CHOOSING A RABBI - Choosing a Rabbi 3
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Rabbinic Ordination: Modern Semikhah
In modern times, Semikhah refers to a degree or diploma certifying one as having completed a course of study in halakhah, Jewish law. The impetus for this new Semikhah was the rise of the medieval university, which began to issue diplomas and degrees. Jewish communities, in constant flux, saw the value of credentialing its religious scholars. They called this academic degree Semikhah in commemoration of the classical Semikhah. While this Semikhah caught on in the European Jewish world, Sephardic communities did not adopt it until very late.
Today, Semikhah is given at three levels:
• Rav U-Manhig – The equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree, this Semikhah originated in the 20th century at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, MD. It certifies the holder as a teacher and as knowing the basic laws of the synagogue ritual service and observance of the holidays. Not all yeshivas issue this Semikhah or accept it as valid. Where accepted, the holder may use the title Rabbi.
• Yoreh Yoreh – Equivalent of a Master’s degree. Based on the classical Yoreh Yoreh, this is usually awarded following a course of study in kashrus (dietary laws), Shabbat, Niddah (laws pertaining to married women), and Aveilus (mourning). Traditionally, the final exam is given in Issur ve-heter (a very detailed sub-section of the dietary laws). This is the most common Semikhah today. A Rabbi with this Semikhah, who holds a position of communal authority, may be called Rav.
• Yadin Yadin – Also based on the classical Semikhah, this ordination is the equivalent of a Ph.D. It requires extensive study of the laws of monetary and civil damages, as well as the laws of marriage and divorce. One who holds this ordination may be called Dayan. In the US, however, they are usually called Rabbi or Rav.
There is a fourth level that is very uncommon in our times called heter horaah (although this term is confusingly applied to other ordinations as well) or Semikhahs Moreh Horaah. This is an all-encompassing Semikhah awarded to rare scholars who have mastered the entire body of Torah literature. Very few people receive this today.
The Problems with Modern Semikhah
Students of Judaism and Noahism should be aware that there are many details (and problems) with modern semikhah:
• Semikhah is first and foremost a certification in Torah Law. Biblical interpretation, philosophy, and theology, are rarely, if ever, part of the curriculum. semikhah is only relevant to the study of Torah law – it is not awarded for knowledge of other areas.
• Semikhah is an academic degree attained after a course of study and examination. It is not awarded based on righteousness or character. There are people with semikhah who are not particularly pleasant.
• One who has semikhah at one level may not teach or answer questions about law from a higher level. Someone with Yoreh Yoreh should not answer questions about Yadin Yadin material.
• In the past 15 or 20 years, many yeshivas have begun awarding semikhahs in very specific areas of study. For example, someone may take a course in the laws of Shabbos and receive semikhah in Shabbos (this may even be done online). However, he may not know any other area of Torah law. Such a person must be very cautious about holding himself out as a Rabbi because he is not qualified to discuss anything other than the laws of Shabbat. There are many “area specific” Rabbis in the world today. Unfortunately, many hold themselves out as “Torah authorities” when, in actuality, they are woefully unqualified outside their narrow area of study. Of Rabbis who teach or rule on matters in which they are not thoroughly versed, Maimonides describes them as “evil, arrogant people.”10
• Because it is possible to get semikhah in only one narrow area, it means that one does have to be a Torah scholar anymore to be a Rabbi. Likewise, one doesn’t need to be a rabbi to be a Torah scholar.
• One does not have to study at a yeshiva to attain semikhah. Either a person can study at a yeshiva and receive semikhah from the Yeshiva, or one can study privately and be examined by a renowned Torah scholar.
Ultimately, the world of Torah scholarship is a meritocracy – the greater scholars receive the greatest recognition and are accorded authority on the merits of their achievements. For this reason, many of the greatest Torah scholars and authorities of the past 150 years never bothered with semikhah.
10 Hilchos Talmud Torah 5:30