Who’s Afraid of Scare Quotes: The Politics of Punctuation

For almost as long as there have been rabbis, there have been rabbinic insults. Whether sages were calling each other children, referring to one’s younger brother as “the firstborn of Satan,” or exchanging, “God save us from your opinion” with each other, rabbinic discourse was not always as dignified as we might imagine.

But even if a degree of incivility is justified by rabbinic tradition, some insults are seen as outside the boundaries of acceptable discourse. One such insult is referring to a “Rabbi” with scare quotes. 

Common objections include that rabbinic scare quotes are a uniquely offensive insult because it not only dismisses the personal effort (and sometimes money) invested but it is a complete delegitimization of everything the individual’s professional credentials and religious affiliations.

For their part, those who address rabbis with scare quotes would probably concede to these criticisms because that is entirely the point.

Why Scare Quotes

The MLA defines the purpose of scare quotes as, “to convey an ironic, skeptical, or even derisive stance toward the word or phrase they enclose.” It’s not uncommon to find scare quotes in the context of academic degrees or professions, the former referring to deficient qualifications and the latter being a comment on professional competency and integrity. Scare quotes around “Rabbi” may refer to either (or both) as well as impugning the implications of the rabbinic title such as a conveyer of religious authority.Rabbi” in scare quotes signals the target is lacking expertise, unworthy of honor, an imposter of authority, and/or generally an illegitimate representative of Judaism.

This sort of rhetoric exists in part due to the complete lack of uniform standards for ordination. The original process for ordination has not been in effect for over 1,500 years which means no one since then has ever been a “real” rabbi.1 Without the original ordination, the criteria for bestowing the rabbinic title has varied wildly between institutions and “private” ordinations conferred by individual rabbis. The result, as I once put it, is that “an individual who has mastered a vast corpus of Jewish texts…may hold the exact same title as a functional illiterate with a guitar.”

When anyone can invent their own criteria for ordination, then we can no longer presume a shared baseline for expertise or even observance. And once the rabbinic title is conferred, these rabbis may then leverage the title to presume authority and legitimacy. This creates a religious tension beyond mere disagreements. These rabbis aren’t just seen as mistaken but as imposters who must be discredited in order to preserve the integrity of Judaism. 

Common Targets

Quantifying the use of rabbinic scare quotes is difficult due to the quirks of search engines. Most search engines interpret quotes as a boolean AND operator rather than as strings to be searched (assuming the engine recognizes punctuation at all). The most I can share here are my anecdotal observations from spending way too much time online. And from what I have seen, the most frequent targets of “rabbi” in scare quotes are one of two types of rabbis: non-Orthodox2 and Messianists.

There are important distinctions between the various non-Orthodox denominations such as Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist, but for our purposes, their shared trait is that none of them are Orthodox. As such, they are more likely to deviate from “traditional” beliefs and practices. To some Orthodox Jews (and even some non-Jews) certain promoted beliefs and practices may be unrecognizable as “Jewish” and thus perceived to be inauthentic.3 From this perspective, rabbis who espouse these beliefs and practices are categorically disqualified and seen as appropriating the rabbinic title for presumptive legitimacy.4

The same arguments apply to Messianists, except now they are also made by non-Orthodox rabbis. When Vice President Mike Pence spoke at a rally with the Messianist Loren Jacobs, non-Orthodox rabbis criticized referring to Jacobs as a rabbi, with some invoking scare quotes around “rabbi.” As another explains:

“We don’t even recognize him as a rabbi,” Rabbi Marla Hornsten, past president of the Michigan Board of Rabbis, told NBC News. “Even to call him a rabbi is offensive.”

The Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism elaborates:

“Judaism itself is a multi-denominational religion that encompasses multiple forms of expression and belief,” said the Rabbinical Assembly, an organization that represents the rabbis of the Conservative Movement, in a statement. “Nonetheless, so-called Messianic Judaism’ is not a Jewish movement, and the phrase ‘Jews for Jesus’ is a contradiction in terms, insofar as Judaism does not recognize Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.”

Thus non-Orthodox rabbis may find themselves on both sides of the same rhetoric of rejection.5

 

Observations and Implications

Behind the seemingly juvenile practice of name-calling, debates over rabbinic scare quotes are several underappreciated points to consider.

First, the complaint that the use of rabbinic scare violates some collegial norm is not an argument of propriety as much as legitimacy. If scare quotes are justifiable in certain situations but not others, then the real argument is over who deserves it. As John Stuart Mill writes in On Liberty:

With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation.

