Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | August 18, 2009

What Did You Call Me??

When I was in Yeshiva, I used to get annoyed when I went to simchas with place cards. While my friends who were younger than I, but married, had place cards that read Rabbi K.., and Rabbi H…, mine invariably read Yonason Gwertz (which should really be YeHOnason, and don’t get me started on Gewirtz…) or simply Jonny. It especially bothered me after I was halfway to getting my Semicha. “I am closer to being a Rabbi than these guys,” I would think to myself. “Just because they’re married they get treated differently?”

The truth is, there was good precedent for such treatment. I heard that the Alter of Slabodka would ask a new person in the Bais Medrash, “Bist du a bochur, oder zeit ir a yungerman?” He used the more respectful “ir” if they were married.

As I got older, I realized that the name didn’t mean that much. It got to a point where I told the Gabbai in shul only to call me HaRav if my mother or mother-in-law were present. I realized that to really deserve the name, I had to learn and do so much more. (Though sometimes when I make a MiShebeirach for my family I will say, ‘bas HaRav…’ – it’s never too early to start thinking about shidduchim.)

A few weeks ago, Klal Yisrael and the world were shaken by the tremendous Chillul HaShem perpetrated with the announcement that numerous people were arrested for various illegal activities, “among them Rabbis and politicians.”

Unfortunately, many people weren’t as upset that the name of HaKadosh Baruch Hu was tarnished as they were that the media “automatically calls anyone with a yarmulke a Rabbi.” People railed against the anti-semitism, the yellow journalism, and the chutzpah. I didn’t get it. It seemed to me that there WERE rabbis among the people who were arrested, so why was everyone upset about that?

I think the problem is a larger issue. These people are upset about laypeople being called rabbis because if every Jew was a rabbi, then EVERYONE would have to live up to a higher standard, including them! These people who spend their time gossiping, accusing, wasting precious moments and doing very un-Jewish things might themselves one day be called rabbis and that would be terrible.

I mentioned to a friend that in a nursing home one day, an elderly woman greeted me with a, “Good afternoon, Rabbi.” He was incensed. “You should tell her, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not a rabbi.’” “Why?” I asked. “Because a rabbi is a higher level,” he fumed, “they have higher standards.”

I beg to differ. As I understood it, in the non-Jewish world, a priest is holy, the average people are not. When you want to get a little holiness you go to the priest (Rachmona litzlan) and then you go back to being yourself. But as Yidden, we are ALL holy. A rabbi is just someone who is more knowledgable and is capable of teaching you how to be holy, like he is. The word Rabbi means Master or teacher, not priest.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but R’ Moshe Feinstein z”l didn’t have a bigger chiyuv than me to put on Tefillen, and the Chofetz Chaim z”l wasn’t commanded to watch his tongue any more than me. Of course, the bigger the stature the bigger responsibility to prevent even the remotest possibility of a person believing some impropriety took place, as it can cause a greater chillul HaShem, but basic halacha is the same for all of us.

The story is famously told of R’ Shimon Schwab z”l who was told that a frum Yid stole some money and was going to jail. R’ Schwab said it wasn’t true. When the fellow assured it that it was an actual occurrence, the sage responded, “It can’t be true. If he stole money, he’s not a FRUM Jew!”

Now, getting back to the way “Frum” Jews are portrayed in the media when they get caught doing something wrong, or even if they are innocent, but it’s perceived that they did something wrong, let’s look at what they’re really saying. When they say, “Bernie Green, a Jew from New York, was arrested for embezzling seventy million dollars,” we complain that they wouldn’t say, “Albert O’Toole, an Irish Catholic, was arrested for blowing up a church.” But why do they focus on our being Jewish? For the same reason they may call someone a rabbi even when he doesn’t have semicha, like my friends at the weddings.
When my friends were called Rabbi, it was a sign of respect. These were people who were learning in Kollel, who dedicated their lives to serving HaShem. Even if technically they weren’t rabbis, they represented what it means to be a rabbi. Whoever wrote those place cards understood that they should be looked up to.

