Ask the Rabbis // What Makes Someone a “Real” Rabbi?

By | Nov 01, 2012


It is the community more than anything else that makes someone a rabbi. If the community finds a person’s teachings and leadership inspiring and enriching, if that person enhances their spiritual development and their immersion in Jewish life, this qualifies a person as a rabbi more than someone who went to a rabbinical seminary but lacks these qualities. In the old days, you studied not to become a rabbi but simply for the love of Torah; your teacher would determine behind your back whether you were rabbi material or not. When I attended yeshiva in Jerusalem in the late 1960s, the head of the yeshiva kept nudging me to receive smicha [ordination], and I kept refusing because I didn’t want to become a rabbi; I had other plans. Years later, I ended up teaching here and there at others’ requests, and their feedback made me realize that the old man with the long white beard was right. And so in the summer of 1978, I returned to Jerusalem to retrieve my ordination from layaway. I have been rabbi-ing since, and for the life of me I cannot recall what it was like not being a rabbi.

Rabbi Gershon Winkler

Walking Stick Foundation

Thousand Oaks, CA



As new rabbinic candidates, we eagerly assume the title “rabbi” in our student congregations.  The congregants, in turn, allow us to fill the role even while they know we are a work in progress. But when it comes time for ordination, something transformative takes place. We don’t suddenly become smarter or wiser or more compassionate. But now we are authenticated and admitted into a line of leadership and responsibility that is bigger than ourselves. We somehow become real rabbis.

A member of my congregation told me his in-laws were shocked when he referred to me casually by my first name. They could not imagine such informality. In fact, I am happy to go by my first name alone or by Rabbi Peter.  But when someone calls me simply “Rabbi”—with no name attached—then I wonder how much I am occupying a role in the eyes of the beholder. It is a valued position, to be sure, but also potentially a depersonalized one. I am a “real” rabbi for that person—and I trust that the salutation is offered with respect—but sometimes it makes me feel like an “unreal” person in my own skin.

Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer

The City Congregation for

Humanistic Judaism

New York, NY



Am I a real rabbi? It is an interesting question. I started formal rabbinical studies immediately after earning a B.A., but I had to stop because of life circumstances. I took up studying again years later after a successful career as an engineer. When I entered the hall for ordination, one of my mentors hugged me and said, “You’ve been a real rabbi for a long time, this just makes it formal.” I noted that I did not feel like a “real rabbi” even after the powerful ordination ritual.

Yes, my congregation called me rabbi, I joined the Board of Rabbis and started using the title on my articles, books and even checkbook. Mail comes to me as rabbi. But it became real only when I heard people saying to each other, “The rabbi is teaching us how to be a real community, to support each other and our children, to cherish our Jewishness, to work for peace and tikkun olam.” I became real as I realized I was achieving my goal from the prayer after the Amidah: “Nafshi k’afar lakol tihiyeh”—may my soul be as dust to everyone (Berachot 17a).

Rabbi Shafir Lobb

Temple Beth El Israel

Port Saint Lucie, FL



There is no single definition of “rabbi,” any more than there is of “Jew” or “human.” Rabbis look quite different across eras, continents and movements; in America, we vary across generations and genders. In each case rabbis are those for whom (some) folks accept our rabbinic leadership. This initially requires the credential, then deepens over time with earned trust and respect.

A seminary starts by bestowing the title.  But for the “people of the book,” a half-decade of graduate school goes only so far—you can’t cover it all! Seminary curricula differ widely, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. I wish I’d studied more Talmud and spoke more fluent modern Hebrew; occasionally I’m ashamed at how much I still don’t know.  Yet I am a much more effective and relevant rabbi thanks to the practical rabbinics, interreligious studies, explorations of history and culture and other hallmarks of  the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Friends from other seminaries express similar appreciation and regret; as (fellow Moment contributor) Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches, it’s fine to identify with any recognized movement, “as long as you’re embarrassed by it.” We rabbis must model what all should practice: holding our positions, our identifications and our knowledge with humility.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb

Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation

Bethesda, MD



Was it the moment the rosh yeshiva [head of the seminary] put his hands on my shoulders and ordained me? Was it when I officiated at my first funeral, wedding or baby naming? Was it when someone asked me where in Jewish texts it says “X” and I knew the exact chapter and verse?

I strive every day to understand what it means to be a rabbi. When people learn I am a rabbi, their demeanor changes. They think I am somehow different, have more fragile sensibilities, am holier than they or closer to God. But when I look in the mirror, or in the eyes of family and childhood friends, I am still the same person I’ve always been, with hopes and fears, passions and needs, silly jokes and a sometimes crass sense of humor.

