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Is it proper to use the title “Rabbi” when referring to someone who received rabbinic ordination from a Reform or Conservative institution?


Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet

I’ve often considered this. While previously I would be challenged for according such a title to non-Orthodox clergy when referring to them, the fact is that there’s an element of kavod habriyos; basic respect for the humanity of another person.

The title implies a legitimate teacher of authentic Torah. Nevertheless, it is one, which today, is ascribed to anyone who is a faith leader, regardless of denomination. If that’s the title they’ve chosen for themselves then it’s according the other person respect regardless of difference in ideology.

To be sure, inasmuch as a non-Orthodox rabbi and I might stand ideologically apart on a whole range of fundamental Jewish issues, neither of us can recognize the other as an authentic expression of Judaism. Frankly then, he ought to have the same issue of calling me a rabbi.

In today’s world, ascribing such a title to one another is not going to be seen as endorsing ideology. But it will just go a long way to maintaining mutual respect, so vital in our fragmented society.

– Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet is a popular Lubavitch lecturer and rabbi of London’s Mill Hill Synagogue

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When I was a yeshiva student in the early 1990s, I spent an unforgettable Shabbos at the home of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Emanuel and Estelle Feldman in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem. Rabbi Feldman regaled us (I accompanied a roommate, a relative of Rebbetzin Feldman) with stories from his legendary career in the Atlanta rabbinate, and one story in particular concerns this week’s question.

Rabbi Feldman recounted that he was once at some event that was also attended by members of Atlanta’s Reform and Conservative rabbinate, with whom he maintained cordial relations. At some point he found himself talking to a woman rabbi, which was presumably a rarity at the time. When he referred to her with the title “rabbi,” she registered surprise that an Orthodox rabbi would acknowledge that a woman was ordained. Rabbi Feldman responded, “I accord you the same respect that I accord to your male colleagues.” The woman rabbi, picking up on his subtext, remarked, “In other words, you don’t think that any of us are really rabbis….” I do not recall whether Rabbi Feldman told us his response to this remark, or whether he responded at all.

With this story Rabbi Feldman sought to convey the importance of treating colleagues with respect, and that includes addressing them by the titles that have been conferred on them after significant effort.

Another legendary American rabbi, Norman Lamm, z”l, developed useful terminology – he was an absolute master of words – to distinguish two types of “recognition” of non-Orthodox movements: validity and legitimacy. In his words from a 1986 address, later published as an essay, “‘Validity’ derives from the Latin validus, strong. It is a factual, descriptive term. ‘Legitimacy’ derives from the Latin lex, law. It is a normative and evaluative term.” He then applies this distinction to interdenominational relations: “The facts are that Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist communities are not only more numerous in their official memberships than the Orthodox community, but they are also vital, powerful and dynamic; they are committed to Jewish survival, each according to its own lights; they are a part of Klal Yisrael; and they consider their rabbis their leaders. From a functional point of view, therefore, non-Orthodox rabbis are valid leaders of Jewish religious communities, and it is both fatuous and self-defeating not to acknowledge this openly and draw the necessary consequences….” However, when it comes to legitimacy, “the criterion of such legitimacy is the Jewish lex-the halachah […] the fundamental acceptance of halachah’s divine origin, of Torah min hashamayim.” He then explains that the different movements can accord one another functional validity while rejecting “vain hopes for the kind of ‘mutual legitimation’ that cannot happen without doing violence to integrity.”

Rabbis Feldman and Lamm, two of the most successful Orthodox rabbis in U.S. history, are evidently in broad agreement about this issue. Their “ma’aseh rav” – their actions while working in the trenches – are more valuable in this respect than any other halachic source on this matter.

As a matter of personal practice, I have had many opportunities to call JTS-ordained rabbis and their sons for aliyos to the Torah (in Orthodox synagogues, of course), and in each case, I make sure to use the honorific “ha-rav” or “ben ha-rav.

– Rabbi Elli Fischer is a translator, writer, and historian. He edits Rav Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha in English, cofounded HaMapah, a project to quantify and map rabbinic literature, and is a founding editor of Lehrhaus. Follow him @adderabbi on Twitter or listen to his podcast, “Down the Rabbi Hole.”