Klal Yisrael is an ‘am kohanim,’ a nation of priests. To the nations of the world, we represent the spirit of the Ribono Shel Olam, and what He stands for. They come to us for some holiness. When they see someone who looks the part, whose behavior proclaims his righteousness as he davens and gives lots of tzedaka, they see a rabbi, even if the person shouldn’t technically even be called a “frum Yid.”

The problem is that we don’t want to see ourselves in that light. We want to be just like the next guy. Bernie Green is no different that Albert O’Toole or Mohammed Khafui or Yochanan Schwartzman. We’re all capable of doing things that are wrong with our biggest regret being that we got caught.

But that’s not how HaShem sees it. To Him, we ARE rabbis. We are teachers, and are meant to be examples for the rest of the world. As Shmuel HaNavi said to Shaul HaMelech, “If you are small in your own eyes, [realize that] you are the leader of the Tribes of Israel!”

We can’t complain if people call us rabbis. That shouldn’t bother us. What should bother us is if we don’t act like rabbis – every single one of us. As the Gerrer Rebbe said to the young man who told him, “I learn in Ohr Somayach… b-but I’m NOT a baal Teshuva!”

Said the Rebbe, “Nu, fahr vos nisht?” (And why not?)



  1. I agree with your theory about calling those worthy of respect “Rabbi” even if they don’t have Semicha. I am going to make a point that might be viewed as a little “picky”, but I think it bears mention anyway. I am a big proponent of consistency. Certainly those of us reared over a Gemara are tuned into the nuances of speech and make much of the words selected. Having read a few pages in your blog, I found that the title ‘Rabbi’ prefaced Jonathan Gewirtz and Yissocher Frand, whereas the shortened version – R’ – titled Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Shimon Schwab. I’m sure you meant nothing by it, but in a colloquial sense, Rabbi is Rabbi and R’ means “Reb”, which is a non-title used for simple or unordained Jews. Certainly no one would assume you had that in mind, and in many places, where space is limited, the R’ is commonly used. But in a limitless blog, especially in a piece dedicated to the upholding of ‘Rabbi’ as a title of honor, applying it to Rav Moshe or Rav Shimon would have gone a long way to drive home your point.

  2. How right you are! Of course, I always believe “the bigger the title, the smaller the person.” R’ Moshe was always called, “Reb Moshe,” but I think it was because he was such a humble person, and no titles could suffice.

    Additionally, ‘Reb’ is often used for our Gedolim, who are clearly not “simple” and it connotes a certain amount of love and admiration with a familiarity of understanding that such people are intimately connected to all of Klal Yisrael, whom they care deeply about.

    Normally in my articles, I use the R’ convention to avoid any contention about what titles should have been used.

    I’m not sure why Rabbi Frand was called that when the article was written several months ago, but I know that my title was put in to let readers know that these writings, be they articles in print or blogs online, are written with intended respect for the Torah and HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

    I would never put my name in league with the likes of R’ Moshe or R’ Schwab, though I would truly wish it deserved to be there.

    Thanks for pointing out my mismatches, Reb Yid. : ) Um… or is it Rabbi Yid?

  3. Reb, Rabbi, who notices ?

    But while we’re on the subject, you might get a chuckle out of a piece I saw in the Sdei Chemed (can’t remember the exact page, although a “real” Rabbi might) where he says that he got a letter from one of the Rabonim that he cited, complaining that his name was stated as simply R’ So-and-so. This Rav felt that a little more was in order. So the Sdei Chemed apologized to him, conceded the point and started putting a whole list of praises in the title when next he used his name. In fact, he started to do so for everyone he cited.

    A while later, he gets a letter from that Rav again, who acknowledged the “proper” salutations that he was receiving, but was upset by the fact that others, who were “clearly” inferior to him, were also receiving such titled praise.

    Reminds one of the Vort on Birchas HaChodesh, where after we ask for “Chaim Shel [everything]”, we come back and ask that Hashem should grant “Mish’alos Libeinu”. What more could we want after all the Tovah, Brocho, Parnasah etc… listed before ? The not-so-funny joke is that we ask Hashem not to give those blessings to others.

    Have a Kesivah V’Chasimah Tovah !

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