In God We Trust: Salaries and Income of American Orthodox Rabbis, 1881-1934

By Caplan, Kimmy | American Jewish History, March 1998 | Go to article overview

In God We Trust: Salaries and Income of American Orthodox Rabbis, 1881-1934


Caplan, Kimmy, American Jewish History


In a letter dated July 16, 1920, to M. B. Friedman, one of the leaders of Cleveland's Jewish community, Cyrus Adler wrote:

The scarcity of rabbis is part of the general scarcity of teachers and

professors. Men have drifted away from these professions because they

feared they would not have the chance to live in them. The tenure of the

rabbi is also very uncertain. Of course, you in Cleveland have large

congregations who pay good salaries . . . but when it comes to the smaller

towns where men are offered $1800 or $2000 a year, are asked to preach in

English and Yiddish, to superintend and teach a school and in some cases to

even act as hazzan, you can readily see that the men get discouraged.(2)

Adler's letter, written toward the end of the mass immigration era, suggests that low salaries paid to rabbis, especially in smaller towns, drove men away from the profession. Do Adler's figures reflect rabbis' salaries during the mass immigration era, and did they discourage men from pursuing rabbinical careers? What was the social status, role, and function of the American Orthodox rabbinate in its formative period, the decades before and after the turn of the century?

Numerous scholarly works have been written about the history of the rabbinate in general and several others have uncovered important issues specifically relating to the American rabbinate.(3) However, the economic aspects of the rabbinate have not received much attention, aside from occasional notes on rabbis' contracts and salaries.(4) Even though salaries and income are important tools in any effort to analyze the clergy as a profession and its social status, little use has been made of this aspect in American religious history in general and American Jewish history in particular.(5) The few works on this topic reveal much about the different variables which influence rabbis' salaries, such as the size of the congregation, the income level and lifestyle of its members, and its geographic location.(6)

The few scholarly works on the pay of Christian clergy have also contributed to our understanding of this topic. The different nature of the rabbinate in general and the American rabbinate in particular, as well as fundamental differences between the two religions and their clerical roles, limit the application of these works when discussing the rabbinate. Notwithstanding, works on traveling Methodist preachers in nineteenth-century America, clerical wealth in North and South America during this period, and the financing of ordained ministries in contemporary America are very valuable.(7)

Discussions of the rabbinate as a profession and the processes of professionalization within rabbinical circles are absent in historiography with the exception of Ismar Schorsch's work, which focuses primarily on the academization of the nineteenth-century German rabbinate. Schorsch found that a rabbi was expected to have both rabbinic ordination and an academic degree. This process of professionalization helped define the rabbi as preacher, educator, and prayer conductor vis-a-vis other klei kodesh, such as preachers. Schorsch points to the academic demands from Protestant clergy during the same period.(8)

Salaries and Income of East European Mitnagdic Rabbis

East European Ashkenazi Jewry, both mitnagdic and hassidic, underwent significant changes throughout the nineteenth century, many of which influenced the rabbinate in various ways. Among mitnagdim, for example, we find the rising importance of rosh yeshivas and Torah learners while the rabbinate lost a great deal of its prominence.(9) This was in addition to the growing emphasis on preaching(10) and the changing attitudes toward the relationship between the rabbinate, halakhic decisions, learning and preaching. These processes and others influenced the social and religious status of the rabbinate. …

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