Storm over whom to call ‘Rav’ raises crucial issue


For a Jewish media constantly scouting for scandals, it was the perfect pluralistic storm. Israeli President Moshe Katsav declined to call Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie “Rav,” and the latter, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, took umbrage.

The Forward editorialized its ire, bemoaning Mr. Katsav’s reluctance to summon “some measure of common courtesy.” The New York Jewish Week weighed in with its own judgment of the perceived slight: a “profoundly disturbing” show of “derisive contempt” for “the largest religious body in American Jewry.” Ha’aretz called on all American Jewish leaders to refuse to visit the Israeli president, a suggestion Rabbi Yoffie endorsed.

A posse of pundits pitched in too. The head of the Anti-Defamation League decried Mr. Katsav’s policy; the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union called on him to change it; a past president of the Presidents’ Conference called Mr. Katsav’s position “a slander against all American Jewry.” Several dozen Reform and Meretz-affiliated secularists held a protest outside the Israeli president’s home.

The kerfuffle’s roots lead back to shortly before Rosh Hashana, when an Israeli radio reporter prodded the Israeli president about Jewish religious pluralism and Mr. Katsav explained that his observant background predisposed him to consider only someone who represents the Jewish religious tradition of the ages to be a “Rav.”

Word eventually got back to Rabbi Yoffie. Although the Reform leader admits that the Israeli president has always been “very gracious” and “very forthcoming” to him, he insisted that Mr. Katsav address him with the Hebrew honorific. Mr. Katsav explained that he would be willing to refer to the Reform rabbi as “Reform Rabbi Yoffie” or even with the English word “Rabbi,” but politely declined to grant him the title “Rav,” which, in Israel, is used exclusively to refer to an authority of traditional Jewish belief and practice. On a recent trip to Israel, Rabbi Yoffie chose to break with his personal tradition and not request a meeting with the Israeli president. And the rest was, well, if not history, at least media heaven.

In truth, even the English word “rabbi” presents a challenge to those of us who believe in the divine nature and immutability of the Torah’s laws. Should the word be used to refer to clergy of Jewish movements espousing very different beliefs? And so we weigh the facts:

1) For 3,000 years until fairly recently, a rabbi was someone who affirmed traditional Jewish theology and both practiced and was a scholar of Jewish religious law, or halacha.

2) Today there are institutions that award rabbinical degrees to men and women who do not fit that time-honored definition.

3) Recipients of such degrees consider it personally insulting if their labors are not recognized by the public’s use of the title “Rabbi” for them.

Some contend that Fact No. 1 should trump all else. No one, they say, should have the right to redefine a word at will. How, after all, would vegans like it if a food company decided to label its smoked meats “vegetarian”? Would environmentalists countenance, say, a strip mining venture’s claim to be a “green” company?

Even titles duly conferred by recognized institutions can be employed misleadingly. A Ph.D. in finance is rightly addressed as “doctor,” but most of us would consider it presumptuous for him to hang out a shingle offering surgical services. And that’s not even getting into witch doctors.

Yet, Facts No. 2 and No. 3 persist. I might not feel that a particular university’s standards are sufficient to render meaningful the degrees it awards. But is it proper or polite to refuse to recognize the undeniable fact that the degree was awarded? Would a traditional orthopedist be correct to refuse to refer to a duly credentialed chiropractor — whose discipline of treatment he may feel is quackery — as a doctor?

What some Orthodox writers — myself included — choose to do is identify non-Orthodox clergy clearly (e.g. “Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie”) on first reference, and then yield to the unqualified word “rabbi” in subsequent references. That allows us to be true to our consciences — by making clear at the onset that the subject is something other than what Orthodox Jews consider a religious authority — while not waving a red flag in front of those who might choose to interpret our faithfulness to our beliefs as a personal slur.

And President Katsav offered no less. But Rabbi Yoffie insisted on being called “Rav.” “The essential fact that we are rabbis along with all other rabbis in Israel,” the Reform leader announced, “is a principle [Mr. Katsav] is still not prepared to accept.”

Sometimes words have discrete, and even disparate, meanings. A rose, to be sure, is a rose. But a rabbi is not necessarily a rabbi, and surely not necessarily a Rav. Whatever one chooses to call them, teachers of the Torah’s divinity and halacha’s unchanging nature are in a different theological universe from those who teach rejection of those ideas.

At the end of the day, though, less important than the stance of a president of Israel is the underlying truth that has been brought to the fore here.

Rabbi Yoffie’s umbrage captivated the press and public; conflict sells. But it also did something constructive, by bringing focus to that truth, to the essential and crucial theological gulf between the Jewish religious tradition and contemporary Jewish theologies that compromise it. It is a gulf exceedingly wide and immeasurably deep. When that fact is fully appreciated by all Jews, we will be on our way back to what unified us at Sinai.

Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.