I have two professional titles; Rabbi and Doctor. I earned both of them. I have many years of study, formal education, both graduate and post-graduate. I studied under learned rabbis for many more years. None of my titles are honorary. Some people notice my titles and like the idea that an opinion from a titled person carries more respect with some people than someone without the title. In reality, it’s not the title that gets the respect, but the learning, study and expertise in the academic discipline that the title represents. Titles are important for those operating in their proper venue because they indicate a person can be relied upon to give an intelligent answer to questions and issues in their area of expertise.
I have come to see this as an important issue, not to be protective of my own titles, because anyone who knows me, knows that outside of professional or public venues, I don’t use them. The reason they are important is trust. If I am sick, I can go to a doctor who graduated from an accredited medical school who hopefully will diagnose my condition and prescribe a cure for my illness. I’ve been blessed with good doctors all of my life. Every once in a while, I’ve seen on the news that a local man without a medical license and training, set up a medical clinic, and practiced medicine, even performing surgeries, which in some cases, resulted in people dying. Maybe they read some medical books. Maybe they worked in a clinic and observed physicians at work. Reading a few books and watching a physician work isn’t the same as responsible medical training. This is true in medicine, but also in any other discipline.
It could be argued that in a religious discipline, no one gets hurt if someone offers their religious opinion that is wrong, but that’s not true. Religious abuse can harm people in a way that takes them decades to get over, if they ever get over it. If such abuse comes from someone using a religious or academic title, it’s even worse, because the title gives more credibility, and the person is more likely to accept their opinion. Over the years, in every place I have ministered, I have come across people who have been deeply wounded by so-called clergy.
Some people want to have titles because it gives them respect in the eyes of others, and the title lends more credibility to their expressed opinions. When I ask some religious professionals about their titles, if they aren’t earned, they get defensive about them, claiming that they studied on their own or at some fly-by-night school, and claim that an education isn’t based on accreditation, and that their self-study is as good as formal training, and that it’s all the same. They go on to say just because they didn’t pay tuition and that education should be free, their title is the same as mine. Would someone go to a physician who had that kind of training? I wouldn’t. Real education means guided education. Just reading on your own doesn’t give the same results. If a person simply studies on their own, they tend to study more and more of the same thing, usually things they already agree with. An instructor guides a student to study wider, learning more and more in a wider area, so they understand all aspects of an issue, not just what agrees with what they want.
There are also people who speak against titles, claiming they create a kind of aristocracy; a privileged class, and they act like they are standing for justice as if they are Frenchmen storming the Bastille. I suspect they are trying to “level the playing field,” so their opinion can have equal weight with those who have studied and are invested with a measure of authority. I have known people who genuinely are against titles. Rachmiel Frydland, a Messianic Jewish scholar of the last generation was such a man. He studied in Yeshiva before the second world war, and was an accomplished Talmud scholar. Surviving the war, he immigrated to America and was in a PhD program at a university. He stopped short of one class in getting his doctorate, having completed his dissertation, because he said he didn’t need the title. He could have had a Rabbinic as well as academic title, but he was not interested in titles. He didn’t condemn those who had them or used them, but they just weren’t important to him. Having a title or not isn’t the issue, but criticizing those who do in the name of righteousness too often appears to be self serving with ulterior motives.
Having a religious and/or academic title carries credibility as it should, but it should not be something someone assumes for him/herself. I have been Doctor Schiffman since 1988, when I graduated from an accredited institution that conferred that title on me. That same year, I was bestowed with the title of Rabbi by the Messianic Congregational organization of which I am a part. For that title, there was also rigorous study. Out of respect for the teachers and rabbis who had been my mentors, I rarely used the rabbinic title because I didn’t feel worthy. It was another twelve years after studying for that amount of time with a rabbinic scholar did I start using the title, and then, only after he told me I was entitled to use it.
The most important thing people are missing is that a title is not simply a shortcut to credibility and sometimes, respect; it also carries a great responsibility. Having a rabbinic title means you are obligated to model the life you tell others to lead. Saying, “Do as I say, not as I do,” just doesn’t cut it. One of my mentors, told me, the words of brilliance preached in the pulpit will never affect people nearly as much as the life of the one in the pulpit. Your life is your message. You have to encourage people to study, and demonstrate this by your own willingness to learn and study, from others, even if they don’t have a title.
A titled person also has the responsibility to heal and not hurt; to bless, encourage, and strengthen others. Leaders who are dominating, oppressive and always battling with people hurt and don’t help. That kind of religion is toxic to the soul. Such people think they are toughening people and really making a stand for truth, but the reality is, they are hurting people, and possibly leaving them with emotional and spiritual scars. Battering is not spiritual. Many years ago, when I first started my ministry, I felt God impress upon me that the people with whom I had been entrusted were His children, and that I was to have compassion on them, as He had compassion on me. Without such compassion, a title is useless.