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I sympathize with President Moshe Katsav's efforts to find a polite way to address Reform leader Eric Yoffie. I've had the same problem with my father-in-law for the past 27 years.
"Bob" is frowned on by Halacha; "Mr. Block" is far too formal; "Dad" was always reserved for my own father; and the Yiddish "Shver" would be unintelligible to him.
The president was in an even tighter spot. His job description might read: Make no one angry. And the one thing his refusal to address Yoffie as "Rav" was guaranteed to do was kick up a ruckus.
There was absolutely no upside to Katsav's stubbornness, as far as he was concerned. It was a simple act of conscience. Katsav simply could not bring himself to address a clergyman, whose movement explicitly trumpets its rejection of Halacha, by a title that he learned in his father's house is to be used only for Torah scholars.
Katsav apparently had no similar difficulty with the English term rabbi. In that the president would find much company in the Israeli Torah world, in which "rabbi" is often used derisively. Every time a certain rosh yeshiva with whom I am friendly greets me, "What's new, R-a-b-b-i," I feel like he meant to say, "What's new among the amei ha'aretz" - ignoramuses.
By taking the stand he did, Katsav actually made an important statement about the uses and misuses of language: Just because an individual or group appropriates a word with a long-accepted meaning and attempts to give it a wholly new definition does not obligate me to acquiesce.
The fact that somebody claims that his hands have extraordinary curative power and advertises himself as Dr. Feel-Good does not obligate me to treat him as a doctor. Nor need I feign awe at the erudition of a possessor of one of those Ph.D.'s offered over the Internet for a nominal sum.
Semicha - ordination - in modern times, has always denoted mastery, at the very least, of the laws of issur v'heter - what Halacha forbids and permits - as attested to by a recognized authority in the field. Katsav is perfectly justified in asking how the same term can apply to those who not only have no expertise in this (or any other) area of Halacha, but who do not even feel bound to observe these laws. Surely something more than attending an institution with access to a printing press must be required.
One can obtain ordination from any heterodox institution in the world knowing fewer pages of Talmud than my 11-year-old. What claim do those who have taken as many semester hours of pastoral counseling as they have of Talmud 101 have to honorifics previously reserved for Torah scholars?
MANY YEARS ago, we had a group of young American Jews over for Shabbat dinner. In the course of the meal, one young woman accused me of describing my rabbis as if they were supermen. Then she proceeded to fill us in on the escapades of her temple's "rabbi" with the president of the sisterhood.
The problem, I told her, was a confusion of language. We were both using the same term to describe two completely unrelated types of people.
Of course, issues over "Who is a rav?" are only the tip of the iceberg - a stand-in for the far more weighty issues of "Who is a convert?" and "What is Judaism?"
THE HETERODOX like to talk about the different "streams" of Judaism. But the chasm between these different "streams" is too great to give any coherent meaning to the word "Judaism." Just placing different adjectives in front of Judaism - "Reform," "Conservative," "Reconstructionist," "Orthodox" - will not do the trick.
For Torah Jews, the giving of the Torah at Sinai was the central event in human history, and those who stood at Sinai and their descendants became bound by the laws given there. The heterodox, by contrast, deny this event ever took place and deny the very concept of a binding mitzva. Torah Jews believe that God is the source of eternal life, and that our lives have meaning only to the extent that we attach ourselves to Him by exercising our free will to submit to His will. The heterodox, on the other hand, insist that only uncommanded, morally autonomous acts have any value.
In what meaningful way can these two poles be described as one religion?
Thanks to President Katsav for insisting that words cannot mean whatever anyone wants them to.