Thursday, August 12, 2010

Please Call Me Mister Wolf

"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.

The Wolf

* Calmly and politely, of course.  I don't usually rant and rave at strangers.


Baruch Pelta said...

Ech, go easy. I was in Jerusalem for awhile and it became habitual to call everyone I knew over 30 "rabbi" because everyone I knew in that category was more knowledgable about Judaism than me.

(Once I accidentally called my goyishe dentist "rabbi." He said, "That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me.")

gavra@work said...

I have also been asked on the phone "Is Rabbi Gavra there"?

I responded sorry, there is no "Rabbi Gavra" here.

Asks: "is this xxx-xxx-xxxx?"

I say "Yes, but sorry, Rabbi Gavra doesn't live here".

She apologizes and hangs up.

Mike S. said...

Rav Henkin has a brief t'shuvah on inflation of rabbinic titles in one of the volumes of Bnei Banim. The tshuvah has both serious and humorous aspects.

JRS said...

In the Lakewood Yeshiva Phone Directory (and, for that matter, in real life), all adult males are referred to as Rabbi. I'm just sayin'...

Anonymous said...

Not opening mail clearly addressed to you because they call you "Rabbi" is a little extreme.
Yes, the title Rabbi is indeed meaningless. Both because it has been cheapened and because of the frequency of those with the titles and position to match have demonstrated how little meaning the word and title have.

On the scale of things to stew about and fight about, this one is relatively trivial.

Think through your Brooklyn neighborhood with all the ba'alei nefesh who are walking around and making u-turns in middle of busy 2 way streets, running stop signs, cutting lines, but they do dress as ba'alei nefesh and have their minhagim tailored to being ba'alei nefesh. That's a lot worse than the egregious title inflation you are annoyed about.

It's similar on the secular side as well. College grads are asked to pass proficiency tests at an eighth grade literacy level. It's just modernity and the good ol USA.

BT"W I agree but it just isn't worth getting upset over.

BrooklynWolf said...

Ech, go easy.

Well, it's not like I hit him or even raised my voice. I simply made the point.

The Wolf

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Before i got semikha I would make sarcastic comments to people who called me 'Rabbi' in order to get them to see the absurdity of speaking counterfactually. Now i don't respond to people unless they *do* call me "Rabbi" ;-) J/K

I spent the last days of Pesaḥ in Lakewood this past year, and it was my first time there. The universality of all adult males being "rabbi"s was sorta weird -- i saw a form note from my friend's children's school that was addressed to "Rabbi & Mrs. ___(fill in the blank)___". But i think in Lakewood, getting semikha is like graduating college. So it's just sort of assumed. Everyone studies in The Yeshiva there for a few years, just like in many other Jewish communities everyone goes to college.

BrooklynWolf said...

Not opening mail clearly addressed to you because they call you "Rabbi" is a little extreme.

Perhaps it might be. Nonetheless, I feel that this is important enough to me to make the stand.

It should be noted that John Tyler, who became president after William Henry Harrison died, refused to open mail sent to "The Acting President."

Think through your Brooklyn neighborhood

Of course there are other issues to get upset over. There are even issues worse than the ones you mentioned. But if I'm to follow that logic, then I'd never write about anything except a single topic (whatever topic we determine to be the "worst" one that needs the most attention).

But that's not how I run my blog. I write about what interests me - and, after the conversation I had last night, this interested me.

Is going through a red light or child molestation a worse issue than this? Certainly. But that doesn't mean that I can't mention this.

The Wolf

Lion of Zion said...


mazal tov


"Not opening mail clearly addressed to you because they call you "Rabbi" is a little extreme. "

actually it's a practical measure, as it's most likely a solicitation for money

"It's similar on the secular side as well. "

i have a doctorate degree that i reserve for rare situations where i need it to throw my weight around with a credential, but otherwise it just sounds silly to use it even in professional situations because, among other reasons, as of a few years ago it's the lowest degree you can get in this field. i certainly never use it in my private life.

"It's just modernity and the good ol USA."

complaining about rabbinic title inflation goes back centuries

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Dr Of Zion:


Larry Lennhoff said...

Calling you 'Rabbi' makes it clear you are male. One would think 'Mister' would accomplish the same thing, but 'Mister' is goyish while 'Rabbi' is Jewish.

No less (and no more) than Avi Shafran said "What matters is not the honorifics we sport but the honors we earn."

Rebeljew said...

A story:

When Isur Zalman Melcer was being considered for the position of the Rav of Slutsk, he had no smicha, even though he had been the Alter of Slobodka, the gold standard of Jewish scholarship, for several years. The community leaders wrote to the hanhala of the yeshiva asking why he had never been given smicha.

They responded, "yoreh yoreh, yadin yadin", understood to confer smicha on him right then.

