NYP no. 5759.3

Who Is a Rabbi?



A new congregation has been formed in my city, founded by a woman who has attended the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ), the rabbinical school of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. She serves as the congregation’s rabbi, even though she has yet to be ordained by that school. She has been licensed by the state to perform weddings, and also does conversions. Should we accept these conversions as valid, even though they were supervised by someone other than an ordained rabbi? In general, what is our position with respect to individuals who have received private ordination or who claim to possess ordination from seminaries, schools or yeshivot with which we are unfamiliar? Do we recognize them as rabbis? Do we accept them as colleagues in our communities?


  1. Conversions Supervised by a Layperson. Your first question has been addressed quite clearly by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). We hold that, while “a rabbinical beit din is desirable for giyur,” conversion should at any rate take place in the presence of a rabbi and no fewer than two lay leaders of the community.[1] We base this position upon considerations of both a halakhic and a practical nature.

    Our tradition teaches that conversion must take place in the presence of a beit din, a court of Jewish law.[2] The Rabbis derive this requirement through a midrash,[3] the interpretation of biblical verses in which the Hebrew root sh-p-t (“judgment”) appears in connection with the word ger, or “proselyte.”[4] The precise make-up of this court is a matter of dispute in the literature; some contend that the Torah itself requires that a beit din consist of no fewer than three judges,[5] while others believe that one judge is sufficient and that the requirement of three judges in cases other than penal law is a rabbinic stringency.[6] Both views agree, however, that the judges must be knowledgeable of the law and qualified for their task. Although the codified halakhah declares that any three individuals, including those with no special legal training,[7] may constitute a beit din, it justifies this provision on the assumption that among a gathering of three persons “it is impossible that there should not be one who knows something of the law.”[8] It follows that the rule will change should this assumption prove inaccurate: “if there is not one among these three judges who has studied the law, they are disqualified from serving as a court.”[9]

    In particular, the beit din which oversees a conversion must be composed of knowledgeable Jews.[10] Conversion, we stress, is much more than the stated desire to become a Jew. Choosing Judaism is a complex and demanding intellectual and emotional procedure. It involves, first of all, the study of Torah and Jewish practice (hoda`at hamitzvot), a curriculum which is taught at least in part by the members of the court.[11] Our tradition also requires that we “examine” the prospective Jew-by-choice, to determine whether his or her decision to become a Jew is sincere, well thought out, and motivated for reasons we find acceptable.[12] The journey by which one enters into the Jewish people, the veritable creation of a brand new identity – indeed, “the proselyte is like a new-born child”[13] – should therefore be supervised by a specialist who possesses the Judaic education and counseling skills necessary for this important task. We would add, moreover, that issues of personal status are among the most sensitive that face our community. It is deeply in our interest that we as a people be able to agree, to the greatest extent possible, upon “who is a Jew”, arriving at a consensus as to the standards by which we determine the Jewish identity of those who claim to possess it. “Conversions” performed by those who are unqualified to do so endanger this vital but fragile consensus, for they are likely to create a class of Jews whose very Jewishness will be suspect in the eyes of many. It is for these reasons, to insure the quality and the validity of conversion procedures, that our Conference along with the rest of the organized Jewish community insists that the supervision of conversion be a rabbinic prerogative.

    In principle (l’khatchilah), therefore, conversion should not be supervised by a layperson. We deal here, however, with a situation of “after the fact” (b’di`avad), with conversion ceremonies that have already taken place, with individuals who perhaps have been accepted as Jews-by-choice in your community. And in such a case, the halakhic tradition permits us to acknowledge the conversions, for although it ought to take place in the presence of a knowledgeable beit din, a conversion ritual administered by three unlearned judges (hedyotot) is nonetheless valid.[14] Let us be clear: we are under no obligation to recognize the validity of any “conversion” merely because a ritual bearing that name was performed by a group of three persons claiming to be a beit din. We are entitled to withhold our recognition of the conversion, for example, when we have serious doubts as to the legitimacy of the “court” or the fitness of its members to serve as “judges.”[15] Yet such objections do not apply here. Although we have our religious differences with Humanistic Judaism,[16] we have no reason to doubt the Jewishness or the Judaic sincerity of those who practice it. Similarly, we have every reason to believe that the individuals who have converted with this person demonstrate a genuine desire to live a Jewish life as it is understood by their community. They have made a carefully considered and public decision to take their place in the covenant of Israel, joining their fate to that of the Jewish people. For our part, we do not want to erect barriers to their entry. On the contrary: as Reform Jews, whose movement has distinguished itself by its encouragement of those who wish to choose Judaism, we ought to welcome them actively into our midst.

