Friday, January 15, 2016

Do Titles Really Mean That Much?

Graduates of Yeshivat Maharat
Although we are coming from polar opposite positions with respect to the ordination of women - in an odd sort of way, I agree with Rachel Rosenthal. She proposes in a Forward article that we dispense with titles and judge people on merit. That would be ‘utopian’, as she puts it.  But as she indicates, this will never happen in the real world. This was a reality that Ms. Rosenthal was forced to face.  She does  however make a reasonable argument for eliminating titles.

To paraphrase a great Jewish philosopher of 20th century who once commented on the antisemitism that excluded Jews from memberships in certain country clubs: ‘I don’t think much of any club that would have me as a member.’ By this I mean that once I have achieved a certain status, the value of that status becomes diminished in my eyes. If I can do this, it’s no big deal. That is kind of the way I feel about my own Semicha. If I have it, Semicha ain’t worth all that much.

The truth is that Ms. Rosenblum is right. Semicha is granted to men rather casually in a great number of cases. Not everyone goes through the rigors of the required years of Talmud study after which they study the relevant portions of the Shulchan Aruch, take tests, pass them; and then receive a document called Yoreh, Yoreh in Hebrew. Accompanied with an English counterpart document (as HTC gives) stating they have a right to be called ‘Rabbi, Preacher, and Teacher in Israel’ (…meaning the Jewish people – not the Jewish State).

Not everyone that calls themselves rabbi has done that. And even among those that have, not everyone is equal in Torah knowledge or Halacha. Not everyone ‘aced’ their Bechinos (exams). I know a few people that can barely read Hebrew and yet have managed to somehow pass their Bechinos and get Semicha.

There are some Yeshivos that will give you Semicha (if you need it for a job) just by having learned enough years in their institution – without taking a single test. In fact my alma mater, HTC, will give someone what is called a ‘Rav U’Manhig’ (rabbi and leader) allowing them to be called rabbi for purposes of being hired for a rabbinic position - as long as they were in a high enough Shiur. Again without taking a single Bechina. (I don’t know if HTC still does that. But that was the case in my time there.)

There are people that get training to be a Mashgiach at various food establishments or catering facilities that are nowhere near having studied the requisite material for Semicha. They are referred to as ‘rabbi’ all the time by their employers or their staff. (Some actually do have Semicha, but certainly not all.)

There are also the ‘quicky’ Semichas that can be easily be achieved in Israel from private individuals for a small fee. And as Ms. Rosenthal points out, you can get Semicha on the internet!

One may rightfully ask, if I don’t think that much of Semicha, why do I make such a big deal about women getting it? I have stated my reasons several times before and am not going to do so again here. It is beyond the scope of this post. The purpose of which is to agree with Ms. Rosenthal about the ideal of doing away with all titles. Because as anyone can readily see, titles don’t really tell you all that much about the actual ability to do what those titles say you can.

I would prefer a world where people are judged strictly on the merit of their accomplishments. And no less a Gadol that Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, the Chaftez Chaim, might actually agree with that. It is rather well known that perhaps this greatest ‘rabbi ’of the 20th century never bothered getting Semicha until very late in life for utilitarian reasons.

A lot of angst would be avoided if this were the case today. If a woman studies enough to teach Torah or serve as a pastoral counselor, or to give a Dvar Torah in the Shul, or serve as Halachic advisers on a variety of issues, I doubt we would be having these often rancorous public debates.

I know many instances of these things taking place now in Orthodox synagogues without a peep from the right. Although there might be some on the right that are not happy about some of these things -  it is basically ignored. No one would say they are violating tradition to the point of being ostracized from Orthodoxy by doing any of those things.  It is the title of ‘Rabbi’ or any other name implying it which is the problem. That is when it becomes infringement upon tradition. Because the title puts you in a category that by tradition was populated only by men and where certain things traditionally done by a rabbi cannot Halachcily be done by a woman.

So at the end of the day, it’s a fight over the right to bear a title. A title that in my view doesn’t mean much… but at the same time is seen by society as worth a lot. Perception becomes reality. It is a fact of life that people with titles are viewed differently than people without them. 

Credentials in a particular field are interpreted to mean expertise in that field. Even in cases where there is hardly even competence in it. If someone is an expert but doesn’t have the requisite title they are ignored and seen as not equipped to handle a position they might be better qualified for than someone with a title! Can anyone imagine if the Chafetz Chaim’s expertise in Halahca would have been ignored because he didn’t have Semicha?

It would be ideal if reality would triumph over the false perception of expertise that a title always implies. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. The fact is that there are probably women that have become ‘rabbis’ that know a lot more, and are more competent then a lot of male rabbis I know. But living in reality also means living in a world where Orthodoxy rejects that title for a woman.

If one wants acceptance into the ‘club’ of Orthodoxy by the people who define Orthodoxy - my advice would be too not seek controversial titles. Just seek knowledge and expertise. You will surely be recognized for that when you do. That men who are incompetent get them without any controversy may not be fair. But it is reality.

Incompetence will eventually be exposed. As will be exposed the high degree of knowledge on the part of anyone that has achieved it. And that is a reality we can all live with.