Torah Knowledge For Non-Jews Vol. 2
4. Choosing a Rabbi
As the founder of Noahide Nations and a Noahide for 15 + years I have found that one of the most often asked questions seem to be how do I pick a rabbi to study Noahide Torah under? How do we know if a rabbi is qualified to teach the Noahide Laws or not? Should I learn from one or more rabbis?
These are all great questions and there are answers to them. We must first realize that just because someone has the title of Rabbi it does not mean they know everything there is to know about the Noahide Laws. In fact in many cases it is the exact opposite.
The article below is actually taken from one of the Lesson Texts from the Noahide Laws & Life Cycle Course being taught by the Talmudic University of Florida in the Noahide Nations Academy of Shem. Rabbi Bloomenstiel is the Director of the program offered and at the present time the instructor for the course. He is a poskim and is an expert in the area of Torah Laws both Jewish and Noahide.
This article was written by Rabbi Avraham Chaim Bloomenstiel who is a posek (Judge) and therefore an expert in Torah Halacha (Law).
Rabbinic Ordination: Classical Semikhah
And Moses spoke to the Lord, saying: 'Let the Lord, the God of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, who may go out before them, and who may come in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd.' And the Lord said unto Moses: 'Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay your hand upon him; and set him before Eleazer the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight. And you shall put of your honor upon him that all the congregation of the children of Israel may hear. And he shall stand before Eleazer the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord; at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation.' And Moses did as the Lord commanded him; and he took Joshua, and set him before Eleazer the priest, and before the entire congregation. And he laid his hands upon him, and gave him a charge, as the Lord spoke by the hand of Moses.1
And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him; and the children of Israel hearkened unto him, and did as the Lord commanded Moses.2
And the God said to Moses: 'Gather unto Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; and bring them to the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with you. And I will come down and speak with you there; and I will take of the spirit which is upon you, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you should not have to bear it alone.3
The “laying on of hands” and “placing the spirit” described in the above verses are the first examples of Rabbinic ordination and the beginning of classical Semikhah (Semikhah is Hebrew for ordination). Joshua went on to ordain others, who in- turn taught and ordained their students down through the generations. This ordination was not a license to teach Torah or to lead a congregation – it was the transferring of divinely sanctioned authority from one scholar to another. This ordination imbued the holder with a spirit of wisdom, imparting holiness to his words and thoughts. Semikhah was required for certain roles; it was especially needed in order to serve in the Sanhedrin and other institutions of Torah law. Upon entry of the Jewish people into Israel, certain rules took effect governing how this ordination was given4:
• Semikhah could only be conveyed by a quorum of three judges, one of whom must himself have Semikhah.5 Semikhah could be conferred verbally or in writing. The “laying on of hands” was only practiced in the earlier generations. It was not practiced beyond the generation of Moses and Joshua.
• Both the grantor and recipient must be in Israel at the time Semikhah is given.
• In order to receive Semikhah, one must be an expert in all areas of Torah law. He must also be of proper character and zealously observant of the mitzvos and words of the sages.
An important detail of rabbinic ordination is that it was tiered: ordination was given in specific areas of Torah knowledge. To receive any one of these ordinations, however, a scholar must be capable and fluent in all areas of Torah knowledge. The ordinations were, in ascending degrees:6
• Yoreh Yoreh (He shall instruct, he shall instruct) – This ordination was for matters of religious and ritual law.
• Yadin Yadin (He shall judge, he shall judge) – This ordination qualified the scholar to matters of civil, criminal, and monetary law.
• Yatir Yatir or Yatir Bechoros Yatir (He shall permit, he shall permit) – This ordination qualified its holder to rule on matters of animal sacrifices and ritual purity.
