Monday, August 20, 2001

Who is a Rabbi?

Let’s face it, nowadays anyone is or can claim to be one. This is an open society, standards are lax, the times are permissive and we Jews have an identity crisis. A rabbi can be unlearned and even irreligious, as too many now are, and if it hasn’t happened yet, we will soon have rabbis who aren’t Jewish.

In fact, quite a few Jews who do not claim or use the title are commonly referred to as rabbis. These are Orthodox men who look the way rabbis are expected to look or who are called rabbi on the assumption that this is the appropriate way to refer to them. I know this from experience. Because I am Orthodox, was educated in an advanced yeshiva and serve as president of a yeshiva, I have been addressed as rabbi thousands of times.

There’s something mildly mischievous in this because it adds to the already abundant confusion in contemporary Jewish life. Every so often, laxity in the use of rabbinic titles results in more serious harm, as was evident not long ago when the New York Times featured on the first page of the Metro section a story about two shady businessmen who had engaged in petty graft. The headline declared, “Health Official Fined For Gifts from 2 Rabbis.” The article was largely based on a press release from the New York State Ethics Commission which in its opening paragraph clearly identified the wrongdoers as business people. When later one their names were given, they were referred to as Rabbis. The commission’s spokesman told me that there was some discussion as to whether this was appropriate. The decision to use the title was based on the belief that the accused parties would be offended if they weren’t so identified.

True to form, the Times pounced on the opportunity to add to its malignant record on all things Jewish. For those who think that this is unfair, even a bit paranoid, some days later a clergyman of another religion pled guilty to embezzling nearly one- billion dollars in a scam aimed at his religious followers. There was no room for this story in the newspaper that publishes all of the news that’s fit to print.

As Orthodox Jews who look like or claim to be rabbis engage in business activities, it is certain that some will act wrongfully and perhaps be subject to criminal charges. If the media readily identify them as rabbis, the Orthodox community and, in a real sense, all of American Jewry will be hurt through guilt by association. Is it too much to expect a measure of discipline, to suggest that people in business not call themselves rabbis and to ask that when such persons act in a personal capacity, however they look or whatever they claim, that they not be identified as rabbis?

I know that it’s unlikely that this goal will be achieved. The rabbinical designation does not make a story kosher; it makes it juicer, something that’s more likely to be read. Besides, there are bad people who insist on being identified as rabbis. Some of them, in fact, legitimately are rabbis, even though they scarcely may be religious and their actions cause shame and pain.

We cannot decertify them or strip them of their titles. We are stuck and as much as we Orthodox Jews might protest, to an extent their sins stick to us.

Much of our unfortunate predicament arises from the relationship between businessmen masquerading as rabbis and politicians who are either gullible or too eager to embrace the worst elements. This is an old story to which we Jews have made a small, albeit unwelcome, contribution. There is at once something pathetic and disgusting about how politicians toady up to religious hucksters, how individuals with spurious claims can gain political access, usually because they spread some money around.

The two scoundrels who the Times reported on gained extraordinary access with Governor George Pataki. They made their contributions and the Governor – not merely members of his administration but the Governor himself – was all too eager to embrace people of low repute. Mr. Pataki was warned about this, but to no avail. The smell of money was stronger than the smell of corruption. He raced through the red lights, signaling to lower officials that it was okay to do favors for the scoundrels.

A similar story has worked at the highest echelons at City Hall. For all of Mayor Guiliani’s self-proclaimed righteousness, he has given access to bad people, specifically a bullying Orthodox businessman who has benefited enormously from Mr. Guiliani’s patronage, even as the public good has suffered.

Since Mr. Guiliani’s term is nearing an end, this individual – working with the Mayor’s fundraiser and enforcer – is seeking to gain access to the next administration, an aspiration that is shared by other community hustlers. One need not be a prophet to know that new unholy alliances will soon be established. The New York Times is going to have a lot of schmutz to print. Of course, Jewish media will not want to be left out of the feeding frenzy and they will likely go the extra mile to give coverage to Orthodox wrongdoers, even as they turn a blind eye to what is happening among the ninety percent of American Jews who aren’t Orthodox.

We Orthodox Jews are in for a steady diet of shame, blame and pain.