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The question can include different scenarios:

If you are in the presence of either a Conservative or Reform rabbi, it is advisable because of darkei shalom to call him/her by the designated term rabbi.

If you are referring to him/her in an article, one may call him/her rabbi but one should at the same time indicate where their rabbinic ordination came from so that the reader is aware whom you are talking about.

If one is giving a speech, one should simply reference them as the rabbi of such and such Conservative or Reform Synagogue and the listener would draw their own conclusions.

– Rabbi Mordechai Weiss lives in Efrat Israel and previously served as an elementary and high school principal in New Jersey and Connecticut. He was also the founder and rav of Young Israel of Margate, New Jersey. His email is [email protected].

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When Moshe Rabbeinu approaches the end of his life, he asks Hashem to appoint a successor for him; in response, Hashem directs him to take his disciple Yehoshua and place his hand on his head, thereby, in effect, designating him as the next leader (see Bamidbar 27:15-23). Moshe’s ensuing act of placing his hands on Yehoshua’s head, an act known as “semichah,” thus symbolized his ordaining Yehoshua as a religious leader; we also find earlier in the Torah that Moshe ordained 70 of the nation’s elders (see Bamidbar 11:16-17) into similar roles of religious leadership, though the word semichah is not mentioned there (suggesting that the placement of the teacher’s hands on the student’s head is not absolutely necessary). These passages reflect the initial ordination of qualified people who would serve as authorities in religious matters.

In subsequent years, these ordained leaders would then pass on this ordination to those students whom they deemed qualified, declaring them officially authorized to render definitive decisions on religious issues, and these students would later ordain some of their own students, and so on down the line over the course of many generations. This ordination required the presence of three people, eventually including the heads of the rabbinical court, and could be granted only in Israel. Anyone ordained with this form of semichah was thus part of an unbroken, person to person chain going back to Moshe Rabbeinu himself. It is clear from the Talmud that only someone with this authentic semichah was permitted to decide certain matters of religious law.

The word “rabbi,” which literally means “my master” or “my teacher,” does not appear to have been used as an honorific title until the days of the Mishnah; the rabbis cited there had received this authentic semichah and were thus part of the aforementioned chain. Eventually, though, this chain was broken, presumably during Roman times, though the precise time is unclear and is disagreed upon by historians. An attempt to reinstitute the true semichah and restart the chain was made in Israel in the 16th century, and although this semichah was indeed conferred upon some worthy recipients (including R. Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch), the plan was met with resistance and ultimately was unsuccessful in the long term. As a result, no rabbi anywhere today has been ordained with the authentic semichah.

The title “rabbi” as used today, then, indicates, similar to other graduate titles, simply that the particular individual has completed a specific course of study and mastered the material deemed necessary by the person, persons, or institution granting the title. Each such “ordaining authority” has the right to make whatever academic and other demands of the ordination candidates that they may wish and ultimately to confer the title of “rabbi” upon whomever they choose, granting that individual permission to make certain religious decisions. Whether one recognizes that individual’s permission and accepts his religious decisions as valid will depend upon what one thinks about the religious standards of those who granted the ordination.

There is nothing technically wrong with referring to someone who has received rabbinic ordination from a Reform or Conservative institution as a rabbi; indeed, Rav Moshe Feinstein, in several of his responsa, refers to non-Orthodox rabbis by using the word “rabbi,” though he transliterates the word into Hebrew based upon its phonetics, something he does not do when referring to an Orthodox rabbi. Most Orthodox Jews, when referring to an Orthodox rabbi in Hebrew (and sometimes in English as well), will use the word “Rav” instead (this title is used for the rabbis in the Gemara who lived in Babylonia and hence did not have the authentic semichah).

In any case, it often makes sense to use the title “rabbi” even for an ordained Conservative or Reform clergyman for the sake of politeness and friendly relations (these people are, after all, fellow Jews); one must be careful, however, to recognize that referring to someone by this title does not at all imply that it is appropriate to turn to this person for religious direction and guidance.

– Rabbi Michael Taubes has been involved in Jewish education, formal as well as informal, for over 40 years, serving both in the classroom and in various administrative posts. He is presently a Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS and Yeshiva University High School for Boys. In addition, he is the spiritual leader of Congregation Zichron Mordechai in Teaneck, N.J.

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