    Thus, our advice is two-fold. We urge you to advocate in your community that conversions to Judaism be supervised and guided solely by ordained rabbis. Such a standard reflects honor to the Torah and the seriousness with which we take the conversion procedure. It will also forestall difficulties by helping to ensure that the validity of conversions is accepted by most of the Jewish population. Yet to reject the individuals already converted by this person would serve no purpose save to embarrass them, sowing the seeds of bitterness and divisiveness within the community. Out of concern for Jewish unity and communal peace, and in recognition of their evident sincerity, you should rather accept them as full-fledged members of the Jewish people.

  1. Rabbis with “Suspect Ordination.” How we are to evaluate the rabbinical credentials of those who have received private ordination? What of those who have graduated from rabbinical schools with which we are unfamiliar or which we regard as inferior in quality? Do we accept these individuals as our colleagues, as rabbis in our communities?

    We might begin by considering the nature of the ordination by which we bestow the title “rabbi.” As we know that institution today, “ordination” is but the symbolic representation of the ancient s’mikhah described in the Talmudic sources.[17] Ancient ordination, according to halakhic theory, formed a new link in the chain of s’mikhah from teacher to student that stretched back all the way to Moses. The musmakh, or ordained judge, was therefore the legal successor to the seventy elders who stood with Moses on Sinai, and he was entitled to exercise the full range of legislative, judicial, and executive power pertaining to that exalted station. Among these was the power to enforce his decisions upon litigants even against their will, that is, if they had not agreed in advance to accept him as their judge. The musmakhim who constituted the High Court (beit din hagadol) could issue ordinances (takanot) that were binding upon all Jews everywhere. This s’mikhah was never practiced outside of the land of Israel; the Babylonian amoraim (sages of the Talmudic period) did not possess it, unless they received s’mikhah in the land of Israel. At best, the Babylonian “rabbis” (for without s’mikhah they did not take that title but were rather called rav) could regard themselves as “agents” of the rabbis of Eretz Yisrael, who commissioned them to exercise legal authority (sh’luchotayhu avdinan, “we perform their agency”)[18] within carefully circumscribed boundaries. Today’s rabbis, too, function as the agents of the rabbis of old. Although we do not wield the full legal power which they enjoyed–“today, we are all lay judges (hedyotot); we do not exercise the Toraitic power of jurisdiction”[19] – tradition suggests that they have empowered us to act in their name on matters that occur frequently in the legal life of our community or that are important enough to demand a response from contemporary authorities.[20] The “s’mikhah” that we practice today does not confer this ancient grant of jurisdiction upon the recipient. It is merely an attestation by a teacher that the recipient, his student, “has attained the requisite knowledge to rule on matters of Jewish law (higi`a l’hora’ah) and does so with the permission (r’shut) of the rabbi who has ordained him.”[21] Thus, our ordination does not endow its recipient with the authority to issue rulings that our people must accept. It is merely an expression of a teacher’s opinion that the student is capable of serving as a rabbi for a community which wishes to engage him or her. And nowhere do the sources tell us that a person must be ordained in order to perform rabbinical tasks. Rather, all rabbinical power today flows from the willingness of a community to abide by the rabbi’s rulings.[22]

    If this is the case, then no seminary, yeshivah or other institution owns a monopoly over the power to ordain. Any rabbi today is entitled to ordain any student who in the rabbi’s opinion has attained that level of knowledge which qualifies him or her to function as a rabbi. And the community, which has the final say as to who shall perform that function in its midst, is under no obligation to engage the services of an ordained person as its rabbi. From all this, one could argue that there is no substantive, objective content to the title “rabbi.” A “rabbi” is rather anyone who claims to possess some sort of ordination from a teacher. It would follow that we must recognize all such “rabbis” as legitimate possessors of that title.

