I. Revoking Ordination
Can rabbinic ordination be revoked? A doctor’s license can be suspended and a lawyer can be disbarred. Is there any recourse against a malpracticing rabbi?
In prior posts, we have spent much time on the nature of the rabbinate and rabbinic ordination (see here: link). In two posts, we offered three possible reasons for contemporary ordination: 1) a replica of the original Mosaic ordination, 2) permission from one’s mentor to issue halakhic rulings or 3) testimony that the rabbi is worthy of the title. According to the first approach, only someone who qualifies for the original ordination can obtain ordination today. According to the second approach, you need not obtain ordination if your mentor is deceased. According to the latter, someone already famous need not obtain ordination. As we showed, authorities differ over which theory is correct (see here: I, II).
II. Types of Ordination
According to the first approach, ordination can be revoked. The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Sanhedrin 4:15) writes:
מי שאינו ראוי לדון מפני שאינו יודע או מפני שאינו הגון שעבר ראש גלות ונתן לו רשות או שטעו בית דין ונתנו לו רשות אין הרשות מועלת לו כלום עד שיהיה ראוי
Someone who is unfit to serve as a judge due to lack of knowledge or suitability but was improperly given permission by the exilarch or accidentally given permission by a court, the permission is ineffective until he becomes worthy
A rabbi who acts improperly is not a rabbi. His ordination is invalid. While his mentor can formally declare this by revoking his ordination, that is merely a formality. His ordination automatically becomes invalid. That is based on the model of the original Mosaic ordination.
If ordination is permission, then certainly it can be revoked just like any other permission. The rabbi serves at the pleasure of his mentor and must take care to live up to his standards. However, if ordination is testimony to its bearer’s worthiness, then we run afoul of the rule that testimony can never be rescinded. As the Talmud (Sanhedrin 44b) puts it: “Keivan she-higid, shuv eino chozer u-magid — once he spoke (testified), he cannnot return and speak.” Presumably, then, a rabbi who ordains another and thereby testifies to his worthiness cannot retract this testimony. However, that depends on the reason for the rule against retracting testimony.
Is testimony permanent because a retraction is inherently unbelievable or as a procedural matter in court? Rashi (Sanhedrin 44b sv. keivan) implies the former reason, that the retraction is implausible. However, the Ritva (Kesubos 18b) and others seem to accept the latter reason (see here: link – RTF). The Shev Shemat’sa (6:8) accepts the latter, as well. If so, the rule only applies when two witnesses testify before a court. In other cases, such as when a single witness testifies in cases in which he is believed, the rule does not apply (see the above Shev Shemat’sa).
Ordination does not consist of the testimony of two witnesses before a court. It is the written testimony of a single (or more) witnesses. Therefore, even if ordination serves as a rabbi’s testimony that his student is worthy of being called a rabbi, the mentor may retract his earlier testimony if new information or new behavior arise.
III. Historical Cases
Ordination has been revoked in the past. R. David Tzvi Hoffmann (Melamed Le-Ho’il, Orach Chaim no. 16) writes that he would not revoke a student’s ordination merely for permitting use of an organ in a wedding during the week, implying that he would revoke it over other organ use. However, his case is different because the Hildesheimer Seminary issued ordination only on condition that the rabbi not serve in a synagogue with an organ, making revocation a simple matter (see David Ellenson, After Emancipation, p. 184ff). The codicil certainly served as a warning to rabbis but does not inform our current discussion of ordination without an explicit condition.
I heard rumors of ordination revocation in my day, when a JTS student switched to RIETS after JTS began admitting women. He quickly earned ordination and then went straight to a synagogue without a mechitzah. Rumor had it that RIETS revoked his ordination. But we don’t need rumors.
R. Aharon Rakeffet records that R. Bernard Revel revoked a RIETS graduate’s ordination (Bernard Revel, pp. 165-166 – h/t):
When a Yeshiva graduate refused Revel’s request to leave a position which had both mixed pews and a mixed choir, his ordination was revoked. Revel wrote to a graduate on September 19, 1933: “It grieves me to inform you that since you refuse to leave Temple…where the sacred laws of traditional Judaism are violated, I urgently request that you return the conditional document of ordination that you received from the Yeshiva. The basic purpose of the Yeshiva is to guard the sanctity of Jewish Law in this land. If you will not return the document of ordination, I will be obligated to publish newspaper announcements declaring the nullification of your ordination.” The rabbi did not heed Rabbi Revel’s request, and the Yeshiva publicly announced the cancellation of his ordination and proclaimed that “one can no longer rely on his answers to inquiries of Jewish Law.”
Similarly, R. Yehudah Aszod published in a newspaper the revocation of ordination from one of his students (Responsa Yehudah Ya’aleh, Orach Chaim no. 37). This is certainly possible and, according to the above, understandable.