Understanding The Rabbinate

This will be the final post in the impossibly named series I called Rabbi Week. Today, I’d like to discuss what I consider to be the major misconception of the Rabbinate, and wrap things up with some thoughts as to what the future might hold.

First, I find it necessary to revisit a point from my first post in the series. I argued that the primary goal of a Rabbi is to facilitate the greatest degree of Torah observance as he can. For hundreds of years, the Rabbi and the Rabbinical schools were the only bodies which possessed the knowledge and ability to teach Torah. As the only available resource, the Rabbi’s roles and responsibilities were clearly defined, and his authority was usually unquestioned. Today’s Rabbis are not alone in their access to Torah. Today’s laity is significantly better educated than it has been in the past. Consider the countless opportunities of elementary, middle, and high school programs, as well as the yeshivot and seminaries in Israel. The laity possess more of the skills necessary to research and learn Torah on their own. While much of the laity choose to ignore their resources, the committed non-ordained Jew can readily study to the point where he or she equals or even surpasses the knowledge of his or her Rabbi.

Pride: In the Name of “Rav”

To account for this relatively recent phenomenon, I would like to borrow a Brisker hiluk and distinguish between the shem and halot of Rabbi. The shem, or title, of Rabbi can be relatively easy to obtain. I know several people who call themselves Rabbi solely based on their taking R. Zalman Nehemia Goldberg’s open book Yoreh Deah exam. Some do not even pass official tests, but after years of study are given an “ok” by their Yeshiva to be called Rabbi. Including the other denominations, there truly is no standard for who possesses the title of Rabbi.

On the other hand, the halot, or in this case “function” of a Rabbi, is slightly more objective. In order to be an effective Rabbi, one has to be competent and knowledgeable in Jewish law. Some Rabbis are better than others, and many non-ordained people are better then some Rabbis. For one example, my Revel professor Dr. Ya’akov Elman does not have smikha from any institution, yet commands a knowledge of Rabbinic writings from virtually every time period. Though not a Rabbi in title, he certainly could have the function of one.1

The conventional view of Rabbis has been to automatically bestow the halot upon anyone who has the shem. This perception is not just among Orthodox Jews, but it is even more dominant in the other denominations. Former HUC president R. Sheldon Zimmerman was forced to resign his position amid a sex scandal. From what HUC students at the time told me, the CCAR suspended his title of Rabbi, thus prohibiting him from practicing. HUC then responded by saying that it seemed inappropriate for their Rabbinical school to be headed by a non-Rabbi.

The confusion of shem and halot continues in the debates of Rabbinic legitimacy. Officially, Orthodox Judaism does not accept the ordination of the Reform and Conservative movements,2 and this is still a point of contention within the other movements. In this case, it is the Rabbis themselves who place far too much importance on the title. I would argue that whether or not one “accepts” the shem Rabbi from a particular institution is irrelevant, especially when compared to the importance of the halot of a Rabbi.

Women Rabbis

An intriguing development the next generation will face will be regarding the possible ordination of women. Long held as a principle of Conservative Judaism, Orthodox schools will automatically reject the notion. Some might think that the to’anot or Nishmat programs in Israel are precursors to officially ordaining women. I’ve even heard theories that YU’s Women’s Kollel may start ordaining women in the next few decades.

While women today may lack the official title of Rabbi, many posses equal or superior halakhic knowledge than male Rabbis. If I was faced with a question in hilkhot niddah, I would sooner ask one of Nishmat’s yoatzot than anyone from my smikha class. I know who was in my class, I know what was taught there, and I know that they know virtually nothing about niddah when compared to the Nishmat program. This shouldn’t be surprising considering that the Nishmat program is two years of intensive full-time study in the laws of Niddah, and YU’s program is two morning a week for one semester.

However, there is another side to this issue which I have not seen addressed. That is, are the women themselves ready to accept a Rabbinic role? I ask not out of competency or knowledge, since women can be taught as well as, if not better than men. However, as with many significant social changes, the first generation of women Rabbis will be faced with skepticism from their congregants. Based on my interactions with several of the more strong-willed women, I have found that there is a risk of ego getting in the way and a need for personal validation.

I’ll give one example. In the final meeting of my MeORot year, I heard the female intern of HIR complain that despite the progressive culture of the shul, she still was not being respected. For example, she said that whenever she would cite a halakha, people would consistently look up the source. The intern felt this was indicative of disrespect since she felt that the congregants were not taking her knowledge seriously. Furthermore, she asserted that they would not (or do not) double-check the male Rabbis when they lecture.

Perhaps she is right in that the congregants didn’t take her as seriously as they would the male rabbis, and maybe it’s solely because of her gender.3 For whatever the reason, is this really a problem for a Rabbi?

I could be unique on this, but if every time I gave a shiur I caused people to open the books and learn the sources on their own, I’d be thrilled. People who would otherwise be doing other things would be learning Torah because of something I said, and perhaps improving their own observance in the disputed or other areas. Even if people would disagree with me, they would still have to think and study to formulate a coherent response. Even in disagreement, the result would be that I stimulated more Torah study in the congregation.
What sort of Rabbi could possibly view this as a negative?

Furthermore, if I, in fact, did make a mistake, I would want to know about it ASAP. It is imperative for me as a Rabbi and a Jew to have the best understanding that I can so that I can observe Torah the best that I can. Granted, there are respectful and disrespectful ways to argue with a Rabbi, but no Rabbi is above being challenged or critiqued.