The title in the time of Rabbi Akiva referred to authoritative opinions of the court, much as a supreme court justice would be in our times. That is why the Gemora can quote them as authorities.

E. Fink said...

Reb Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz felt the same way.

He did not permit anyone to call him Rabbi. He went by Mr. Mendelowitz.

ProfK said...

Going back decades, both here and in Europe in particular, only those who were "practicing" rabbanim--in a shul or a yeshiva or as clear community leaders--were called rabbi. Even if you had semicha but you weren't "working" as a rabbi, you MIGHT have been addressed as "Reb Tzvi" or "Reb Smith" but not as Rabbi Smith, and plenty of people without the semicha who were referred to the same way. Sounds to me like a whole lot of people are awfully makid on their kovod when they insist on the rabbi title but aren't working rabbanim.

My zaide had semicha but never used the title rabbi since he was in business. The only time the title was used, strangely enough, was by the secular government, where he was known as "Herr Doktor Rabbiner," and basically it allowed zaide not to be conscripted into the Hungarian army since clergy were not taken.

Steg, equating that everyone goes to yeshiva in Lakewood to everyone going to college in the secular world has only one problem: if the semicha is being equated to the BA/BS degree then no title would be used. People with college degrees do not go around telling you to call them BA Smith or BS Jones. For these people rabbi is the name of the degree, not the title that goes with a profession.

ProfK said...

Sorry, that should be makpid on their kovod.

Lion of Zion said...



MR. WOLF (no first name basis anymore, huh?)

i used to get a lot of people calling me up for bar mitzva lessons, blowing shofar, etc. refer to me as rabbi and i always informed them i'm not a rabbi. i realized that a lot of non-religious people think that anyone who professes to have some jewish knowledge (especially when of the type necessary for public ritual functions) must be a rabbi. (my father has had the same reaction doing a funeral.)

the rabbi of my shul (he was a chabadnik, and they are among the worst offenders of title inflation) always used to introduce me in the presence of these non-religious people as rabbi zion. i asked him a few times not to do this, but i really put my foot down after he did it once in front of the entire shul during a bar mitzva (when thanking me for teaching the kid). i told him that to stop, unless he was willing to put his semicha for me in writing.

"I generally keep a low profile in the community"

you're a baal kore, so don't sell yourself short. the shul can do fine without rabbis (geniune or otherwise), but it can't do without a baal kore.

BrooklynWolf said...

MR. WOLF (no first name basis anymore, huh?)

You can call me by my first name (The) anytime. :)

you're a baal kore, so don't sell yourself short. the shul can do fine without rabbis (geniune or otherwise), but it can't do without a baal kore.

True... but this wasn't the shul that I lain in. The shul I lain in is about a ten to fifteen minute walk from my home. This shul was on the next block. In that shul (and in my immediate neighborhood) I do try to keep a low profile.

The Wolf

S. said...

>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 true, perhaps, in their case. But really the title "rabbi" was not used originally, which is why Hillel and Shammai or always Hillel and Shammai. It sort of annoys me when people like Shimon ben Shatach are mistakenly called "Rabbi Shimon." In fact, a geonic tradition has it that "gadol me-rav rabbi - gadoal me-rabbi rabban - gadol mi-rabban shemo." It is not a kavod to call Hillel "Rabbi Hillel." It's the opposite.

There's also a difficult to understand, but extremely interesting Tosefta (Eduyos 3.4, Zukermandl) which says מי שיש לו תלמידים ותלמידיו קוראין אותו רבי נשתכחו תלמידיו קוראין אותו רבן נשתכחו אילו ואילו קוראין אותו בשמו

This seems to mean "when his students are forgotten." But a variant has נשתבחו instead, "when his students are praised."

Thus, according to this Tannaitic source "One who has talmidim and they have talmidim is called Rabbi. If his talmidim are praised (or forgotten?) then he is called Rabban. If both sets of talmidim are praised (forgotten?) then he is called by his name."

This at least was the explanation for the titles in the Tannaic period.

tesyaa said...

It should be noted that John Tyler, who became president after William Henry Harrison died, refused to open mail sent to "The Acting President."

Totally different. Harrison was the first prez who died in office and there was no precedent for what should be done. Tyler insisted that he was president, despite a fair amount of opposition. Opening "Acting President" letters would have fueled the ammunition against him.

In his case he was being given less honor than he thought he deserved. In your case, not knowing if you have smicha, the senders are giving you more honor than you may deserve (in their eyes at least).

Rebeljew said...

In our times, every religious Jew who has a good reputation should not refuse to be called Rabbi. This can give you a stronger air of authority around those who may want to know more about Judaism, and you are certainly capable of teaching them properly.

This should not fall to false humility either, since in our times, most people are ignorant of Judaism and the sources of misinformation are wide spread.

Lion of Zion said...


"This can give you a stronger air of authority around those who may want to know more about Judaism"

so you are of the school of thought that justifies when kiruv organizations engage in decpetion?

