I’ve noticed on many an occasion reading an article or blog post where someone who had received some form of ordination at some Jewish institution of higher learning has qualified their writing with the phrase “as a rabbi…” In fact, I’d say I see a disproportionate number of such articles coming from “Orthodox rabbis”. I wondered about this: why the qualifier? If you are working as a rabbi, and have the title ‘rabbi’ slapped next to your name, one would assume that your opinion is coming from a rabbinic place. Some rabbis, such as myself, have to compartmentalize our rabbiosity due to constraints from work, and in such cases my humble College Rabbinic opinion (IMHCRO) stays within the confines of my rabbinic cybercampus. However, if you’re confession is also your vocation then no such qualifiers should actually exist.
So what could be the motivation for such qualifiers? I discussed this with my very own hassidish rebbe and we came to a few conclusions about what could be the motivation. My rebbe felt the reason was not actually for Jews, but for non-Jews. Traditionally, Jews didn’t really care about the titles. The earliest rabbis from the times of the Prophets up through the Second Temple period never had an official title to denote their status as clergy. Hillel the Elder, the most famous Hillel, was never ‘rabbi’ Hillel. That was his grandson. Many of the biggest scholars even until today in the Jewish community were never officially ordained while many people who went through a formal ordination program work in regular humdrum jobs. Non-Jews on the other hand put a lot of stock in titles, such as the entire Bachelors/Masters/Doctorate scheme. It makes their opinion more weighty in non-Jewish eyes.
Feeding off this idea is the idea of the argument from authority. The argument from authority states that someone assumes that a person knows their subject matter simply because they hold a title in that area. In extreme cases, people will actually use their titles to claim authority in areas they have no expertise in simply because they have demonstrated expertise in one. For example, Richard Dawkins has used his expertise in Evolutionary Biology to build a career as a moral authority. Actually, rabbis who went through a formal ordination process have a fairly limited training which is mostly centered on the laws of Kashrut (keeping kosher). Still, when most people see rabbi they think all-wise. I must say it does boost the ego, regardless of whether it’s actually true.
The other possible reason is that throwing this phrase is in place is to give the opinion an air of legitimacy it might not have otherwise. When someone describes himself as a rabbi, one expects their opinion to be rabbinic. Yet the bulk of articles using the “as a(n) (Orthodox) rabbi” express opinions that often push the boundaries of what could be considered a rabbinic opinion, if it can be considered an authentic Jewish piece at all. Rarely is there a citation of a classical Jewish source, and even when that happens it is often misconstrued beyond the point that the author would recognize. Without the qualifier, many of these opinions could be easily put forth by a layman.
I believe Tom Cruise said it best when he said “we all have our outmorals”. As much as we rabbis should try to represent the Torah view, we should be honest with others, and ourselves, when we are expressing our own personal view. Calling it a rabbinic view does not make it so, and we are much better off saying “in my personal opinion” and making that the qualifier, and not the other way around.