Parasha Be-Ha-a-lotecha

How should one address the spiritual leader of a synagogue? When I was a seminarian at the Academy for Jewish Religion, I had a student pulpit at a small synagogue in Holyoke, Massachusetts. One of the first questions the President of the congregation asked me was, “How should we call you?”  This is a crisis point for any rabbinic student. One is only studying to be a rabbi. One is not a rabbi yet. So, do you deserve to be called “rabbi?”  Should you tell them to call you by your first name? I answered immediately, “Call me ‘rabbi’!  The next week I ran to the seminary to find out if that was alright. Fortunately, I was right on the mark! The rabbis that most of us remember from our childhood we remember as authority figures. They stood on pulpits raised high above the congregation, and dressed in formal black robes and high black hats. They seemed distant, and remote even scary and intimidating. As they thundered their sermons from the pulpit heights, congregants hung on their every word.  We addressed these holy figures formally, by their surname.   Here is a true story. When I was being interviewed by a committee for entry into my seminary, one of the rabbis asked me what synagogue I had attended as a child and who my rabbi was. I answered, Temple Israel in Scranton, where the rabbi was Rabbi Simon H. Shoop. His eyes lit up with recognition. “Ah”, he said, “Hank Shoop, I knew him.”  “Yes,” I replied gravely, “But we didn’t call him Hank.” It seemed to me that Rabbi Shoop’s very diginity had been compromised by his colleague’s use of a nickname, of all things! We want – and need, a different model of rabbi for our times. Today’s congregations want rabbis who are more like friends and less like the authority figures of our childhood and adolescence. This change is reflected in how many of us  address our rabbis. At the Reconstructionist synagogue in Amherst, where I was a member for many years, many congregants addressed the rabbi only by her first name, Sheila.  When they referred to her in the third person, they would also use her first name only. I never felt comfortable with that, and always addressed her as “Rabbi” or “Rabbi Weinberg”, and spoke about her in the same way.  Does that make me old-fashioned? The rabbis of antiquity were all known by their first names — Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yohannan,  Rabbi Yehudah and the like.  Of course, they did not have hereditary last names.  I envy Rabbi Bob at Etz Chaim. He has a last name that sounds like a friendly first name, so he can have it both ways! There is a biblical basis for how Jewish people should address their rabbi, and it is found in this week’s Torah portion, Be-ha-ah-lotecha.  In it, two men, Eldad and Medad, are prophesying in the camp of the Israelites.  Joshua ben Nun, who is described as a student of Moses since his youth, speaks up. “My master, Moses, incarcerate them!”  Out of this verse come two teachings about how one must address ones rabbi. The first teaching states that one should always address ones rabbi as either “Rabbi” or “Rabbi so-and –so”, just as Joshua does when he addresses Moses as “My master, Moses”.  As long as one prefaces the proper name with the title of “rabbi” or “master”, one may use the proper name of the rabbi when speaking to him or her. But others disagree. They state that one should address ones rabbi only as “Rabbi” when speaking to him or her, and “Rabbi so-and-so” when speaking about him or her to others.  The reason for this is that using the proper name of the rabbi when one is speaking directly to them implies that one has a teacher other than the rabbi with whom you are speaking. Otherwise, why would you need a name to clarify with whom you are speaking?  Fortunately, this is a minority opinion, for it raises more issues than it resolves. At the same time, that is what makes it a characteristically Jewish opinion as well. A Rabbi should not be too zealous of his honor in this respect. A beautiful story is told of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a giant in the rabbinic world of the twentieth century.  He was walking along a street in his neighborhood when he heard a voice calling, "Moshe, Moshe!"  Looking up, he saw that the voice was that of an acquaintance, who was behind the wheel of his car.  Without blinking an eye, Rav Moshe walked over to the car.  Upon realizing that Rav Moshe had assumed that he was being called, the man turned crimson with embarrassment.  He said, "I was calling my son, who happened to be in the street as I drove by.  I would never dream of addressing you in such a disrespectful manner.  Besides, if I had something to discuss with the Rabbi I would have gotten out of my car and gone over to him.  I would not have dared to ask you to come to me."  Rav Moshe assured the man that there was nothing to be concerned about.  "It is already many years that these things mean nothing to me." [1] From the time of Moses, the Jewish people have had a tradition of the proper way to address their teachers.   Times may change, and styles with them.  Yet, whatever way one addresses ones rabbi, our tradition insists that one does it with the respect that a student shows a teacher.  This is one of the hallmarks of a sacred text – it tells us not only much about the past, but it can also speak to our own lives, in large ways and in small. Shabbat Shalom      

[1] As told by Rabbi Ed Davis “Torah Dialogue – Be-Ha-ah-lot-cha” a weekly communication.