There was a fellow I knew who devoted his life to teaching and helping B’nai Torah grow. I’m not sure if he had semicha but I think he did, and regardless, in my mind, he sincerely deserved the title rabbi. However, he referred to himself as Mr., following the lead of the great R’ Shraga Feivel Medlowitz zt”l, who insisted on being called Mr. despite being a Rosh Yeshiva.
Many others followed this lead as talmidim of Torah Vodaas and I understand and appreciate the humility of these people. Getting Semicha takes a certain amount of discipline, which should not be underestimated, but then again, many who study and pass the exams do not continue to involve themselves in the topics on a regular basis and may not be able to answer the questions they once could. Surely, though, if a great leader refused to utilize the designation “rabbi,” those of lesser stature should think twice before using the appellation.
This would be another reason to prefer the title Mr., but though I consider myself part of that latter group who recognize their place, I do prefer the title of Rabbi – sometimes. When called up for an aliya, I would not tell the Gabbai to call me Harav, though I have seen people insist on that title even when they haven’t filled that position in many years.
However, in certain scenarios, I want to be referred to as Rabbi. When I write, for example, some people may take my words more seriously if they see the title there. Of course, it’s not a given, and there are many who use the title cavalierly. However, for the benefit of those who may listen more to someone with that title, I prefer it.
Then, there is another reason I like the title in public life that just might surprise you. If I’m a Mr., a simple, average Joe, then I can do what I want and not worry about what others think. That’s not the case if you’re a rabbi. Rabbis must be more careful with how they act because people are observing them and judging Jews, and even Hashem, by what they see.
They have to make sure their clothes are clean and respectable, both literally and figuratively. Their words must be pure and pleasant, and that they behave in a manner which is above reproach. To me, when I am called rabbi, it reminds me of what I represent to others, be they Jew or Gentile, religious or less so. I find that attaching Rabbi to my name means I think twice before I speak or write, and it is not a question of hubris versus humility.
The people who believe the title Rabbi is something they deserve to be called, as a show of respect from others, are missing the point. It isn’t a right, but an obligation. When people call you rabbi, or Rebbetzin, or even “Orthodox Jew,” or a “chosid,” you have to realize that it isn’t a compliment, but a mandate. It’s not meant to make you feel you’ve arrived, but to point you in the right direction and tell you to get a move on. It’s supposed to make you more careful about serving Hashem and people, and less interested in serving yourself.
If one can feel like a Mr. on the receiving end, but act like a Rabbi in his interactions with others, then he’s doing it right. As R’ Moshe Feinstein once told a student, “I know I wrote all these books, that people call me Rabbi Feinstein, and that people call me for guidance from around the world. But I also know what I don’t know, “un dos tut mir vey, and that is what hurts me.” He understood that by recognizing our status vis-à-vis the Al-mighty, we can remain humble while still being strong enough to help guide others towards Hashem.
I should probably mention that using the title Mr., even though you could be called rabbi, also doesn’t prove you’ve made it. I’m reminded of the famous story of a new student at the Novardhok Yeshiva who heard others repeating an unusual mantra. They were saying, “Oy… ich been a gornisht, Oy, I’m a nothing.” They were trying to inculcate the humbleness of man into their psyches. Following their lead, he sat down and began saying it too. Thereupon, one bachur smirked to his chavrusa and pointed to the newbie, “Look who already thinks he’s a gornisht!”
If you think you are great because you’re humble, once again, you’ve missed the point. As a friend once told me, being humble isn’t thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less. We should focus on helping others and serving Hashem, and not on what they call us. The term rabbi really means teacher, and if we learn the lesson right, then regardless of what we’re called, we can be rabbis and teachers, no matter how we refer to ourselves. If we do that, then we will bring honor to Hashem, and, like the fellow I started off by mentioning, when we leave this world, we will be sorely missed.
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