Do Reform and Conservative Rabbis Deserve the Title?

The question raised by Cantor Angela Buchdahl’s candidacy goes far beyond 'Who’s a Jew.’

In its article on Cantor Angela Buchdahl, the Forward presents a portrait of a beloved community leader, now considered the leading candidate to replace the outgoing senior rabbi of New York’s Central Synagogue. She is a rising star in the Reform movement, with dual ordination as cantor and rabbi.

Buchdahl was born to an Ashkenazi, Reform Jewish father and a Korean Buddhist mother. The article suggests that it is this background that helps her relate so well to the diversity of her congregants.

The Forward carefully points out, “Starting in 1983, as intermarriage advanced steadily among its members, Reform Judaism conferred a ‘presumption of Jewish descent’ on those with one Jewish parent, whether it was a father or a mother. The one condition to this recognition was that it be established ‘through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith,’ according to the Central Conference of American Rabbis.”

Nonetheless, the Jewish Week’s Yori Yanover decided to rake over these old coals by writing “It’s Official: You Can Be a Non-Jewish Rabbi.”

To be clear, according to halakha, a person is Jewish if he or she is born to a Jewish mother or makes an Orthodox conversion. However, in deciding to take this cause up now, does Yanover really believe that there haven’t been numerous other non-halakhically Jewish rabbis since 1983, and that 30 years later this has suddenly become a problem? In targeting Buchdahl - a woman with an Asian, Buddhist mother - and using her image prominently at the beginning of the article, gender and race become the spices that make this a story. Objectifying a person, exposing her to public ridicule - as Yanover did - is gratuitously shaming a face in public.

When Yanover conjectures to stop calling Reform teachers rabbis, he misses a far more relevant question that Buchdahl’s story provokes: Who is a rabbi?

With the disbanding of the Sanhedrin, the high court of elders in 358 C.E., the chain of conferring ordination from teacher to student in the Land of Israel was broken. Earlier, with the dispersal of Jews after the destruction of the First Temple, the title “Rav” was given to those ordained in Babylonia, with “Rabbi” reserved only for those remaining in Israel. In post-Temple times, all rabbinic ordinations are now dependent on the institution and/or rabbi conferring the title. Hence, one generally wants to know not just that a person is a rabbi, but also from where and by whom?

Rabbi Gil Student, in his thoughtful blog post “Who Can Be Called Rabbi?,” presents competing values that one should consider when deciding how to relate to a rabbi who does not measure up to traditional standards of respect for teachers and Torah scholars.

“My working assumption is that most Reform and Conservative Jews serving as rabbis fail to meet Orthodox religious standards, and some Orthodox Jews serving as rabbis do as well,” he writes.

In modern times, Student explains, “rabbi” is used as a professional title. Failing to use that appellation is confusing and could damage a person’s livelihood. Additionally, not referring to a community’s leader with the title its members use would be considered insulting. It can personally offend when we distinguish between individuals we believe are sufficiently knowledgeable or observant to merit the title “rabbi” and those who are not. Not referring to a person as rabbi can be easily twisted into the “right” to insult rabbis we do not agree with.

To conclude, Student writes:

“The ease of abuse argues for a liberal application of the title … When nearly everyone calls a person ‘rabbi,’ failing to do so is even more offensive.

“On the other hand, the title ‘rabbi‘ has long been understood as implying that its bearer is qualified to rule on halakhic matters and serve on a religious court … In reference to someone who lacks those qualifications, do we have license to use the title colloquially and imprecisely?

“Additionally, calling someone ‘rabbi’ who fails to meet basic Torah standards can be seen as admission that Torah observance is subject to compromise.”

While Student does not explicitly mention the case of non-halakhically Jewish rabbis - with the focus of his discussion on Reform and Conservative rabbis, encompassing their standards of Jewishness and conversion – I would presume they are to be included.

Professor Nehama Leibowitz, zt”l, in a letter to Rabbi Yehuda Ansbacher, also explores this issue, writing, “It is true that I cite the words of people who are not observant of the mitzvot, if their words seem correct to me, and can reveal the light of Torah and display its greatness and holiness to the student. [I work] according to the principle: ‘Accept the truth from wherever it comes’ (Rambam, Shmoneh Prakim).”

In attempting to resolve this question for myself, like Leibowitz, I value the opportunity to communicate with and learn from people of different backgrounds - Jews and non-Jews alike. Along my family’s journey, we have been helped by and been enriched by many people, including Reform and Conservative rabbis. We Jews are enjoined by hakarat hatov, acknowledging the good inherent in and done by others, particularly when we are the beneficiaries. In addition, we must rely on the overarching halakhic principle of kavod habriot, respect for all human beings. Even here - where the issue is complex - respect trumps.

Gratitude and respect are dual points on our internal compasses. May we be blessed to align these qualities as we approach the Jewish New Year.


Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.