I had an epiphany last week and was surprised never to have thought about it before. It was the simple fact that there are 168 hours in a week. Expressed in that way, a week doesn’t seem a very long time at all.
The ex-British Prime Minster, Harold Wilson disagreed. He is credited with coining the phrase, “A week is a long time in politics.” Indeed, a lot can happen in a week.
As my column appears every four weeks, I think I can fairly paraphrase Wilson’s dictum and say a month is an absolute eternity in politics.
So much seems to happen to the Jewish people in a month that it almost always draws my column into the battlefield of the continued erosion and demolition by the Left of the values and ethics upon which America stands.
This time, I resisted the temptation to comment on Google’s inability to fire its employee in charge of diversity strategy and research for stating that Jews have “insatiable appetite for war and killing.” I am also ignoring the BBC’s reaction to discovering that one of its employees tweeted that “Hitler was right.” They are “investigating” it, which is BBC speak for “obfuscate.” I am also going to withstand the temptation to comment on Rutgers University and its spineless embrace of antisemitism.
Instead, I am going to address something I have felt very strongly about for a long time although this is likely to generate a lot of correspondence and criticism.
Do you recall the story that broke last month in Israel about a Christian missionary family who managed to pose as hareidi Jews and infiltrate various Orthodox communities?
Michael Elk worked as a sofer, rabbi and mohel while claiming to be a kohen.
Unsurprisingly he appears to be only one of a network who have used the same deception.
Where though did Elk get the rabbinic qualification that allowed him to rightly claim that he had “semicha?” The answer is obvious, online of course!
There are so many online courses these days that you can complete in an astonishingly short space of time and they won’t even break the bank; Psychologist, Life Coach, Medical Doctor (really!). The list is endless.
So it would hardly be a surprise that you too can do an online course and become a rabbi too.
It would be convenient for my argument if I could dismiss all the people who offer online rabbinic courses as frauds and all those who take part in them as charlatans, but that would be untrue.
Many of the individuals offering these courses are talmidei chachomim. Many of those taking them are sincere and apply themselves to many months of study to achieve a qualification and a title that has been their life’s dream.
As you can do an online medical degree let’s use that as an illustration.
The Rambam writes that there are doctors for physical ailments (as he himself was) and doctors for spiritual ailments. Both need to be qualified and monitored in the work that they do.
I was the rabbi at two medical schools for over 25 years in England, so I know a little of the process of turning students into doctors.
I think it would fair to describe a British GP (M.D.) as someone with a broad but “shallow” knowledge of medicine. They will spend six months or so attached to a Gynecology unit getting experience and matching the facts learned in textbooks and lectures to real cases. After that they will spend another six months in another hospital department, perhaps Oncology and so on. This is hardly going to make a GP an expert in any of those fields. However, when he sees a problem, he will know to refer it to the person who is an expert.
When I learned for semicha in Gateshead Yeshiva, we were only allowed to do so once we had been in learning for a minimum of five years. My chevrusa and I were expected to first learn Mesechet Chullin with the Rosh and Rif. Then we had to know the whole of Chelek Alef of Yorei Deah, Shechitah, Traifos, etc. The exam consisted of two six-hour sessions and was oral. The pass mark required was 100%.
That made me the rabbinic equivalent of a G.P. I knew where to look. I know who and how to ask. I knew my limits and I sincerely hope I still do.
Crucially, no one asked me for money for my semicha and therein, as so often is the case with human nature, lies the problem.
Despite the qualifications of some of those offering online semicha, it’s their business. That inevitably exposes them to bias, conscious or otherwise when it comes to checking the suitability of a person applying to become a rabbi. It certainly leads them to be less than thorough assessing the suitability and temperament of their applicants, as the case of Michael Elk (and many others I know of) clearly demonstrates.
A close friend of mine who is a doctor worked hard over two years for an online semicha in Hilchot Shabbat. He would never dream of going around calling himself rabbi and arguing with real rabbis.
I know another such person who immediately started to call himself rabbi. He swiftly became the go-to “rabbi” for an anti-Orthodox publication where his lifelong animosity for hareidim is now emboldened by his new title.
It is long overdue for the major Orthodox umbrella organizations, Agudas Yisroel, the OU and others, to set up a system to endorse those giving semicha. Without that, in the world of online anything, watch out for more scandals from individuals who are online rabbis.