Introduction: Rabbinic Identities
About a month after I started as rabbi of the Stanton St. Shul, the first internal conflict I had to resolve was over a question of rabbinic recognition. A scheduled academic speaker had been ordained by a non-Orthodox institution, and one member objected to addressing this person by the title “Rabbi” on the grounds that non-Orthodox institutions tend to disregard Jewish law.1 In the end, my psak wasn’t so much to address the speaker as “Rabbi” but to ask how she preferred to be addressed and follow whatever she said.2 Still, I felt the need to defend my position to the congregant.
The answer I gave to the congregant was something I had written about fifteen years ago when I was first starting to develop my thoughts on authority in Judaism. I applied a “Brisker” distinction between the shem or “title” of “Rabbi” and the halot or “status” of being a religious authority. Just as people might still call incompetent physicians “doctor,” they wouldn’t necessarily consult them for medical advice. I suggested the same ought to apply for the rabbinate. We could still call people by their “title” out of professional courtesy, but we would not bestow the halakhic status of consulting over religious matters or give deference to those who are unworthy.
The congregant was not impressed with my distinction, and I can understand why. The rabbinic title is supposed to imply religious authority as it has since its inception.3 While this may have been appropriate in the past, conflating the rabbinic title and status has gradually led to a religious reality is at best confusing and at worst manipulative.