Is it proper to use the title “Rabbi” when referring to someone
who received rabbinic ordination from a Reform or Conservative institution?
Times have changed dramatically. There was a time when non-traditional movements posed a grave threat to Orthodoxy and when sociologists predicted the demise of traditional Judaism in the diaspora. At that time, we appropriately hunkered down behind barricades, refusing to lend credence in any way to non-traditional movements.
How different things are today!
In spite of our own real issues, Orthodox communities thrive while Conservative and Reform communities dwindle and disappear. Today our children will not, chas v’shalom, stray from Yahadut because they are attracted to Conservative or Reform Judaism. Our shared enemy today is secular culture and its attractions.
In such a climate, I see no danger in appearing with non-traditional Jewish leaders in appropriate public forums and certainly no danger in calling them “rabbis.”
As long as we make our own stances clear; as long as we strenuously oppose views and positions that we cannot accept; as long as we openly clarify the real differences between us; we will not be perceived as conferring upon them any true halachic status simply by calling them “rabbis.”
Moreover, the gain through our involvement will far outweigh any possible loss. I have personally found that participating in such shared public forums can result in real Kiddush Hashem, enabling us to interact with audiences that would otherwise remain beyond our reach.
At a time when so many Jews are disappearing into the fog of assimilation; at a time when some of them might be swayed by the wisdom of Torah-true Judaism; I don’t believe that we should worry about whether or not we call non-traditional rabbis “rabbis.”
Et la’asot. We need to reach out to as many Jews as possible, and we cannot let such barriers stand in our way.
— Rabbi Goldin, author of “Unlocking the
Torah Text” series and past president of the RCA
* * * * *
After high school, I spent 12 years learning full-time and then gave a high school shiur for another 15 years and yet I went by the title “Rabbi” with great hesitancy. “Rabbi” refers to someone who is proficient in all areas of halacha and can responsibly answer shaalos.
I adopted the title “Rabbi” because as a Torah teacher it was considered acceptable and, indeed, necessary. But to use that title for someone who has nowhere near the proper halachic proficiency – and doesn’t even subscribe to fundamental Jewish beliefs – is to give that person credence he doesn’t deserve. It’s akin to giving the title “Dr.” to someone who went to a first aid course. It’s inappropriate and highly insulting to the profession.
Of course, the bigger picture here is legitimizing beliefs that are anti-Torah. The Reform and Conservative movements – although they may believe they’re doing some good for the Jewish nation – are destructive and damaging because they take the Torah G-d gave us and pervert and change it and then teach it to others.
It’s absolutely horrific and damaging to the Jewish nation and we should do everything in our power to prevent them from remaining a force in the Jewish people.
— Rabbi Ben Zion Shafier, founder of The Shmuz
* * * * *
The counterargument would be that a Reform or Conservative ordination doesn’t really confer the status of “rabbi” upon a person and therefore demeans the title for all rabbis.
I don’t find this contention very compelling, though. Indeed, it’s unnecessarily provocative. Notice how the title “Dr.” encompasses everyone from a neurosurgeon to one who holds a doctorate in ethnic studies. It shouldn’t ordinarily be controversial to address someone using a title they have chosen, earned, or claim.
Rav Moshe Feinstein in several of his responsa refers to non-Orthodox rabbis as “rabbis,” phonetically spelled out in Hebrew, in contradistinction to his references to Orthodox rabbis as “rabbanim” and other such honorifics. It’s as if he used the term “rabbi” to denote a lesser or unworthy form of ordination.
“Rabbis,” apparently, can be non-Orthodox, men, women, and, in the recent case of a charedi-dressing man in Yerushalayim, Christian. The term has been so abused that true rabbanim deserve better.
Indeed, it has become quite common in rabbinic circles to refer to rabbanim by the title “Rav” and not “Rabbi,” to make the distinction even clearer. It’s used on letterheads and advertisements and immediately identifies the individual as an Orthodox rabbi.
If only for the purpose of friendly relations, it’s appropriate to call people by the title of their choice. They can be rabbis. I’m happy to be a rav.
— Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, Israel regional
vice president for the Coalition for Jewish Values
* * * * *
From a halachic perspective, a legitimate rabbi is not determined by title alone, but by a number of vital criteria, namely:
1) Semicha: Rabbinic ordination from a halachically-ordained rabbi preceding him ish mipi ish – one rabbi halachically ordained by a previous one in an unbroken chain going back to Moshe Rabbeinu.
2) Shimush: Apprenticeship under the tutelage and guidance of a halachic rav (similar to medical residency).
3) Yiras Shamayim: A person must be G-d-fearing. He must absolutely believe and accept that G-d and the Torah, given by G-d at Sinai, are immutable and must be followed to the T.
The title “Rabbi” can be considered a formality, reflecting the individual’s public position, but not necessarily conferring on that person halachic authority.
— Rabbi Simon Jacobson, renowned
Lubavitch author and lecturer