by R. Gil Student
What do you do when a rabbi is shown to be deficient in his behavior or incompetent in Torah matters, perhaps even adopting heretical views? We can understand if an ordaining authority revokes his ordination, but what if that person is deceased? Can someone revoke ordination given by someone else?
I. One Rabbi Giveth, Another Taketh Away
Rav Meir (Maharam) Lublin, in the late 16th century, found a ruling of Rav Yosef Ashkenazi so ill-informed and presumptuous that the former sent a letter to the rabbis of Worms insisting they declare publicly that this man was unworthy of the title rabbi and unfit to rule. He would have done so himself but worried that having a famous rabbi in another city do it would have given the man greater prestige. (Responsa Maharam Lublin, no. 88)1
A century earlier, Rav Eliezer of Passau—a student of Rav Ya’akov (Mahari) Weil who also had ordination from Rav Yisrael (Mahari) Bruna—attempted to establish himself in Prague without permission of the rabbi, Rav Eliyahu of Prague, or rather grossly overstepped their formal agreement about his activities. Additionally, he ruled on difficult matters against the advice of older rabbis, reaching conclusions that his elders thought were mistaken. Therefore, Rav Peretz (who apparently was a leading German rabbi) declared that Rav Eliezer could no longer be called rabbi nor issue halakhic rulings until he proved to Mahari Bruna or another leading scholar that he had mastered the law sufficiently to issue rulings. (Responsa Mahari Bruna, no. 278. See also no. 282.)2
Something similar occurred in the Alexandersohn affair of 1834.
II. Revoking Ordination
Jonathan Alexandersohn, the rabbi of Csaba in Hungary, was accused by some of his townspeople of improper personal conduct, incorrect halakhic rulings, heretical views, and having arranged an improper get. This last issue is as follows. A get must include the name (in Hebrew letters) of the town in which it is written. Many European town names are very difficult to spell in Hebrew. However, if the town’s name is misspelled, the get is invalid. Therefore, rabbis arrange a get in a town in which a get has never been written only after consultation with, and consensus among, colleagues. Alexandersohn arranged a get in Csaba, where none had previously been performed, after asking a senior neighboring rabbi who told him not to. This deviation from established practice and setting of a precedent for future potentially problematic gittin was considered severe and intentional halakhic misconduct.
After a rabbinical court investigated and concluded that the accusations against Alexandersohn were correct (although he refused to participate in the proceedings), leading regional rabbis denounced him. Additionally, Rav Moshe Sofer, commonly known as the Chasam Sofer, declared—based primarily on the get issue but also on reports of his improper behavior—that Alexandersohn may no longer use the title “rabbi” or issue halachic rulings. The Chasam Sofer explicitly revoked Alexanderson’s rabbinic ordination.3
The difficulty is that the Chasam Sofer had not ordained Alexandersohn. How could he revoke ordination that he had not given? How could Maharam Lublin and Rav Peretz? I suggest the following possible explanation.
III. Worthy of Respect
I see two issues here, related but distinct. The first is removal of the title “rabbi.” That title is a form of respect for a Torah scholar. The Gemara (Kiddushin 32b) says that one need not show respect for a zaken ashmai, an ignorant elder (as per Tosafos, ad loc., sv. zaken). Showing respect to such a person is optional. However, you are forbidden to show respect to a Torah scholar who lacks care for the commandments (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 243:3; cf. Arukh Ha-Shulchan, ad loc.). If a rabbi shows that he lacks care for the commandments, people are prohibited from calling him by the respectful title “rabbi.”
I am not aware of a specific definition for this category. It seems to be left to the best judgment of the halakhic decisor. However, when invoked, it effectively revokes the title “rabbi” from anyone who listens to the halachic decisor. Perhaps the Chasam Sofer was using this halakhah in stating that Alexandersohn should not be called rabbi. Maybe he considered Alexandersohn’s disregard for the rules of gittin to be lack of care for the commandments.
IV. Unqualified Rabbi
Additionally, someone who is unqualified to rule on halakhic issues is forbidden to do so (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 242:13). When invoked, this rule declares someone unfit to issue a halakhic ruling. It is possible, today even likely, that someone can acquire rabbinic ordination but still be unqualified to rule. Perhaps he was not tested thoroughly or his capacity diminished over time. Either way, by declaring someone currently unqualified to rule, a halakhic decisor effectively removes this person’s permission to rule. He revokes the man’s ordination.
Perhaps the Chasam Sofer was also invoking this rule when revoking Alexandersohn’s ordination. The Chasam Sofer indicated that Alexandersohn was serving as a stumbling block, presumably by arranging questionable gittin and setting a problematic precedent that could lead to many improper gittin in the future. By ignoring a basic rule of rabbinic conduct—consultation on such an important communal matter—Alexandersohn demonstrated that he was unfit to serve as a rabbi. The Chasam Sofer removed this stumbling block by revoking his ordination, declaring him unfit to rule.
V. Who Cares?
These episodes provide examples of revoking ordination. Even a halakhic decisor who did not give the ordination may revoke it. However, it is not immediately clear what effect this revocation will have. The rabbi whose ordination was revoked will likely ignore it and claim that it was all based on a misunderstanding or politics. Alexandersohn even published a book in German and Hebrew defending himself against the accusations.
The communal value of the revocation of ordination is twofold. Primarily, the Chasam Sofer gave the townspeople of Csaba license to remove Alexandersohn from his position as rabbi and instructed them to look elsewhere for halakhic guidance. It is no small matter to undermine a rabbi’s authority and damage his career, but sometimes extreme measures are necessary. The Chasam Sofer, in a letter Alexandersohn published in his book (part 58), says that he had asked Alexandersohn in person to remove himself from the rabbinate for a year or two to return to yeshiva to study until the controversy died down. Clearly, the Chasam Sofer recognized the huge personal impact on Alexandersohn of this action. When a figure of the Chasam Sofer’s towering prominence declares a man unfit to be a rabbi, people listen. Similarly, Rav Peretz offered Rav Eliezer of Passau a way to return to the rabbinate after furthering his learning.
Additionally, the Chasam Sofer’s revocation of ordination over the get impropriety sent a loud message about the importance of care in proper rabbinic conduct in halakhic matters. He took a stand on an issue he felt was critical, even though it meant destroying a man’s career over it. Clearly, the Chasam Sofer felt his stance was warranted. But his message—that this issue was very serious—could not be missed. Revoking ordination—of course only when warranted—sends an important message about halakhic standards of consultation and ruling.
The above sources are quoted in Prof. Simcha Assaf, Be-Ohalei Ya’akov, p. 57. ↩
Alexandersohn published a book in his defense titled Tomekh Kavod (Frankfurt a.M., 1847). The Chasam Sofer‘s letters appear in the Hebrew section, parts 21, 31, 48, 58. Two of these letters are also published in Responsa Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat 162 and 207. Note that R. Moshe Teitelbaum, the Yismach Moshe, also explicitly revoked Alexandersohn’s ordination, in a letter appearing in Tomekh Kavod, part 27. ↩