A real rabbi doesn’t separate herself from the community but treats every person as sacred. A real rabbi demonstrates in word and deed that we are all equal in our relationship with God and with one another. A real rabbi cares about others and takes action when there is a need. And while I may have studied Jewish texts, laws, history, theology and liturgy more than the average Jew, it isn’t any easier for me to be a “real” Jew—to live my life guided by Jewish values and tradition.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer

Fresno, CA



Many factors were in play when I applied to rabbinical school. I wanted to delve deeply into Jewish history and literature and become adept at studying Jewish sacred texts. I wanted to develop language that would allow me to express my ideas to others in meaningful ways. I believed in God and felt “called” to devote my life to becoming a better Jew. My teacher and mentor Rabbi Gordon Tucker often reminded me that becoming a rabbi entailed more than acquiring specific skills and knowledge. It required sharing them with others, inspiring them to walk in God’s ways and to be a part of the Jewish community. A rabbi has pastoral responsibilities as well, including giving members of the community advice, guidance and compassionate support. The rabbi serves as a religious or symbolic exemplar who demonstrates the qualities or behaviors to which others aspire. For me a rabbi’s job is to inspire others to become better Jews by setting a personal example and by sharing the knowledge obtained by becoming a Torah scholar.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz

Temple Beth El

Springfield, MA



I studied and received rabbinic ordination in Boro Park, Brooklyn, in a European refugee yeshiva made up mainly of survivors of the Holocaust and of Russian internment camps in Siberia. In their tradition, and my family’s, “rabbi” was a title earned on the side by study of classical rabbinic sources; it was not a professional degree. I had no intention of entering the rabbinate. I earned a Ph.D. in modern intellectual history and planned to be an academic historian.

In 1961, I belatedly encountered the Holocaust—spiritually, morally, existentially. Trying to come to grips with the Shoah took over my life. I concluded that I wanted to serve the Jewish people, not work in an academic, “neutral” setting. There was a need to wrestle theologically: Could one go on believing in God? Could one go on teaching the covenant and its promise of world redemption? I wanted to work on healing the world, starting with helping Christians repent for two millennia of degrading and hating Jews, then building a new relationship between the two faiths. Finally, I wanted to help build a Jewish community that would take power in order to end Jewish victimization but would exercise that strength morally and humanely.

In the end, the only setting that would allow me to pursue all this was the rabbinate. Thus, reluctantly, and in an almost unplanned way, I backed into becoming a practicing, i.e. a “real,” rabbi.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

Riverdale, NY



A person can be a great Torah scholar and not be a rabbi. A person can also be a Jewish community leader, an educator, an orator, a counselor, a spiritual mentor and serve many other important functions and not technically be a rabbi. A rabbi in the strictest sense means someone qualified to give practical instruction in matters of Jewish law.

My mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, strongly encouraged young men to attain at least the basic level of ordination before their wedding. This ensures that someone in each Jewish home is able to answer the day-to-day halachic questions that arise. In this context, the moment I realized I was a “real” rabbi was at the last of five comprehensive oral exams that I had been taking over two years. The last series of questions was about what to do if, in the middle of the Torah reading in synagogue, it is discovered that the Torah scroll is unfit. The rabbi who tested me told me, “If someone asks you a question about a dairy spoon that was used to stir in a meat pot, you can always go look up the ruling. But if there is a problem with a Torah scroll in the middle of the service, everyone is waiting to hear your answer.”

Rabbi Shais Taub

Pittsburgh, PA



In essence, a rabbi is a teacher—a teacher who has dedicated his life to educating others through word and deed. My path to the rabbinate was complex and circuitous. Although passionate about Jewish learning, I had always promised myself that I would not, like many of my friends, become yet another career rabbi employed by a synagogue or yeshiva. My high school rosh yeshiva, who had become my regular study partner several years after graduation, insisted over my vocal protests that I take the tests to qualify for smicha. In deference to his wishes, I reluctantly sat for the exams at a traditional yeshiva at age 22. I promptly stashed my ordination certificates in a closet in my parents’ home, confident that I would have no practical use for them. I would be a committed Jew with a normal job who learned Torah in the mornings and evenings and raised his family with proper standards of religious observance and moral values. I did not need to be a rabbi to do that! Instead, I pursued a doctorate in psychology.

Somehow, though, I always seemed to find myself roped into part-time volunteer rabbinical work. Invariably, I would be in the wrong place at the wrong time (as I saw it) and would be asked to lead prayers, read the Torah, give a class, deliver a speech or provide pastoral care to a person in need. It became an overwhelming challenge to balance my numerous side jobs with my academic program. One day a rabbinic mentor called me into his office and gave me an ultimatum: “When it comes to the rabbinate, you must make a choice:  Either devote your entire life to avodat hakodesh—divine service—or don’t. You can’t have it both ways.”

I looked back and saw the chain of convenient accidents leading me to the rabbinate as the silent call of destiny. I left the doctoral program in my last year and dramatically altered the trajectory of my life. The rest, I suppose, is history.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof

Magen David Sephardic Congregation

Rockville, MD


Next issue, we ask: “Does Jewish anxiety have a theological basis?”
Tell us your opinion below!



2 thoughts on “Ask the Rabbis // What Makes Someone a “Real” Rabbi?

  1. alexmaller says:

    It is beautiful to see this diversity of religious opinions express in the open without fear. This can happen only in the USA thanks to the freedom of speech, freedom OF religion and the separation between church and state. I sincerely hope that the zealot secular religious frenzy that took over the current White House will not undermine these noble freedoms.

  2. Steven Schulman says:

    It is interesting that the only group missing is Orthodox.

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