THE (formerly Mr. WOLF, formerly THE WOLF):

what also upsets me about the whole title inflation thing is that if you *don't* have it you're considered a nothing. this is especially apparent in our schools, where semicha (real or otherwise) has become a requirement for jobs where it is not relevant, e.g., in adminstration, secular studies and even in a lot of limude kodesh. (my son in first grade next year has a morah *and* a rebbe. for what? so i can pay even more tuition?)

S. said...

>what also upsets me about the whole title inflation thing is that if you *don't* have it you're considered a nothing.

This is true. Some very big talmidei chachomim, or at least experts in very specific areas of Torah, do not call themselves rabbi, and are afforded less respect than a grade school rebbe.

However, semicha is not - as far as I know - required in all those jobs where people are called rabbi. For example, your son's rebbe very probably does NOT have semicha. But it is considered unacceptable for a grown man teaching boys Torah to not be CALLED rabbi, or for a grown man who collects tuitions for yeshiva to not be called rabbi, and so they are so called, whether they know Yoreh Deah or not. My friend is a rebbe in a yeshiva. He was chagrined when he was told that he had to be referred to and called Rabbi (the kids calling him "rebbe" is not, IMO, the same thing). They didn't care in the slightest that he did not have semichah. But now he is Rabbi X, because his job requires it! - and probably he will be called that for the rest of his life.

That said, I can understand Rebeljew's point about not shooting down a Jew without knowledge who calls you that. They may not get the whole

It's also worth noting (although utterly irrelevant) that according to the Tashbetz Rabbanite Jews began calling each other "rabbi" as a mocking sort of response to the Karaites. See Eliezer's post here:

Lion of Zion said...



true, i doubt my son's first grade rebbe has semicha. and i also have a friend who is a rebbe in an elementary school and has received semicha from them. but that just makes this whole thing even sillier. and the silliest part is that schools often pay the rebbeim more than the morahs/teachers with the excuse that semicha is the equivalent of an advanced degree. whether semicha is or isn't an advanced degree becomes irrelevant if the teacher in question doesn't really have it to begin with.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

This whole honorary semikha for all male Limudey Ḳodesh teachers nonsense is one of the reasons i refused to get semikha for years (before i sold out and went back to school). I wanted to fight the system! At least now i may be Rabbi DINDŠ, but at least i'm still not a liar.

Mr. Wolf:

I thought "Brooklyn" was your first name! You know, like the Gargoyle ;-)

Rebeljew said...


Title inflation is precisely the point. Rabbi today means little more than that you might have taken a test on general kashrut. In some places, it doesn't even mean that. At its core, it simply means that you were approved by someone else who was approved by someone else, based on unknown criteria.

Hence, I disagree that it is deceptive. Rabbi, to many laymen, simply means "knowledgeable". There is no legal or moral ramifications as there would be for "doctor" or "certified", for the way that most people use the term. If you were so concerned, you might point out that you do not have s'micha or state privileges, but if someone insisted on calling you Rabbi afterward, I would not stand on honor. They are just using the word in the sense that I describe above. I was not suggesting that someone without smicha INSIST on being called Rabbi. That would be deceptive. Still the term carries no universal common meaning or connotation.

Eees said...

So, what should I call you?
"Mr. Husband"
"Mr. Wolf"
"Mr. The Wolf"
"Mr. The"
"The" (told you it WAS you!)
Too many choices. ;)

soso said...

Oh, professor, we viennese are famous for attributing non-earned titles.

Ephraim Kishon wrote a nice story about it ("if they already give away titles for free, I insist on being a professor")

Actually, at my sisters wedding,(in Vienna, of course) they would refer to me as Mag. Soso, so I told them that
1) I was not a Mag. (equivalent of MA)
2) If already they were attributing false titles, they could have given me a phd.

Anonymous said...

To quote Moliere (from The Misanthrope), "To honor all is to honor none".

Reuven said...

Mr. Wolf,

Why are comments disabled on the new post?

Are you possibly a danger to yourself? The last 3-4 weeks you've been self-critical in the CR, and it seemed you were parodying how you felt others saw you. More recently it seems you may actually believe it. Are you feeling a loss in faith?

miriamp said...

Interesting bit of relevant trivia:

I was at Touro Synagogue yesterday, and the tour guide explained how the congregation sent to Europe for a Rabbi when they were finally enough Jewish families to justify obtaining a Rabbi and building a shul. A 19 year old rabbinical student was sent from Holland to be the congregation's spiritual leader before he actually received s'micha (and consequently, he never actually did receive s'micha.) He is therefore referred to as "Reverend Isaac Touro" on all the plaques, NOT as "Rabbi."

Mark said...

Dr. LOZ - i have a doctorate degree

That's it ... I'm going to call you Dr. LOZ from now on :-)