As I also referenced in the first post, the honor and ego of the Rabbi must always defer to the honor of the Torah – regardless of gender.
For women to be effective Rabbis, they too must decide if they want the shem or halot of being called a “Rabbi.” If women just want the title or recognition, then it’s quite possible they will never be respected. If they want the halot of being a Rabbi, then as long as they are teaching and spreading Torah it should not matter to them who takes them seriously.

Will there be Orthodox women Rabbis? In terms of shem, see below. In terms of halot, they already exist and have been around for centuries – whether or not people have noticed or cared.

Not Quite Predictions

What I’d Like to See

YU – As much as we would like to see the Rabbinate as a sacred position, in reality it is still just another profession. Consequently, YU could do a much better job in training its students for the real challenges of the Rabbinate, including shul politics. The Rabbinic Training Program (RTP) classes are a good start, but relegating them to Friday mornings not only ensures that no one will take them seriously, but it also increases the perception that it’s not as important as anything else. Yes, the day is full as it is with the smikha program and its co-requisites. But YU could establish a specialized track which would specifically focus on training pulpit Rabbis, and fully integrate this with the rest of the program, perhaps even with the Kollel.

Chovevei – In the meantime, YU could use a healthy dose of competition to wake itself up and hopefully improve itself. Chovevei seems like the best alternative , but I’d like to see two things happen. First, as I suggested, Chovevei needs a superior ordination, ideally that of the full Israeli Rabbanut. In order to compete and to have a voice, it needs to have impeccable credentials. I have been told that the RCA is pressuring Israeli Rabbanut to prevent the Chovevei students from even sitting for the exam, but I’m sure with enough donations to the right places this problem can be rectified. Second, Chovevei should – and from what I’ve been told has started to – tap into the large Jewish community which doesn’t live in the New York area. Yes, there are in fact Jews who live outside of NY. YU Rabbis tend to shy away from doing shlihut in exile, so the market is definitely there. This will allow Chovevei to slowly build a critical mass of congregations. Once armed with the credentials Rabbanut smihka, and having a sizable constituency, then Chovevei can freely act independently of the RCA or any other body’s official recognition.

What You Can Probably Expect4

While I am confident that President Joel will effect significant changes in all aspects of YU, I cannot even begin to guess how the Rabbinic program will be effected. Chovevei will probably not change their ordination, but they will send their graduates out of the NY region, and they will make a difference in the neglected American communities. YU will have no official position, but Chovevei’s graduates will not be accepted by the RCA, at least not until they become much larger in size and influence. Within the next 25 years, one of the two – perhaps both – will ordain women, either as “Rabbi” or as some other invented title. Within the next 50 years, they might even be hired by a shul, and even then I would bet against them serving without a male co-Rabbi.


I’d like to leave you with a story.

    • The first year RTP (formerly SR) classes are mostly introductions to various careers in the Rabbinate. For one of the lectures on education, one of the RIETS administrators came down to speak to us. He first asked “who wants to go into


    • (Jewish Education)?” Most of the students raised their hands. “Why do you want to go into


    • ?” The resounding answer, “To learn!” Expecting this answer, the Rabbi calmly explained, “No. If you want to learn, go to Kollel. You go into


    • because you want to


    • .”

He then continued by asking what are some of the challenges a teacher faces. I said “competency.”

Rabbi: What do you mean?
Me: Well, if you’re a teacher and you want to be employed, you have to be ready to teach whatever the principal wants you to teach, regardless if you’re qualified.
Him: Exactly. You come out of smikha, you might know how to teach gemara, but that doesn’t mean you know anything about how to teach Nach.
Random Guy in Back: Oh come on! How hard could it be to read Yehoshua and Rashi to a bunch of fourth graders.5

I couldn’t tell if the Rabbi looked at him with disdain, pity, or regret for him having been accepted to Rabbinical school in the first place.

The point is this. YU is full of people like the Random Guy. If you focus on those types, you will understandably have a pessimistic view of the future of the Rabbinate. However, it will also be quite skewed. Of YU’s Rabbinical students, most will not “use” their smikha at all and will go get normal jobs. Of those who remain, even fewer will take pulpits. What this means is that those who remain are usually the most committed of their class. Furthermore, these will also be the more intelligent and serious rabbinical students. Among those interested in pursuing Rabbinic careers, several friends of mine are also working toward PhD’s or other advanced degrees – you just won’t hear about them for a few more years.

Despite all the real problems in the Orthodox Rabbinate, I do not think all is hopeless. YU and Chovevei will continue to produce their share of quality Rabbis, and those who don’t want the title will continue to grow in their own way. Recognizing the difference between the shem and halot should help minimize the tensions not only within Orthodoxy, but between the other denominations as well.


  1. Although if you’d ask Dr. Elman himself for a pesak halakha, he’d say that he isn’t a Rabbi.
  2. In another classic R. Tendler moment, he once told us in shiur that he called a Reform rabbi “Doctor.” The puzzled Rabbi corrected, “But I’m not a doctor.” To which R. Tendler responded, “True, but you’re not a Rabbi either.”
  3. I can think of other reasons, such as delivery. Rabbi Linzer obviously possesses a thorough command of almost everything and it’s evident in his shiurim. Consequently, people may trust his interpretations more than they would with someone else.
  4. Based on where things are now. Not a guarantee. Predictions subject to change.
  5. Yes, that’s a direct quote. I was sitting next to Ben Resnick who nearly had a coronary.


  1. Shana
  2. Raquel
  3. Uri
  4. Daniel
  5. Daniel
  6. Shlomo
  7. Rabbi Alan Yuter
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