By Rabbi YY Rubinstein
I remember a story that made headlines in the UK many years ago. In a small town in Wales, four doctors were partners in the same office. The medical practice was successful and the patients felt they were getting the best care. Then it was discovered that one of the doctors, wasn’t—a doctor, that is. He had forged his qualifications and, with no training whatsoever, treated patients for ten years.
I suppose he must have done some self-teaching and read medical books, but in the end he was a fraud and a fantasist. In the end he put lives at risk.
The ironic thing was that the BBC interviewed several of his patients after he had been exposed. They all wanted him back! They claimed he was nicer and more sympathetic than the real doctors.
Perhaps on calmer reflection they might have reached the conclusion that it is better to have someone who is qualified to look at the results of your blood work than someone who isn’t. He may speak to you more kindly and better than the person who knows what he is actually talking about, but this is really a no-brainer.
The Rambam writes that there are doctors for physical ailments (as he himself was) and doctors for spiritual ailments. Both need to be qualified and monitored in the work that they do.
Let’s stay with the medical analogy for a while longer.
Most rabbis are very much like MDs. I was the rabbi at two medical schools for over 20 years in England, so I know a little of the process of turning students into doctors.
I think it would fair to describe an MD as someone with a broad but “shallow” knowledge of medicine. They will spend six months or so attached to a gynecology unit getting experience and matching the facts learned in textbooks and lectures to real cases. After that they will spend another six months in another hospital department, perhaps oncology, and so on. This is hardly going to make an MD an expert in any of those fields. However, when he sees a problem, he will know to refer it to the person who is an expert.
If the specialist does not know how to solve the problem, he will discuss it with the head of his department, who may take it to the professor of the specialty. If the professor does not know the answer, he will call the world’s leading experts to find out.
When I was at Gateshead Yeshiva, we were only allowed to learn for semichah once we had been in learning for a minimum of five years. My chavrusa and I were expected to first learn Maseches Chulin with the Rosh and Rif. Then we had to know the whole of Chelek Alef of Yoreh Deah, shechitah, treifos, etc.
That made me the rabbinic equivalent of an MD. I knew where to look. I knew whom and how to ask. I knew my limits and I sincerely hope I still do.
I hope that on cool reflection, the patients in that Welsh village eventually concluded that they were better off with a properly qualified doctor than someone who is self-taught and willing to delude others (and himself too).
If we take the Rambam’s analogy seriously—and the Torah and halachah is no less serious than medicine—we should arrive at the same conclusion as those Welsh villagers. The Torah’s “doctors” and practitioners have to be properly qualified and supervised too. The title “MD” has a legal definition. The title “rabbi,” sadly, does not.
There are people in charge of Christian churches who call themselves “rabbi.” There are people here in the U.S. who also call themselves “rabbi” who are relieved and celebrating the Supreme Court’s striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act (the Torah’s concept of marriage is now “indefensible!”). Reform women busy trying to offend as many Orthodox Jews as possible at the Kotel do. Some atheists who eat pork do, and some who say Yetzias Mitzrayim never took place do, too. The title “rabbi” is misleading, confusing, and wide open to abuse.
In the Orthodox Jewish world, things are also confusing. When the Chofetz Chaim wrote the Mishnah Berurah, he did not have semichah, yet he was the gadol ha’dor.
Then there are some in our world who enjoy the title “rabbi” because the institution they studied in gives the title out with little or no testing whatsoever. As a friend once joked, “Students find the semichah at the bottom of the Corn Flakes box!” You can even do a semichah course “online.” Additionally, we often use the term as an honorific.
Real problems start when people who are not qualified, even to be MD-level rabbis, start making diagnoses and writing prescriptions with insufficient or no knowledge to justify them. They sometimes even argue with those who are actually qualified or are experts at the same time. Ordinary Jews hear this and think, “Well, they are both rabbis, aren’t they?”
I believe in what the Rambam writes: there are doctors for physical ailments and doctors for spiritual ailments too. I also believe that both are hugely important roles that should result from proper qualifications.
There are some who have been given the title “rabbi” who are paskening shaylos in hilchos niddah when they literally cannot translate a pasuk in Chumash correctly. Sadly, I know of some.
Others who have appropriated the title for themselves manifest their hubris by declaring gedolim wrong or mistaken or criticizing other aspects of our mesorah in education, shidduchim, and a hundred different topics.
There are yet others who are not bad people but are simply reaching way beyond where they should. Still, the outcome is bound to be the same as the patients in that Welsh village. Someone is likely to be deprived of the real help they need—or, worse, be hurt badly by receiving the wrong help.
Ordinary Jews often simply don’t know who is the authentic and who is the unqualified. This is true especially if the unqualified fellow spoke better and seemed more sympathetic than the “real doctors.”
If getting the best possible medical health for physical ailments makes sense, then so too does seeking the best rabbinic help. It’s not simply the fact that the person claiming to be a doctor or a rabbi has to be properly qualified. The place he got his qualification from also matters.
A medical degree from Yale in the U.S., or Manchester or Edinburgh in the UK, indicates the high quality of the person holding the degree. After that, and equally important, there is the reputation the doctor builds up over years of helping people.
The same is true for seeking a rabbi. As consumers, we are responsible to seek the best help we can. The title “rabbi” does not mean much anymore. Where the title comes from though, still does.
The bigger the problem, the bigger and better the expert we need to solve it. Our responsibility is to do “due diligence” and find out if the rabbi’s qualifications exist. If they do, what they are and—crucially—where they came from is the next question. Then we have to make sure that he has grown and added to his expertise through his “practice” and has a good reputation, is respected by his peers, the specialists, and leaders in the field, roshei yeshiva, gedolim, etc.
We should take the Rambam’s analogy seriously. The Torah and halachah are no less important than medicine. If we do our due diligence, we can be confident we are taking a problem to the right person who can supply a real refuah. v