Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Using the Title "Rabbi"

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

A rabbi is often faced with some uncertainty as to how he should introduce himself. One option is to introduce himself by saying "Hello, my name is Rabbi So-and-so". However, perhaps introducing oneself with one's rabbinic title is overly assertive and may appear to convey a sense of arrogance. Another option is to omit the title and allow for those present to figure out for themselves that one is to be addressed by a rabbinic title. Perhaps the manner in which one is dressed or the direction in which the conversation flows might prompt others to automatically address one with a rabbinic title.

Which is the preferred course a rabbi should take?

Click here to read moreThe Talmud and its sages offer some insight on how one should conduct oneself in this situation. Rava points out that there are two verses in scripture which seem to contradict each other. There is a verse in which Ovadia says to Eliyahu: "your servant has feared Hashem since his youth"[1] which implies that there is nothing wrong with stating one's spiritual accomplishments. On the other hand, there is a verse which says: "Let a stranger praise you but not your own mouth, an outsider, but not your own lips",[2] which clearly indicates that one should not proclaim one's own accomplishments.

Rava explains this apparent contradiction by suggesting that the latter verse only applies when there are individuals present who can notify others in attendance that one is a rabbi. However, if there is no one else who could inform those who are present that one is a rabbi, then it is permitted to do so oneself. Indeed, there are a number of circumstances in which it is quite legitimate to ensure that others who are present are aware that one is a rabbi. For example, there is a well-known requirement to honor a Torah scholar. By not informing people that one is a Torah scholar, one might unintentionally cause them to sin if they were to treat one in a disrespectful or indifferent manner. So too, a rabbi is to be shown priority in a number of situations which obviously cannot be properly observed if others present do not know that one is a rabbi.[3]

This can be further illustrated by an episode involving Rav Huna. Once Rav Huna visited the house of Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak. As Rav Huna was unknown in the locale where Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak lived, he was naturally asked by those who greeted him what his name was, to which he responded, "My name is Rav Huna". When Rav Huna was asked why he chose to introduce himself as "Rav Huna" – a manner which could be perceived as arrogant - he simply answered "Because it's my name!"[4] We learn from the context of the exchange which later ensued (along with the various commentaries) that Rav Huna felt the need for all those who were present be informed that he was a Torah scholar, which would not have been possible if he had merely answered "my name is Huna". As the Gemara continues, Rav Huna also used the opportunity of making himself known as a Torah scholar to teach others about proper conduct and manners. It is also worth mentioning that Rav Huna was one who was noted for his modesty.[5]

It may just be that the use of a rabbinic title should be evaluated differently in our day and age when it is no longer used in the manner it once was. With minor exception, it is rarely used to imply that one is a distinct scholar or spiritual leader as the likes of Rav Huna and others had once used it. Today, the title "rabbi" is essentially no more than a professional title. Today we have "rabbis" who are female, "rabbis" who don’t follow halacha, and even "rabbis" who proudly declare that they don’t believe in God. As such, it may not be an act of arrogance for one who is a practicing rabbi to introduce himself as such – it is merely a professional designation, not a spiritual or scholarly one. This is why I have no problem addressing a female as "rabbi".

On the other hand, those who are not known as practicing rabbis might want to think twice before introducing themselves as such. This is because when the title "rabbi" and especially "Rav" is used outside the context of the normative rabbinical structure, it often serves to convey that one is a scholar of note. In fact, most rabbis who are scholars of note have no need to preface their name with "rabbi". Indeed, I have been privileged many times to pick up a phone and hear a voice on the other end saying something like "Hello, this is Zev Leff calling" or "Hello, this is Michael Broyde".

One would also be well advised to refrain from using one's rabbinic title when in the presence of senior rabbis and true scholars of note, as doing so might be especially problematic due to the concern of inadvertently minimizing the honor owed to them. In these situations one may be well advised to conform to the teaching of Rava, above.


[1] Melachim 1 18:12
[2] Mishlei 27:2
[3] Nedarim 62a, Rosh
[4] Pesachim 86b
[5] Cf. Megilla 28a, Ketubot 105a

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More