In the hierarchy of the shtetl there was the Av Bet Din who served as the Rav, the Rabbi of the city or the province. He presided over the dayyanim (the magistrate judges) and the rabbis below them who served as morei hora’ah (the esteemed rabbinic teachers). There were differences in the ordinations between those who were empowered as teachers in one part of law (yoreh yoreh) and those of another part of law (yadin yadin).
There were itinerant as well as resident public lecturers, some with ordination, who served as maggidim (preachers) while the Rav was only obliged to preach twice a year: Shabbat Shuvah and Shabbat Haggadol.
Below the recipients of ordination in the religious hierarchy were appointees who received kabbalah (an affirmation of competence; not to be confused with Jewish mysticism) serving as slaughterers of kosher meat. Here too there were distinctions between those competent to inspect the innards of cattle; sheep and goats; and fowl. The sofer (scribe) had to receive kabbalah as well as lower officials such as mohalim, mashgihim (kashrut inspectors), and even melamdim (teachers of children).
The Jewish Reverend Ritualist
In England, the rabbi was the Chief Rabbi and the others were ministers and had the title reverend. Jewish reverends wore the clerical collar. There were many reverend doctors and many of them had even higher levels of ordination like dayan (magistrate). To this date, one can see this usage in advertisements in the London Jewish Chronicle.
Early in the USA, the model that originated in the British Isle was transferred to these shores. Jewishly well-versed Jews who were not rabbis, but could help small communities with their religious needs, were imported from Europe and appointed as ministers and as such received their visas to immigrate.
One publisher offered a manual, The Reverend’s Handbook, for these functionaries who handled all ritual requirements for small communities, teaching children, slaughtering animals, serving as mashgihim, leading the synagogue services and helping people with calendar and life-cycle events. I still have an old copy of The Reverend’s Handbook in my possession. Cantors and shammashim, ritual resource persons, were also called reverend.
Rabbi has nowadays come to mean the entire gamut of Jewish clerics, from those with basic ordination to some gaonic scholars and rebbes. America has flattened out all distinctions.
The flattening of the hierarchy of competence and empowerment has been to our detriment. We need difference titles for different functions: heads of rabbinic courts, congregational rabbis, preachers-maggidim, Torah teachers for every level, pastoral helpers, chaplains, spiritual guides, meditation teachers, ritual directors, hospice-hevrah kadisha (burial societies) and bereavement counselors, arbitrators and mediators. To call all these by the title rabbi does them and others a disservice.
I therefore propose that we now begin to consider another form of commission for practitioners of sacred ritual.
There are many who have a true calling and willingness to learn, well-trained and successful in other fields who aspire to serve the Jewish community as spiritual leaders. They cannot manage to cross the text barrier with competence and yet they seek to serve in some form as acknowledged and empowered functionaries.
In some congregations, rabbis have trained para-rabbinic personnel to function under their guidance. Seminaries have by and large not yet created training for such vocations.
In the hierarchy of the Christian clergy, the average preacher holds a bachelor of theology. Some have also earned an STM (Sacred Theology Master) or even a doctorate. This gives the congregation some way to measure their cleric’s academic training. JTS and HUC consider their rabbinic ordination on the level of a Master of Jewish Letters and offer an advanced degree of the Doctor of Hebrew Letters on par with a Ph.D. It is the latter that I earned at Hebrew Union College.
The person who has earned the equivalent of the bachelor of theology as Jewish ritualist can be of great help as a resource haver (peer) to members of a havurah. Imagine the possibilities of a curriculum which compromises part of the training for the full rabbinate.
I believe that it is time to resurrect the title “reverend” so that people called to serve may be able to become empowered and certified. Let us introduce terms like gabbai, haver, ba’al such and such, as we do with ba’al tefillah (one who leads the prayers), ba’al keriah (Torah reader), ba’al tokea (shofar blower).
Those Who Care For The Faith Needs
In Jewish Renewal, we have moved from the place where we want to be served by a professional clergy to other ways of empowerment. We have ordained rabbis who have studied on their own and in fellowship instead of in seminaries.
We have, in the ordaining of women rabbis, not asked them to emulate males in the pulpit. We have furthered their expression of Shekhinnah revelation by respecting and responding to it. In our requirements we have been rigorous, demanding that one needs to break the text barrier prior to becoming a candidate for semikhah (ordination).
There have been people in our community who have demonstrated their skills, often immense, in leading services and I have named them ba’alei tefillah. Others have become discerning and inspiring mashpi’im, spiritual directors. Still others have honed their God-given gifts of teaching massar (ethics) by parable, midrash-making and storytelling and earned the title ba’al berakhot, Master of Blessings. There are some folks now preparing to serve as eco-kosher mashgihim (supervisors). They are not rabbis but m’shamshim b’kodesh (those who serve the sacred), oskim betzorkhei tzibbur shel emunah (those who care for the faith needs of the community). The nomenclature, what to call such a person, will emerge in due time. In the meantime, for the Bureaus of Vital Statistics, “The Rev. Mr./Ms. Ploni Almoni, Bachelor of Engaged Torah” will do.
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