    Yet though this is true according to the theory of Jewish law, our practice – that is, the way in which we live our law – has moved in the opposite direction. We emphatically do not believe that any and every person who is called “rabbi” or who serves some congregation in that capacity necessarily deserves the title. To us, rather, a “rabbi” is someone who is qualified for that distinction. It is therefore the widespread minhag among our communities, liberal and otherwise, to require that our rabbis receive the “customary ordination” before we engage their services.[23] Like our medieval ancestors, we utilize ordination as a criterion to measure one’s qualifications for the rabbinate, to determine that one meets and hopefully exceeds the minimum requirements of knowledge and expertise that we would set for our rabbinical leaders. If ordination is to serve as such a standard, it must surely be something more than an expression of some rabbi’s opinion or a signature on a piece of paper. Ordination must rather attest that its recipient has successfully completed an extended and rigorous program of Torah study and professional training which prepares one to exercise the rabbinical function in our communities.

    How do we define this program? Every Jewish community since the Middle Ages has developed its own answer to that question. In our community, that is, in the Reform Jewish community of North America, it is customary to require that those who wish to serve as rabbis graduate from rabbinical schools, seminaries and yeshivot whose curricula in our estimation clearly reach the necessary and desirable standards of educational excellence. We use the phrase “in our estimation” advisedly. We know that it is difficult to define “standards of educational excellence” to the satisfaction of all. Indeed, our rabbinical curricula have always been the subject of much debate among practitioners and educators. We acknowledge that our seminaries are not perfect, that a seminary ordination is no ironclad guarantee that its bearer will be a brilliant scholar and an inspiring religious leader. We believe, however, that as a general rule, the education provided by these schools, with the scholarly resources at their command, is a better preparation for the rabbinate than that afforded by lowly-regarded institutions or by individual rabbis who bestow “private ordination.”

    We also assert the right and the duty to act upon this belief. Every profession is entitled to define its own carefully considered educational standards. Those standards will inevitably be the subject of controversy, but at the end of the day it is the responsibility of the members of the profession to decide upon them and to enforce them. To deny us the right to set the standards we would demand for rabbinical education merely because they are controversial is to conclude that there are no standards, that there is no substance to the word “rabbi,” and that a rabbi is legitimately and properly anyone who chooses to assume that title. We do not believe this. The people whom we serve do not believe this. To draw such a conclusion would be absurd, and to act upon it would have destructive consequences for both the rabbinate and Jewish life. The best path, the one we must surely take, is to insist that our rabbis meet educational standards that, in our eyes, do honor to the title they carry.

    As a way of distinguishing between those who meet these standards and those who do not, the various rabbinical associations have developed sets of criteria to determine an individual’s fitness to join the rabbinical fellowship. The CCAR’s Admissions Guidelines[24] serve as a good example. The Guidelines specify that all applicants for membership to our Conference must have earned the degree of Bachelor of Arts (or its equivalent) from a recognized institution of higher learning, and the Master’s degree in Jewish Studies (or its equivalent). Rabbinic graduates of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and of the Leo Baeck College of London are eligible for CCAR membership without interview or examination, provided that they apply within four years after ordination. Rabbinic graduates of other “approved seminaries” may be admitted to the CCAR following a process of interview or examination (which may include academic examination). Graduates of seminaries and yeshivot not on the “approved” list can be admitted following an investigation of the quality of those schools and of their courses of study. This is a crucial point: we do not claim that only the graduates of “approved seminaries” are worthy of admission to the Conference. Others may join as well, provided that they can prove that their rabbinical education meets standards of excellence similar to those of the recognized schools. On the other hand, a private ordination will not be accepted, for the ordination of students by individual rabbis whose programs of study are not supervised by any responsible authority endangers the maintenance of any and all standards of educational excellence.[25] It should go without saying–but, in the interests of clarity we shall say it nonetheless–that students or graduates of “rabbinical” schools affiliated with the various messianic Jewish movements are apostates; they are not rabbis, and our community must not grant them that distinction.

