Religious professionals played a huge role in the unification and survival of the Jewish people. Yeshiva students did the immensely important work of preserving Judaism. The current situation is different.

Though almost all Jewish males historically have studied Tanakh, few of them have pursued religion as a full-time occupation. Judaism, a religion of worldly deeds, emphasizes the need for productive work. Whatever Rabbi Karo surmised, Hillel worked arduously, and so did Maimonides. Their work did not prevent them from becoming two of the most prominent Jewish scholars of all time. Rabbi Akiva joined Bar Kochba’s army. In more distant times, Joshua bin Nun, a prophet, led a Jewish army; obviously, Joshua devoted much time to military exercise. Even a hundred years ago, professional rabbis were few. Jewish communities gladly paid wages to several rabbinical leaders, and provided meager charity to some others, but overall the number of religious professionals was negligible. They constantly interacted with common Jews, and imparted religious knowledge and morality. The picture of closed communities of yeshiva students and rabbis, divorced from Jewish society and work, wearing 300-year-old garb—which was nice and modern at the time it was introduced—is appalling.

Then as now, yeshivas were privately funded. The State of Israel gives very little money to yeshivas. So what’s our problem with the professional Jews? It’s defamation. They misrepresent Judaism. Our religion is about productive life, not monastic isolation and a black-market economy. The Talmudic sage Rabbi Zeira communicated with bandits, and they eventually reformed. Rabbis exist for the sake of the Jewish community. Whether the community is good or bad, religious or otherwise, the rabbis must live in it and actively communicate with common Jews, trying to change us for the better. Instead, today’s ultra-Orthodox rabbis see common Jews as tax-paying, army-serving human cattle, unworthy of Judaism.

The rabbis who isolate themselves from the Jewish world in a time of spiritual crisis are not worthy of their title.