A topic arose in a meeting I attended for my local congregation which reminded me how much certain Jewish institutions are misunderstood. We were discussing how best to go about filling the position of rabbi for our congregation and because of our financial situation, we are forced to consider things like part-time rabbis. One of the participants said that we had to have a rabbi because of performing conversions and participating in a Bet Din (a Jewish court convened these days most often to approve conversion, but also used, for example, for the Halitzah ceremony which will await another time for explication).
I spoke up at this point and pointed out that no rabbi is necessary for any of these things. I should add since I’m writing at greater length here that in most congregations rabbis are usually performing such chores because, after all, they are educated in the necessities.
But there is no requirement for this.
One reason there is no such requirement is that, in fact, there are no rabbis today who can fulfill the traditional demands for ordination as a rabbi. The last person who had some claim on the title was Rabbi Chaim Vital, who died in 1620. It’s by no means historically certain that he had authentic smikhah, the Hebrew term for ordination, but his contemporaries largely accepted him so we can leave it at that. Since his passing, not a rabbi in the world has been able to claim authentic ordination.
This seems to have led to title inflation in some parts of the Orthodox Jewish world. One of the briefer ones is “HaRav HaGaon” (something like the The Genius Rabbi), which of course is quickly eclipsed by “Maran Harav Hagaon” (“Our master the Genius Rabbi”). And of course, we see that many find it necessary to add the trailing honorific, Shlit”a (short for Sheyikhye Le’orech Yamim Tovim Amen, “May he live a good long life, Amen”).
All for folks who do not, in fact, have authentic smikhah.
Now, before some of you get riled up, I’m not dissing the modern institution of the rabbinate. There are wonderful schools in every modern Jewish movement who produce well-trained scholars of Judaism who are fit to lead congregations. I’m simply explaining that conferring the title of “rabbi” on them does not, by Jewish tradition or law, provide them with the authority discussed in the Mishnah, Talmud, or Halakhic codes.