    The rabbis of your community can certainly develop some admissions criteria of their own, patterned after those of the CCAR and the other rabbinical associations. These associations will certainly assist you as you seek information concerning the programs of study at rabbinical schools with which you are not familiar.

To summarize: not everyone who may be called “rabbi” is necessarily deserving of that distinction. Your community is under no obligation to recognize the rabbinical credentials of those individuals who have received “ordination” privately or from lowly-regarded institutions. The rabbis in your city are similarly under no obligation to accept these persons as colleagues and as members of your local rabbinical association. You should, of course, act towards them with grace, cordiality and tact, with all due concern for communal unity, in the spirit of a tradition that calls upon us to follow “the paths of peace.” Yet the ultimate message is clear: if we as rabbis truly care about the quality and the reputation of our calling, it is our duty to advocate that membership in the rabbinate be restricted to those who clearly meet the proper educational standards.


  1. Rabbi’s Manual (New York: CCAR, 1988), 232.
  2. B. Y’vamot 46b and Kiddushin 62b; Yad, Isurey Bi’ah 13:6-7 and 14:6; SA YD 268:3.
  3. The text says “verses” because the Talmud does not specify which verse is the subject of the midrash. According to Rashi (Y’vamot 46b, s.v. mishpat k’tiv beh), the verse in question is Numbers 15:16, and “judgment (mishpat) does not occur with less than three judges”; on the other hand, in Kiddushin 62b, he points to Leviticus 24:22. Tosafot (Y’vamot 46b, s.v. mishpat) offers Deuteronomy 1:16, following a baraita on Y’vamot 47a.
  4. The identification with the biblical term ger with the proselyte is found in the rabbinic literature. In the Bible itself, the ger is not a “convert to Judaism” but rather a “resident alien,” a non-Israelite permitted to dwell in the land and who, though remaining a non-citizen, enjoys certain privileges. For sources and discussion, see our responsum 5756.13.
  5. M. Sanhedrin 1:1; Rava, B. Sanhedrin 3a. The number three is derived by way of midrash on three appearances of the word elohim (“judges”) in Exodus 22; see the baraita near the top of B. Sanhedrin 3b. Rava holds that this requirement applies to all matters of monetary law (mamonot) as well as to matters involving fines (k’nasot).
  6. Rav Acha b. deRav Ika, B. Sanhedrin 3a.
  7. The term used here is hedyotot, which can be translated either as “persons ignorant of the law” or “persons who are not ordained judges (musmakhim).” In this case, the Talmudic text (B. Sanhedrin 3a) makes it clear that we are speaking of the former.
  8. SA HM 3:1. This reasoning is used in the Talmud (B. Sanhedrin 3a) to support the position of Rav Acha: that is, although the Torah permits one person to judge a case, the Rabbis impose the requirement of three so that at least one of them will be gamir, i.e., one who is familiar with the law at least on a basic level (see Rashi, Sanhedrin 3a, s.v. d’gamir: “one who has heard some of the laws from sages and judges”).
  9. Tosafot, Sanhedrin 3a, s.v. ‘i efshar; Hilkhot HaRosh, Sanhedrin 1:1; SA HM 3:1.
  10. The noted nineteenth-century Galician authority and scholar R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes writes in his chidushim to Shabbat 46b that a conversion beit din must be composed of scholars (talmidey chakhamim). The opposite view, however, is taken in Resp. Binyamin Ze’ev (16th-century Greece), 1:72.
  11. B. Y’vamot 47b (according to Rabbi Yochanan’s emendation of the baraita at the top of the page): “three scholars (talmidey chakhamim) stand by him (at the moment of ritual immersion), informing him of some of the lighter and weightier commandments.”