This chain of ordination passed unbroken for centuries until shortly after the Bar Kokhba rebellion (132 – 135 CE). In the wake of Bar Kokhba’s failed attempt to re-establish Jewish autonomy, the Romans viewed Semikhah as a dangerous expression of the Jewish desire for self-rule. They also realized that, by ending Semikhah, they would destroy the Sanhedrin. What ensued was a brutal program of persecution and suppression. By imperial decree, giving Semikhah was made a capital offense with terrible consequences. Not only were the parties to the Semikhah executed, but absolute destruction was decreed for the city in which Semikhah was granted. To emphasize his point, the emperor also ordered the complete destruction of all villages and settlements located within 2000 Amos of that city’s boundaries.7
By the fourth and fifth centuries the Romans had driven most of the rabbinic community across the border into what is now Iraq. With few sages remaining in Israel, the chain of Semikhah eventually broke.8 For the next several centuries, the title “rabbi” would not be used.9 Instead, a scholar would either be referred to as “khokham” (wise one) or, if he held a position of authority, as a Gaon (eminence).
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.
Choosing a Rabbi
The only qualified Rabbis are those who are observant and received their training from orthodox institutions. If someone was ordained as a reform Rabbi, and subsequently became orthodox, their ordination remains invalid.
Know from where a Rabbi received semikhah. Did he get it online, from a recognized Torah scholar, or from a Yeshiva? All three could be valid, depending on the source.
Also, what did the Rabbi have to study to receive his semikhah? Was it one area (i.e. Issur v’Heter) or did he have to complete a long course of study? Most importantly is the rabbi affiliated with a particular institution, or is he a “lone wolf?”
Rabbis who “do their own thing” should generally be avoided because they have no accountability to anyone other than themselves.
You must endeavor to find a Rabbi in whose scholarship you have confidence and who you believe will take your interests seriously. If you always agree with everything your Rabbi tells you, then your relationship with the rabbi is not healthy for you. You want to find a Rabbi who challenges you. Most important of all, you must find a Rabbi who is consistent in his teachings. A rabbi who changes his opinions to suit the audience at hand, or when he is challenged, should be avoided.
Kabbalah – License
Besides ordination, there is another rabbinic credentialing called kabbalah – although this is similar to the Hebrew word for mysticism, it has an entirely different meaning here. A kabblah is a license to practice as a mohel (perform circumcision), sofer (scribe) or shochet (kosher slaughterer).
• Mohel – An unlicensed mohel should not be used. Additionally, unlicensed mohalim are exposed to tremendous liability. Besides the religious requirement for licensure, many countries have laws that enforce certification.
• Sofer – There is a tremendous number of unlicensed soferim (scribes) today. Many of these are producing non-kosher mezuzos and tefillin. Without licensure, their work would still remain unacceptable because the work of an unlicensed sofer (scribe) considered non-kosher even if the unlicensed Sofer is a Torah scholar and if their work is executed properly. Purchase of safrus from an unlicensed person is likewise prohibited.
• Shochet (a ritual slaughterer of animals) – The requirement of licensure for shochtim is very stringent. The meat of an unlicensed shochet is treated as non-kosher even if he slaughtered the animal correctly. As a result the meat is either discarded or sold to non-Kosher meat companies.
Honor Due to Torah Scholars
Rise before an elderly person and stand before a wise man.11
This teaches that we are obligated to show honor to a Torah scholar by standing in his presence. We must stand when a scholar enters or leaves a room if he is within six feet of us. For an exceptional scholar, we stand when he enters the room even from more than 6 feet away.
1 Numbers 27:15-23.
2 Deuteronomy 34:9.
3 Numbers 11:16-17.
4 Most of this material is taken from Maimonides, Hil. Sanhedrin 4.
5 Sanhedrin 13b-14a. Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:5.
6 Sanhedrin 5a.
7 Sanhedrin 14a.
8 There are some Gaonic traditions indicating that ordination may have continued beyond the fourth century. See the Kovetz Shaarei Tzedek, p. 29-30 and Sefer HaShtarot, p. 132. However, even these concur that there is no modern semikhah.
9 The term “Rabbi” is not all that common in the Talmud either. There are many honorifics used in the Talmud for Torah scholars. However, most of them are referred to simply by their names or sobriquets.
10 Hilchos Talmud Torah 5:30
11 Leviticus 19:32.