Kudos are due to President Moshe Katsav for refusing to address Eric Yoffie, head of the American Reform movement, by the title "Rav."
Katsav’s refusal can only be explained as an act of conscience. There was absolutely no practical upside for him.
As president, Katsav’s job description is confined to smiling amiably, looking distinguished, showing good table manners, and delivering speeches filled with fine-sounding, empty phrases.
Above all, make no one angry. Yet if there was one thing that the president’s public stance on honorifics for heterodox clergy was guaranteed to do, it was to make people furious.
When an amendment to the Law of Return defining conversion as "conversion according to halacha" was introduced in the early days of the Netanyahu government, the prime minister was subjected to a torrent of visits by enraged American Jewish "leaders." That furor was almost entirely driven by the heterodox clergy, who felt dissed by the implication that their "conversions" are not conversions.
Katsav’s snub last week was guaranteed to raise the same kind of ruckus – the last thing that a figurehead president wants to do.
It’s not even as if Katsav could count on picking up brownie points with the Orthodox. No one in the Orthodox community pays much attention to what the president says or would have any clue as to how he addresses heterodox clergymen.
So the bottom line is that President 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?")
By taking the stand he did, President 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 to the new definition. The fact that somebody claims that his hands have extraordinary curative power and advertises himself as Dr. Feel-Good, does not require 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 only.
Semichah, in modern times, has always denoted mastery, at the very least, of the laws of issur v’heter, as attested to by a recognized authority in the field. President 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 daf Gemara than my eleven-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 over for the leil Shabbos meal a group of young American Jews whom Rabbi Meir Schuster had picked up at the Kotel. 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."
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. If she would just call her "rabbi" a "rabbit" instead, her question would answer itself.
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 Jew?" and "What is Judaism?" Today’s Jerusalem Post carries Yossi Beilin’s umpteenth op-ed calling for secular "conversion," for those who want to be part of the Jewish people but have no interest in practicing the Jewish religion. One can only ask: Of what does the Jewish people consist stripped of Jewish religion and a connection to Sinai? A set of genes? How does one convert to a gene pool?
Yossi Beilin might have one set of criteria of his new "secular converts" – completion of a Hebrew ulpan, a contribution of $100 to the UJA, and/or three months in the Israeli army – and someone else will have another. At the end of the day, none of them will be logically distinguishable from allowing anyone who wakes up one fine morning feeling Jewish to simply declare, "Hallelukah, I’m a Jew."
The heterodox like to talk about the different so-called "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 – e.g., "Reform," "Conservative," "Reconstructionist," "Orthodox" – will not do the trick.
It is impossible to identify one element of belief shared by Torah Judaism and all the other so-called "streams," but found in no other religion. Despite the proliferation of Christian sects, it would be an easy matter to identify at least one principle of faith common to all the sects, but found in no other religion.
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, afra l’pumei, deny that Mattan Torah ever took place, and the very concept of a binding mitzvah. We believe that Hashem 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. They, on the other hand, insist that only uncommanded, morally autonomous acts, have any value. In what meaningful way can these two poles be describes as one religion?
Thanks to President Katsav for insisting that words cannot mean whatever one wants.