  12. On the requirement of “examination,” see Yad, Isurey Bi’ah 13:14 and SA YD 268:12. The question of motives is discussed in B. Y’vamot 24b. One who wishes to convert for the “wrong” reasons (marriage; hope for financial gain or political power, etc.) Should not, in theory, be accepted, although once accepted is a valid proselyte. And in all cases, the determination of “proper” and “improper” motivation or readiness for conversion is a matter left to the judgment of the beit din (Tosafot, Y’vamot 24b, s.v. lo; Beit Yosef YD 268, end; Siftey Kohen, YD 268, no. 23. That a decision to convert must be “well-thought-out” implies that the Jew-by-choice be made aware of the obligations which Judaism imposes and of the difficulties and even dangers that have historically been the lot of the people of Israel; see B. Y’vamot 47a-b.
  13. B. Y’vamot 22a and parallels.
  14. Yad, Isurey Bi’ah 13:14-17; SA YD 268:12. Maimonides does require that in the case of a ger who converts before a panel of hedyotot who do not properly examine his motivations, we “watch him until his sincerity is proven.” This does not mean that the ger is not a Jew (see Magid Mishneh and Kesef Mishneh to 13:17), but rather that we may not allow him to marry a Jew until we are certain of his proper intent.
  15. For example, if one of the members of the panel were a non-Jew or an apostate.
  16. See Teshuvot for the Nineties (TFN), no. 5751.4, pp. 9-16, https://www.ccarnet.org/ccar-responsa/tfn-no-5751-4-9-15/
  17. For sources and discussion, see our responsum “Private Ordination,” TFN, no. 5753.4, pp. 133-139, https://www.ccarnet.org/ccar-responsa/tfn-no-5753-4-133-140/. Yad, Sanhedrin ch. 4, along with Tur, SA, and Arukh Hashulchan, HM 1, offer useful summaries of the rules and definitions of rabbinic status in ancient times and in our own day.
  18. See B. Gitin 88b, on the coercion of divorce from recalcitrant husbands.
  19. Tur, HM 1.
  20. Today’s judges, who do not possess s’mikhah, are empowered to adjudicate matters which are “frequent” (i.e., normal occurrence in social life, such as torts, contracts, inheritance, etc.) and which involve monetary loss; SA, HM 1:1. Conversion itself is an interesting case. If the Torah requires three judges to preside over giyur, it might be thought that these judges (shoftim) should be ordained according to the biblical standard. This would mean that conversion, in the absence of such judges, could not take place today. Yet conversions manifestly do take place. Therefore, halakhists have developed the theory that the ordained judges of old have also commissioned us to act as their agents in matters of conversion, on the grounds that “we should not bar the door to proselytes”; Tosafot, Y’vamot 46b-47a, s.v. mishpat.
  21. Isserles, YD 242:14, based upon a responsum by R. Yitzchak b. Sheshet (14th-century Spain/North Africa), Resp. Rivash, no. 271.
  22. We should note that this “willingness” is not an arbitrary matter. In the traditional understanding, a “good” Jewish community certainly wants to live its life in accordance with Torah. While anyone, in theory, can study Torah and apply its provisions to his or her own life, the complexity of the halakhah has led to the long-established minhag to turn to sages and scholars for the reliable interpretation of Jewish law. Rabbis, as these sages and scholars, are therefore indispensable to traditional Jewish life. The point we make here is that no individual “rabbi” can through the power of ordination force any individual or community to abide by his particular interpretations and rulings. Rather, by engaging or recognizing the individual as “their” rabbi, Jews traditionally stipulate their willingness to accept his rulings. Power, in other words, flows from the community to the rabbi and not, as it did in the days of ancient s’mikhah, from the ordaining institution to the rabbi.
  23. See Arukh Hashulchan HM 1:14: no one should preside over weddings, divorces, or chalitzah rituals unless he has received “the customary ordination.”
  24. On file with the CCAR.
  25. See as well TFN, no. 5753.4 (note 17, above), at 137-138: private ordination, which offers a shortcut to s’mikhah which bypasses the rigors and requirements of a seminary curriculum, is surely destructive of our efforts to support the rabbinical schools that meet the standards of educational excellence upon which we insist.

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.