Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 5 July 2008 / 2 Tammuz 5768

Title of Honor

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Akiva in Atlanta

Dear Rabbi,

This question may come across as rude but I certain don’t mean it to be. Here is the situation: I have great respect for rabbis, but it also happens that people who are called “rabbis” don’t fit my description of a rabbi, neither in learnedness nor in behavior. Such people I just can’t respect, and I feel justified in treating them like any other average person. Surely they shouldn’t get special respect if they don’t deserve it, should they?

Dear Akiva,

I understand the logic of your opinion, and it makes sense to a certain degree. A person who hasn’t learned law or medicine, for example, should not be respected like a lawyer or a doctor. So too, someone who doesn’t qualify as a rabbi should not be afforded the respect due to those who do.

Still, there are some significant differences.

For one, there are standard criteria for what makes one a doctor or lawyer. However, this is not the case regarding the title “rabbi”. While there are formal requirements for gaining the professional distinction of rabbi, the term is accepted as applying more loosely as well, to include anyone in a teaching position who has some proficiency in Jewish texts and ideas. The result is that even people who are not on the highest standard of erudition or ethical behavior are still referred to as rabbi.

Does this mean that they should be treated as any average person?

First of all, every person should be treated with utmost respect. If in addition to this the person is elderly, or at least older than you, there is an additional element of respect due to the person because of his age. And even if he’s young, insofar as he probably has more-than-average Torah knowledge (even if not of the highest standard), he should be honored as due to Torah scholars, who anyway are like are budding rabbis.

But there’s more to it than that. If this person is accepted by others, possibly by an organization, as a “rabbi”, there is a certain degree of honor due to the person because of the title, even if you feel he does not qualify as a rabbi. First, your feelings about, and assessment of, the person might be wrong. Alternatively, there might be some personality clash that prevents you from seeing his true value. And even if you are right, the organization views this person as having what it takes to be called a rabbi, and the opinion of his rabbis are honored by honoring him. So there is value to the title of “rabbi” alone that is worth more respect than for just any other person.

Of course, if the person’s ideas and behavior are outright reprehensible, no special honor is due as a rabbi. Still, one should right the wrong in an honorable way. But when something like this happens, this extreme is usually not the case. Rather, the person is just not particularly learned or exemplary. In such a case, if you choose to remain in the presence of the “rabbi”, you should be tolerant and patient. More often than not, you’ll still learn new things or see old things in a new light.

Conversely, you may choose to leave the presence of the “rabbi”, which is perfectly fine. When these feelings occur, it’s often an indication that you have reached some spiritual plateau and it’s time to work hard to elevate yourself to the next level. Still, after having grown past that plateau, one often comes to appreciate more fully those who helped him get to where he is. And this is another reason to respect the “rabbi”: in most cases, even if he’s not particularly instructive or impressive to you, he’s helping other people grow – and that’s special.

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