Who’s a Rabbi?

Hundreds of rabbis in Israel signed a letter supporting another rabbi, Yigal Levinstein, following the public outcry against him. Levinstein recently gave a speech in which he repeatedly referred to homosexuals as “deviants”.

Support from more than 300 rabbis. Sounds impressive.

Actually, not really.

A “rabbi” in Israel is someone who’s been ordained (received סמיכה). In ultra-orthodox circles this usually means that a prominent rabbi tests the knowledge of the aspiring rabbi – a matter of a few hours – and ordains him. In most cases there are no formal requirements and each community decides who to ordain. In national-religious circles (where most of the signing rabbis come from) this means undergoing a series of exams issued by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem. The exams are formally recognized by the State of Israel and are somewhat equivalent – in scope and difficulty – to a BA degree in Humanities.

In fact, I know several “rabbis” who were ordained after learning a couple of tractates in the Talmud and a few chapters in Shulchan Aruch (the leading Jewish Law textbook). Not only is their knowledge minimal; they lack the basic tools and skills to teach or guide other Jews, which is what rabbis are supposed to do. Some of them hardly open a book after their ordination.

The ease of rallying hundreds of rabbis to add their signatures to this letter is telling. It is a sign of the inflationary increase in the number of ordinations in Israel. If 300 rabbis can be asked to sign a letter in a few days, imagine how many rabbis are out there! As in all inflationary situations, the value of the goods decrease as they become more ubiquitous.

So I wouldn’t place too much importance on the title “rabbi”. Imagine a news headline about 300 people with a BA degree signing some petition. Would you be impressed? I guess not. Same here.


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