"Hey, Rabbi! How are you this evening?"
I had just left shul after davening Ma'ariv last night when the question rang out from the darkness behind me. I turned around to see a fellow walking after me. I figured he must have been calling out to me since I was the only other person walking in that direction.
The fact of the matter is that I am not a rabbi. I never have been and, in all probability, never will be one. In the past I had given some consideration towards going for semicha (ordination), but I never seriously followed up on it.
"I don't know whom you're talking to," I responded. "I'm not a rabbi and there's no one else here."
It turns out that he was, indeed, talking to me. I could easily excuse his error since he didn't know me (I generally keep a low profile in the community) and probably did not know whether I was a rabbi or not.
After I politely pointed out his error to him, he defended his position by saying that today, everyone's a rabbi. And, to pity the poor fellow, that's when I let him have it*, for this is one of my pet peeves -- the nearly universal application of the title of Rabbi.
I am a firm believer in the theory that only those who have earned the title Rabbi should use it. If someone sends mail to my house addressed to "Rabbi Wolf" or "Rabbi & Mrs. Wolf," I don't open it. I'm not "Rabbi Wolf." If someone calls and asks for Rabbi Wolf, I tell them (politely, of course) that they've reached Mr. Wolf and that there is no Rabbi Wolf at this number. And I let the fellow who greeted me know that I don't believe in applying titles to those who haven't earned them.
Personally, I feel that if you apply the title of "Rabbi" to everyone, then it cheapens the title until it becomes meaningless. After all, what value is there in a title if every other person in the community has the same title? Is there value in being a General in the army if everyone else is a general? What makes a doctorate degree so distinctive if everyone in the world is to be called "doctor?" So, too, I feel, by calling everyone "Rabbi," it denigrates both the title and the very real efforts of those who have worked to achieve it. When the fellow answered to me that the title was already demeaned, I said "so why demean it further by applying it to those who haven't earned it?"
To further prove my point, I pointed out to him the tana'im Ben Azai and Ben Zoma. There is a reason by we don't refer to these people as "Rabbi Shimon ben Azai" and "Rabbi Shimon ben Zoma." The reason, very simply, is because they did not earn semicha. That's not to say that Ben Azai and Ben Zoma weren't brilliant talmiedi chachamim and scholars. They certainly were; but the fact remains that, due to other circumstances in their lives, they never earned semicha, and hence, we don't apply the title of "Rabbi" to them. Yes, there were tana'im who didn't use the title "Rabbi" (such as Hillel and Shammai, for example), but they came from the earlier generations when the practice of using the title had not become common. Ben Azai and Ben Zoma, on the other hand, were contemporaries of Rabbi Akiva, by whose time the title was used for those who earned semicha.
The fellow I was talking to wasn't swayed by my arguments and, at the end of the discussion, we had to agree to disagree. Of course, he certainly didn't mean to demean the title of "rabbi" by using it on me - he was simply trying to be friendly. I understand that. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that, barring exceptional circumstances, the title should be reserved for those who have earned it. I suppose one could make the case for an "honorary" rabbi for someone who is clearly a gadol but has, for whatever reason never received semicha, but I clearly do not fall into that class. So for me, I'd prefer it if you call me Mister Wolf.
* Calmly and politely, of course. I don't usually rant and rave at strangers.