Katzav and Yoffie… Just What We Didn’t Need

[CORRECTION: Please see the comment from Yisrael below. President Katzav only refuses to refer to non-Orthodox clergy as Rav in Hebrew. As per my statements below, calling them Rav would be entirely inappropriate. I still think he should have said Rabbi or something, rather than Eric, but this is another example of the newspapers not telling the story quite like it was…]

Israeli President Moshe Katzav has managed to get Reform and Conservative Jewry quite upset, simply by refusing to refer to Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie as “Rabbi.” Larry Derfner has a wonderful column at the Jerusalem Post about this story, along with a very amusing explanation of what makes Moshe Katzav, by and large, such a great President — though you should read it in its entirety, if forced to quote one line it would be “In this purely decorative job, he is as perfect a decoration as Israel could hope to find.”

Now Katzav, uncharacteristically, has managed to infuriate the collected membership of the CCAR and Rabbinical Assembly (the associations of Reform and Conservative clergy, respectively), not to mention their Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal, and even Secular Humanist counterparts. [No word yet from the Messianics.] The President of Israel won’t recognize their titles, and they are offended.

For what it’s worth, I think the complainers have a point. In order to be called “Rav,” a person should have a traditional ordination, demonstrating mastery of specific areas of Jewish law — especially laws about Kosher meat which many laypeople don’t know. Even that term seems to be used indescriminately, though; one yeshiva I attended listed all of its married students with “HaRav” before each name. And if that’s true of “Rav,” it is even more true of “Rabbi,” an English-language term found nowhere in the Talmud, Codes or Commentaries. The title “Rabbi” is gladly affixed in front of the name of any man teaching Jewish studies in a school or yeshiva, as well as by heterodox clergy.

There is a famous teshuvah (responsum) of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, in which he is asked whether men and women sitting separately for prayer without a mechitzah (divider) is any better than completely mixed seating. The question came from a Rav who was approached, in Reb Moshe’s words, by a group of Conservative congregants Im HaRabbi Shelahem — “with their Rabbi,” But though the text of his responsum is in Hebrew, Rabbi was stated as just that, spelled Reish Aleph Beis Aleph Yud.

If it’s good enough for Reb Moshe Feinstein, isn’t it good enough for Moshe Katzav?

And besides, when Katzav is speaking with Jerusalem’s great scholars, he undoubtedly speaks Hebrew — and uses “Rav” exclusively. Rabbi Yoffie would undoubtedly have much appreciated Katzav speaking with him in English — and using “Rabbi.” I realize that there are those who prefer not to use the term Rabbi with non-Orthodox clergy, but if they adhere so strongly to that opinion, they probably should not put themselves in a position where they will offend so many people. If the Dean of a Yeshiva fails to use the title, he is dismissed as an Orthodox fanatic. Katzav not only represents the State of Israel, but he practically encouraged a new round of Reform and Conservative pushing for a change of Israeli standards for Rabbis and Rabbinic functions. He said, “As soon as the State of Israel decides to recognize a Reform rabbi as a rabbi, then the president of the state will also be required to do so.”

He might as well have lit a cigarette in a room full of gunpowder — and tossed his match on the nearest keg. As Derfner put it:

Katsav is the new symbol of Israeli Orthodox arrogance, the new lightning rod for Reform and Conservative religious-rights activism… I think the president has done Reform and Conservative Jewry in America a favor. Let’s face it – they’re bored…. In Israel, the Reform and Conservative are on the barricades. In America, they’re on the golf course. But this week in Jerusalem they’re protesting and their rabbis are giving interviews. They’re underdogs fighting for a noble cause. It’s terribly exciting, and this could only happen to them in Israel.

He has a point. This pot hardly needed to be stirred. Now, as a result, we have the Forward calling for the Israeli public to elect someone, anyone, anyone but Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, under the title of “Honoring Our Religion.” With thanks to the forward for clarifying that they don’t regard the Orthodox as their clientele, they still have no real argument. The fact that Rabbi Lau is an Orthodox, indeed charedi, Rabbi should in no way have a negative impact on relations with Diaspora Jews, no matter which brand of Judaism they claim to follow.

I even imagine that — if he is as polished as they say — he would gladly refer to Rabbi Yoffie by his title.

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6 Responses

  1. Yisrael says:

    You are incorrect. President Katzav does refer to them as ‘rabbi’ but he refuses to address them as ‘rav’ when speaking to them in Hebrew. This is according to the Jerusalem Post’s newest interview with him published today. Thus the issue centers around the fact that they want to be referred to as ‘rav’ in Hebrew apparently.


  2. EV says:

    R’ Menken: “It is even more true of “Rabbi,” an English-language term found nowhere in the Talmud, Codes or Commentaries.”

    Actually, “rabbi” is found several times in the Greek texts of the Gospels of the Christian Scriptures, as in Matthew 23:7, “. . . and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.” Mark and John also use “rabboni.” Strong’s Greek Lexicon ascribes “rabbi” to Hebrew and “rabboni” to Aramaic.

  3. Amanda Rush says:

    Not to nitpick, but Strong’s lexicons are notoriously incorrect. I wouldn’t trust either the Hebrew or Greek.

  4. Chareidi Leumi says:

    The fact that Rabbi Lau is an Orthodox, indeed charedi

    How is a Rav who says reishit tzmichat geulateinu in his davening considered chareidi??? Is it the hat?

  5. Charles Arian says:

    ” Rabbi Yoffie would undoubtedly have much appreciated Katzav speaking with him in English—and using “Rabbi.””

    This snide comment is uncalled-for and in fact incorrect. I spent quite a bit of time with Rabbi Yoffie in Israel during the years 1986 – 88. His Hebrew is in fact quite fluent and he has been interviewed by Israeli TV in Hebrew many times. It is unfortunately true that many if not most Reform rabbis cannot really speak Hebrew but Rabbi Yoffie can.

    FWIW I am not Reform, I am a Conservative rabbi. When the Rabbinical Assembly has its conventions in Jerusalem (about once every seven years, I think) all debates and deliberations take place in Hebrew.

  6. EV says:

    And your point, Amanda? Is your point that “rabbi” didn’t come from Hebrew?

    The Greek has “rabbi,” spelled rho-alpha-beta-beta-iota. If the Greek isn’t taking this from Hebrew, then from where? John’s Gospel (John 1:38) lets the reader know that the word is foreign by immediately translating the word with a Greek one. John’s Gospel does the same with its one-time use of “rabboni” (John 20:16). How did these words enter Greek if not from Semitic languages?

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