancers. They provide their own livelihood as entrepreneurial rabbis, offering their services for life cycle rituals on an independent basis so that those who cannot afford the membership fees of a congregation can still remain connected to the rhythm of Jewish life.

A fascinating example of putting "no flour no Torah" positively into practice is “Bread and Torah,” a project by Rabbis Linda Motzkin and Jonathan Rubenstein, parents Ruhi Sophia Motzkin Rubenstein (RRC ’15). In addition to their shared service as co-rabbis of Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in Saratoga Springs, New York, Linda is a soferet (scribe) and scribal artist, while Jonathan is a bread maker and baking teacher.

“Bread and Torah” is an example of social "rabbinical entrepreneurship" since it is not restricted to providing congregational rabbis with additional sources of income. Instead, it very creatively combines traditional Jewish scribal arts and bread making with Jewish spiritual teachings and practices, building community in this integrative way. One of their projects, called “Slice of Heaven Breads,” supports hunger relief programs and other charitable causes by selling a variety of breads and baked goods.

If there is Torah, there will be bread!

Enjoying the privilege of being a tenured full professor of Jewish Studies in Germany, I feel obliged not only to spread Torah but also provide others with job opportunities, which makes me a kind of “social entrepreneur” for others. For example, I am currently leading a project for my home institution that develops teaching materials on Jewish history for (general) history teachers in high schools (the German Gymnasium). The materials for this project will soon be available for free download on our homepage and will encourage teachers to teach Jewish history in their general history classes. The materials also explore the emancipation process of the Jews in Germany in the 19th century and deal with the question of how Jews could live in two civilizations. This question has recently become significantly important for Germany’s Muslim population, all the more after the increased immigration of the refugees from Syria and other countries with large Muslim populations. Thus, the materials will help encourage intercultural understanding in schools.

Birgit E. Klein is full professor of the “History of the Jewish people” at the “Hochschule fuer Juedische Studien Heidelberg” (University of Jewish Studies Heidelberg, Germany). The Hochschule fuer Juedische Studien Heidelberg is under the auspices of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and is, with ten professorships and additional lecturers and instructors, Europe’s largest academic institution for Jewish Studies ( Doing “field studies” in contemporary Judaism at RRC, I am fascinated by Cyd Weisman’s class and the way her teaching responds to the changing needs of the American Jewish community and contributes to readjusting the rabbinic education in particular. However, I also experience the huge difference between the Jewish community here and in Germany – with the question of whether tools developed are suitable for the German context.

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