Spoiler Alert: The writers of this post are of the firm belief that it is, but does everyone agree?
I remember being in a Jewish studies lesson at the age of around 10 years old, when the teacher presented us with a scenario. “What you do if someone gave you a piece of cake but told you that there was a possibility that it contained poison? Would you still eat it?” Obviously, everyone said that they would refuse, even though they really liked cake, because they didn’t want the risk of injesting something that could potentially be dangerous. The teacher then explained that the same fear should apply if we are presented with some food which has a risk of containing a non-kosher ingredient. The implication was that poison damages a person physically, whereas non-kosher food damages a person in a spiritual sense, and both were equally detrimental.
Halacha is so important, that we should make ourselves a Rabbi (according to Pirkei Avot 1:6) to ensure we can receive Halachic advice and not Gd forbid make any transgressions due to our limited knowledge. We see that it is our Rabbis who are the gatekeepers of Halacha and have the responsibility vested in them to advise their followers on Halachic matters. (Often, this responsibility ventures far further beyond Halacha but that is a discussion for another time.) As new Halachic questions arise (for example due to the advancement of technology or medicine) Rabbis are entrusted with forming the position for the community.
The same could be said for a medical doctor. They have been trained to diagnose and treat patients, and are entrusted not only in the treatment of known remedies, but also in the advancement of medical knowledge or research into new diseases. This is a position of enormous trust which is earned over many years of study and practice. It will be news to no one that there are sometimes doctors who fall far below the standards expected of them and for this reason, there is a body who maintain a register of practising doctors with the authority to strike off a doctor, sometimes permanently, enforceable by law.
Most professions that rely on the trust of the public generally have a regulatory body which tries to be transparent. For example, lawyers, accountants and surveyors are all regulated to prevent the public from being deceived by a dishonest practitioner. Obviously no system is perfect, but there is a recognition that the public should be protected and that the profession is doing what it can to be respected.
In the age of the internet, semicha (becoming a Rabbi) has become within the grasp of far more people than ever before, and little thought has been given to the institutions who award these titles. When someone introduces themselves as a Rabbi, it is extremely rare for anyone to ask where they received this title or the credentials of the place they received it from. Is there a worldwide register of recognised (Orthodox) training programs?
What happens when a Rabbi is corrupt or deliberately engages in criminal activity by exploiting their religious authority? You will not find any organisation that has the ability (or willingness) to remove the title of Rabbi from such an individual, nor will anyone be able to prevent them from continuing to use their title. At best, a Rabbi may be accountable to their community or employer, but these are usually people in voluntary positions who lack the time and qualifications to navigate employment law, or fully understand the damage caused by abuse. Even if Rabbis formally step down, they can still have a large following and sometimes the stepping down is only a PR exercise. Even when Rabbis are found to be exploiting their power in the most terrible of ways, no one has ever suggested the removal of their Rabbinic status.
At this point, a critical reader will probably be trying to remind me of the many many good Rabbis out there who genuinely care about people, Torah and Halacha. They will tell me I have been unfair in that I have painted all Rabbis with one broad paintbrush. It is true that only a minority of Rabbis are in fact corrupt, but these good Rabbis will rarely (if at all) speak out publicly against their corrupt colleagues and are still seemingly happy to share their title with them. How many good Rabbis in the UK are publicly demanding a Halachic resolution to the Chaim Halpern case after all these years? How many Rabbis in Australia are demanding that Rabbi Telsner be removed from sitting on a Beth Din (Jewish Court of law)? How many Rabbis are calling a halt to the shameful public celebrations of convicted felon Rabbi Rubashkin in the USA (in fact the opposite is largely the case)? The good Rabbis continue to give a free pass at the expense of their own (collective) reputation.
Instead, who do Rabbis speak out against? One of the loudest and unified Rabbinic calls against an individual in recent times was aimed at Rabbi Natan Slifkin. Rabbi Slifkin published a book expressing views on science which have mainstream validity in Judaism throughout the ages right up to our modern day, yet the book was put publicly decried as heresy and outlawed by those who many claim are the leaders of worldwide Jewry. If only the same reaction would have been levelled at the Rabbis who have been found guilty of financial crimes.
Is Halacha important? Maybe it is time we live up to what we teach our 10 year old children.
[Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are written by an external party and not necessarily shared by Migdal Emunah]