By Rabbi/ R’/ Mr./ AARON REICHEL
I savored the article “When Is A Rabbi To Be Called ‘Rabbi’” (Feb. 17), by Rabbi Ari Enkin. The article was well-written and based on impeccable Talmudic and halachic sources. This proposed follow-up is based more on practical considerations, without citing a single halachic source but attempting to be within the parameters of halacha and within the spirit of mussar.
The question can be posed in an even more far-reaching way than that posed by Rabbi Enkin: When should a person be called a rabbi when he also makes a living in a secular profession? Or, to go one step even further, when his primary occupation or source of income has nothing to do with Judaism (to the extent that this may be said, since every step a person takes should be guided by Jewish values).
It may be said that there are three categories relevant to this discussion – (a) where a person should be referred to as a rabbi, (b) where a person may be referred to as such (it may be optional), and (c) where it may be better not to be referred to as such.
First, the various settings or instances where a person in any of the categories referred to by Rabbi Enkin and by this writer may consider it preferable to be referred to as a rabbi: (1) Obviously, when functioning in a rabbinical and/or Jewish educational capacity; (2) when being identified as a rabbi would bring honor to the person making the reference, such as at a wedding or sheva brachos when the titles of the honorees are announced, or at a funeral, G-d forbid; (3) when in a position or circumstance of trying to convince a person to follow, or at least appreciate or understand, a Jewish law or practice; (4) when called to testify in court as an expert witness – or even another type of witness – or by affidavit or letter of reference in support of a Jewish principle or a person invoking a Jewish law’ (5) when simply asked to do so outside of a courtroom – for example, to ask an employer to excuse somebody from work Friday afternoon to observe Shabbos, on condition the time will be made up. (Some people, incidentally, sometimes offer to put in a little bit of uncompensated extra time, so that they can point out that this accommodation would actually serve the employer’s interests as well, what I like to call a “win win.”); (6) in a secular, business, or other impersonal situation, when a person introduces himself to a Jewish woman who obviously follows Jewish laws and practices, in order to put her at ease in that she doesn’t have to worry that she will be in a position where she is expected to shake hands or compromise her values in any other way. The scenarios are endless.
On a slightly lower level, perhaps, it may not be mandatory, but it may be helpful (1) when submitting an article for publication on a Jewish topic, and (2) when asked to speak on a Jewish topic (or, perhaps to a lesser extent, when volunteering to speak). More people may be inclined to read or listen to a person who may have credentials, all other things being equal (even though all other things are almost never equal).
The lowest level would be when introducing oneself at a social, political or other event, with no agenda other than to impress the person being addressed.
Finally, the third category. It may be better specifically even for a practicing rabbi NOT to refer to himself as such (1) in the rare but still all-too-frequent instance when a rabbi is in the news for violating his position as a rabbi, or even as a Jew (although an argument can also be made that in such a situation it is all the more important to show that rabbis who create a chillul Hashem are in the minority); (2) in court, on a secular matter, where the judge or jury (or even one member of the jury) might be antisemitic; (3) if based on any justification (beyond the purview of this article), the person is not wearing a yarmulke; (4) when writing one’s name on an envelope (when snail mail is still used), where an antisemite might decide to dishonor the envelope, or to cause it to disappear (“R’” might then be an option to replace “Rabbi”); or in any number of other scenarios in which antisemitism may be a consideration.
When it comes to variations of the title of rabbi or its alternatives, sometimes being called by the name Rav and just a first name may be a sign not of lesser respect but rather of extreme respect, such as Rav Moshe, Rav Ovadiah, Reb Chaim, but this applies more to the people making the reference, not the person referred to. And even further, sometimes just being referred to by a first name alone may be the greatest sign of respect, like Hillel or Shamai in the Talmud, or “Yosha Ber” (sic) – that was the pronunciation in fashion by many Yiddish speakers “in the day”) at Yeshiva University years ago, but again, this applies to the people making the reference.
While on the general topic of honorifics, referring to someone as “Harav Hagaon” should presumably be used only when it should be obvious that it truly applies or may apply; otherwise, it loses its significance and even cheapens its significance when used too indiscriminately.
On the other hand, sometimes a talmid chacham may not have a formal smicha, but his scholarship should be recognized in some way by referring to him in his presence in the third person, such as “kvodo,” or perhaps with the honorific of “Reb,” which can go either way.
Far and away the best reason to identify oneself as a rabbi is to instill in oneself the obligation to conduct oneself on the highest level, not merely to follow every Jewish law and practice, but to set an example for others, to resist the temptation not to conduct oneself in an exemplary way, and to avoid being in a position where one might create, G-d forbid, a chillul Hashem.
May every Jew serve as a kiddush Hashem, in public and in private, no matter what his or her title is or may be, and no matter to what extent the title is or may be used or avoided.