Second, the rejection of Messianic Judaism and its rabbis necessarily implies a rejection of self-identification as a singular source of legitimacy. Basing Jewishness or rabbinic status on personal identification has its benefits such as affirming an individual’s chosen identity and sidestepping theological debates.6 Michael Satlow takes this approach in his indispensable introduction to Creating Judaism: History, Tradition, Practice:

By Israel I refer to self-identity, the act of identifying as a member of am yisrael and the particular self-understanding of what that identification means. All groups that self-identify as Jews “count,” and, however much other Jewish communities contest their identity, their own self-characterization puts them on the map. These communities identify themselves as Jews, locating themselves (or not) within a sacred narrative and a bloodline. The objective truth of this claim is less important in this case than the community’s self-perception; being part of Israel begins with the claim to be, not with some outsider judging whether that claim is correct.(8)

But what happens when people self-identify as Jewish while holding obviously troubling theological positions? Satlow later qualifies:

The boundaries of tradition might be broad, but they do exist. Messianic Jews and Black Hebrews have, from a non-normative perspective, every right to call themselves “Israel,” but through their rejection of the postbiblical Jewish literature they have largely ceased to engage in the same conversation as other Jewish communities. Similarly, secular and humanistic Jews, with their rejection of God, puts them outside the limits of the conversation as defined by the tradition. (15)

Anyone can identify as “Jewish” but no one is entitled to acceptance. Satlow concedes that “boundaries of tradition” exist. But once we admit that conformity to “boundaries of tradition” is a requirement for recognition, then the conversation shifts to defining and defending those borderlines. For Satlow, these boundaries include rejecting God or the rabbinic tradition but others may have their own criteria. 

This brings me to my final point that demanding religious recognition is no less of a theological imposition than those promoted by parochial rejectionists. Everyone seems to concede to the existence of boundaries, but there is much debate over setting those boundaries. A rejected group that demands recognition essentially denies others the right to set their own boundaries. The alternative is to claim that their chosen definitions are objective, universal, and I daresay, “orthodox.”

Eugene Borowitz (1924-2016), a leading intellectual of contemporary Reform Judaism acknowledges this point:

Theologically, Orthodoxy cannot recognize the teaching of Progressive Judaism as valid. The basic, authoritative Jewish texts of Jewish law clearly classify our modernist reinterpretation of Judaism as heresy, apikorsutWe cannot ask Orthodoxy to violate its own faith and accept Progressive Judaism, de jure, as a fully equivalent, if alternative, interpretation of Judaism.7

Even as R. Borowitz does not accept Orthodox Judaism for himself, he concedes that expecting Orthodox Jews to his way of thinking would be hypocritical.

Final Thoughts

I personally choose not to resort to using rabbinic scare quotes on the grounds they’re needlessly antagonistic ad hominem and do little to convince others. At the same time, I believe they’ll continue for as long as fights over religious legitimacy continue due to their simplicity and emotional impact. 

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Notes

  1. Myself included
  2. I do not recall seeing Orthodox rabbis addressed with scare quotes on their rabbinic title, though it is not uncommon to find scare quotes around “Orthodox,” which I believe is a fair parallel. From what I have seen, the use of scare quotes is most often used to the religious right of their target to besmirch their religious authenticity. The delegitimization I have seen used from the religious left tends not to attack the religious authenticity of the religious right, but rather their perceived extremism or fundamentalism.
  3. There are important distinctions between the various non-Orthodox denominations such as Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist, but for our purposes, their shared trait is that none of them are Orthodox. As such, they are more likely to deviate from “traditional” beliefs and practices. To some Orthodox Jews (and even some non-Jews) certain promoted beliefs and practices may be unrecognizable as “Jewish” and thus perceived to be inauthentic. From this perspective, rabbis who espouse these beliefs and practices are categorically disqualified and seen as appropriating the rabbinic title for presumptive legitimacy.
  4. While not as common, I occasionally find rabbinic scare quotes responding to a rabbi’s politics.
  5. Note that the validity of the rabbinic title is contingent on Jewishness. The title “rabbi” is exclusive to Judaism such that one cannot be a non-Jewish rabbi. All major denominations happen to agree that Messianic Jews aren’t Jews, but there are much larger questions regarding “who is a Jew?” Most notably, Orthodox Jews do not recognize the Jewishness of those whose Jewishness depends on patrilineal descent or non-halakhic conversions even if such individuals received denominational ordination.
  6. In a sense, this is more of a sociological definition than a theological one, though one could argue that framing Judaism as a sociological entity rather than a religious one is itself a theological statement
  7. Borowitz, Eugene B. “Co-Existing with Orthodox Jews.” Journal of Reform Judaism 34, no. 3 (1987): 53–62.
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