Reform Reflections: Jerusalem Post Blog by Rabbi Michael Marmur, Dean, HUC-JIR/Jerusalem
October 31 2007; 09:10 AM
Reform Reflections: Who is a Rabbi?
By Rabbi Michael Marmur, Dean, HUC-JIR/Jerusalem
Later this week the President of the State of Israel will receive the Heller Prize in a ceremony to be attended by the leadership of the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion, some seventy of whom are flying in to attend meetings and ceremonies in Israel.
So far, so good: another Jewish delegation crammed into President Peres' busy schedule. What makes this encounter special is the relationship between the Office of the President of Israel and the Reform movement worldwide. Israel's immediate past President was, by all accounts, a deeply pious individual. One way in which his religious fervor came to expression was his long-standing refusal to call a Reform rabbi by the title 'rabbi'.
I happen to know that this is the case, since it once fell to me to conduct a negotiation with the former President's staff. We were looking into the possibility of a similar delegation paying a visit to the President, along with the tens of Rabbinic, Cantorial and Education students. The official with whom I was negotiating informed me that President Katzav would not call the President of the Hebrew Union College by the title 'Rabbi'. After an enlightening discussion, she then asked me if I could give her the name of an Orthodox rabbi who would agree to call my boss by the title Rabbi. Without hesitating, I gave her the name of a prominent Orthodox rabbi who, to the best of my knowledge, would be happy to bestow this title upon Rabbi Ellenson. After a pause she asked: could you give me another name?
I could have given several other names – there are many Orthodox rabbis "out there" who call their non-Orthodox colleagues by the R word. But at that point I decided that enough was enough. We thought better of paying a visit to a President who refused to acknowledge our own self-understanding, and the belief of millions of Jews.
Why does this matter? After all, Rabbi David Ellenson could have gone by his other title of Professor, or President, or –as anyone who knows him will affirm – David. The issue at stake here was not about asking Orthodox Jews for recognition. I for one have no interest in doing such a thing. I doubt that an Orthodox Jew can in good conscience attribute equal validity to a non-Orthodox rabbi. In the view of many Orthodox Jews, we are either misguided innocents or heinous perverters of the truth. Having read the responses to my last blog, I have found evidence of both kinds of response among the readers of the Jerusalem Post website. The Orthodox Rabbis who decide to call non-Orthodox Rabbis by that title are usually being polite (an underrated Jewish virtue), and in some cases their view of the Rabbinate may allow them to use the term wholeheartedly.
But I have no interest in trying to persuade anyone to call me a Rabbi if they don't think I am one. We become rabbis when we believe we may be able to dare to take on such a responsibility, and when our ordaining institution deems us to be worthy. We are really recognized when those whom we serve look to us as Rabbis. We have to earn that title, and it cannot be forced upon anyone.
So, as I keep on asking, what's the 'Big Deal' about Israel's President calling HUC's President a rabbi? The 'Big Deal' is that here the State of Israel comes into the picture. When the titular Head of State declines to recognize the largest Jewish denomination in the world as legitimate in its own terms, the State of Israel loses its mandate to represent the Jewish People as a whole. By making this right, President Peres is making a major statement on what is usually a cliché but always a necessity – the unity of the Jewish people.
It matters very little to me what you call me when you pass me in the street, although I would prefer it if we could all show some derekh eretz to each other. If you study with me, pray with me, hear me speak, read my words, and if I become worthy in your eyes to be called a Rabbi in Israel, then you ordain me every day anew. And if you think I'm a stinker or a fool or in league with the devil, then I guess Rabbi may be out of the question.
It matters a great deal to me, however, what the President of the State of Israel calls our rabbis. If the name of the game in Israel is Monopoly, and if anyone outside that monopoly is invisible, then I fear that Israel will not fulfill its historic task. The State of Israel needs to forge an unbreakable bond with the Jews outside Israel, and the burgeoning number within, who look to non-Orthodox rabbis for spiritual leadership.
If all goes according to plan, later this week the President of the State of Israel, a great man and a visionary for the Israel of tomorrow, will call my boss Rabbi. Then we will all go off to do an even more significant thing: Rabbi Ellenson will place his hands upon the heads of two women and three men and ordain five new Israeli rabbis.
You can call them what you like. Israel should call them rabbis.
Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion is the nation’s oldest institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR’s scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement’s congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR’s campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish history, identity, art, and archaeology, and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.