A Discussion on the Term Rabbi

By: Yair Shavrick  |  April 24, 2020

By Yair Shavrick, Staff Writer

I believe that one of the worst things in life is stagnation, for if you are not growing, you are diminishing. Plenty of times we are content with the status quo of our knowledge, but I find that comes from a place of ignorance. Delving into a topic, regardless of one’s prior understanding, can always bring something unknown and enlightening to the table. With this in mind, I invite you to read this discussion, not debate. The point of this article is to be more open-minded and listen to other approaches to topics we may think are cut and dry.

My entire life I have battled with a question with which the more experience I gain, the less clarity I receive: What is a rabbi? I’ve heard answers such as “someone who’s acquired smicha,” “a knowledgeable Jew,” and “a leader in the Jewish community.” My Catholic colleague once thought that any Jewish person with a beard was a rabbi. I’ve heard of rabbis who don’t have smicha, yet their knowledge of Torah studies are far more vast than the average person with smicha. It isn’t common practice, but rabbis can gain their titles from a pious rabbi without taking any tests. I’ve met rabbis who aren’t as knowledgeable as they should be. And I have surely met rabbis who don’t have the charisma to lead a community. So who’s right? 

Well, the one clear answer is that there is no clear answer. The first thing to understand is that the term “rabbi” is one of respect. Throughout my schooling in Modern Orthodox day school, every Judaic studies teacher was called rabbi, regardless of their previous education level. Do they deserve the title? Is it even appropriate to use the label? 

In Chabad circles, many of the men go through a smicha process before they get married. But if everyone is a rabbi, is anyone a rabbi? Rabbis in many aspects are meant to be leaders, and not everyone can be the leader. 

One thing to understand about receiving this coveted title is that people look up to it. Once someone is called a rabbi, they bear the weight of setting an example for everyone else. This means they are to conduct themselves righteously and are held to a higher standard. It may not seem fair, but they reflect the leadership and overall population of Jews. When a rabbi acts in an immoral way or breaches American law, should they retain their title?

We, as Jews, value Torah knowledge and Torah study highly. My cousin just went through a Chumash-giving ceremony for his finishing of a chapter in Genesis. How different is receiving smicha to my seven-year-old cousin’s small ceremony? Meaning, are we giving something special to the people who deserve a coveted term, or is it a mere acknowledgment that there was finishing of requisite requirements?

I do not mean to encourage cross-examination of every rabbi you encounter or hear about. Not every rabbi is created equal, and that does not necessarily make any given rabbi an inherently “bad” rabbi. One can easily understand this when comparing a run of the mill rabbi to a gadol hador. It doesn’t diminish from the other rabbis, but it shows that the title can have a large discrepancy within itself. Yeshivish and Hasidic sects of Judaism tend to not have female rabbis, while Conservative and Reform do. Does that mean that one is more right than the other? That isn’t for me to decide in this article, or even in person. 

I hope this article has helped you to consider the thought of what a rabbi is, or even what a rabbi means to you. It doesn’t need to mean the same thing for everyone. If I choose not to ascribe to a specific definition, that’s fine, as Judaism is a spectrum. No two people are in the same place and Judaism means different things to different people.