I received an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary this spring. I appreciate the recognition, but it has prompted some disquieting questions.
Reform and Conservative rabbis often get these diplomas, usually after about 25 years of service. So the honor has more to do with survival than accomplishment. I suppose it could be said that enduring 25 years in the rabbinate, particularly in the pulpit, is deserving of special recognition. There have been times when I wondered whether a Purple Heart might be more appropriate, or maybe a Nobel Peace Prize.
But why a doctorate? Why measure success in a spiritual profession on purely intellectual terms? Once upon a time, rabbinical seminaries were bastions of cold-fish, Litvak elitism, often then wedded to its secular, German sister, the venerable “Wissenschaft des Judentums (the science of Judaism).” But these same schools are now committed to taking Judaism out of the ivory tower, promoting, as JTS put it in its new strategic plan, “Scholarship in Service to the Jewish Community.” So shouldn’t the rabbi of the 21st century be recognized as a person of the people, not some highfalutin D.D.?
And what, really, is a Doctor of Divinity? I hear that in the United Kingdom, a D.D. is the highest honor a university can give, higher than Doctorates in law, medicine, science, letters or music. But American universities have no such hierarchy, and here it almost sounds like a degree they might confer at Hogwarts for having mastered potions and the dark arts.
How should people address me? Debretts, a website that calls itself “the modern authority on all matters etiquette, taste and achievement” favors “Dr. Cohen” over “Rabbi Cohen” for invitations and salutations. With the Jewish establishment subtly agreeing that “My kid the doctor” trumps “rabbi” on the parental aspiration scale, that trampling sound you hear is another generation of our best and brightest running away from the rabbinate.
And why should I need an honorary title at all? Shouldn’t my life-work of facilitating Jewish journeys be sufficient? Plus, my wife, who is a psychologist, worked long and hard to earn her doctorate. It makes me feel a bit uneasy about accepting one simply because I’ve survived.
The title “rabbi” signifies a mastery of knowledge, but it means much more. In fact, maybe my original diploma, which described the calling as “rabbi, teacher and preacher,” should be updated to include more contemporary aspects of the job description, including rabble rouser, healer, marketing expert, surrogate mommy, divine exemplar, standup comic, youthful elder, dispassionate zealot and guy-who-can-unjam-the-Xerox-machine.
That’s not to say I didn’t accept this honor. For one thing, it came with lunch. And it was a deep privilege to share this moment with my family and leadership of my congregation, as well as a few dozen colleagues who were similarly honored. Many of them have become major figures on the Jewish scene and all have dedicated their life’s work to the service of the Jewish people and God. I am proud of them and want to see their achievements recognized.
We’ve been rabbis at a time when the profession has changed dramatically, and we’ve been the agents of that change. The paradigm of rabbi as aloof scholar, shepherd and diplomat has been replaced, to a large degree, by other models. The rabbi has become more of a guide, a teacher who leads by example and can point people toward resources that will enable them to find their own solutions to life’s dilemmas.
In what Rabbi Elie Kaunfer has aptly called an era of empowerment, Jews are not looking for simple answers, but engagement, direction, inspiration and the kind of encouragement that can propel a lifelong quest. They are looking less for a rabbi and more for a rebbe, in the original chasidic sense, a mentor who can take Judaism out of stuffy academies and let holiness breathe, sing and dance through the lives of real people.
Maybe the new title should reflect other honorifics given rabbis over the centuries, like “Mar” (Master)” or “Rav” (“The Great One” — I like that, but I am not worthy). There’s always “Shlita,” an acronym for “May he live a long and good life, Amen” and “Nasi” (Prince or President).
Throughout the Middle Ages, you had really made it as a rabbi when you became known by your initials. Rambam (the acronym for the Hebrew letters reysh, mem, bet, mem) and Rashi (reysh, shin, yud) were the FDR and LBJ of their day. Maybe each of us should be given an official nickname, whether it be our initials (mine would be “the RaYaMM — Rabbi Yehoshua ben Micha’el V’Miryam), or maybe something more folksy. The Talmud uses nicknames like “Honi the Circle Drawer.” Some of my classmates were also superb circle drawers as well, especially during Talmud class. How about “Reb Danny the Doodler?”
Finally, here’s an opportunity to introduce new fields of rabbinic specialization. As The Jewish Week’s new online Ethicist, maybe I should ask that my honorary doctorate be in the field of Menschology. Many of us could also claim expertise in Jewish Geography, Kiddush Gastronomy, Guilt Management and Mass Miscommunication.
So I gratefully accept my new title and will work hard to truly earn it. But the only degree I am really seeking is a degree of difficulty. With the month of Shavuot now in our rear-view mirror, mountainous challenges still await us, and even loftier opportunities. To scale those, American Jews don’t need doctors.
We need rabbis.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn. Check out his Ethicist column on The Jewish Week website (www.thejewishweek.com).