Who Gets To Be Called a “Rabbi”

By InterfaithFamily


If you are searching for a rabbi to provide any kind of services — counseling; officiation at a baby naming, bar/bat mitzvah, wedding or funeral; or conversion or any other service — we encourage you to submit a request to InterfaithFamily’s free Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service. We maintain a vetted list of rabbis and cantors who work with people in interfaith relationships. We know the kinds of services they offer and the locations they cover, and we will respond to your request with several names of appropriate clergy from our list.

InterfaithFamily.com’s policy is to allow people to list themselves as rabbis on the InterfaithFamily.com Network. You may think that is not controversial – but in fact, the answer to the question “who gets to be called ‘rabbi?'” is very complicated. Judaism is not a hierarchical organization, like the Catholic Church, for example, where we understand the Vatican has the final authoritative say on “who is a Catholic priest?” In the United States, there is no single authoritative religious or government entity that regulates who can call themself a rabbi.

To a large extent, the answer to the question “who is a rabbi?” depends on who you are asking or which community’s standards you care about. Judaism has multiple movements/denominations and independent groups, and there are recognition issues between and among them. Judaism also has more than one path to becoming a rabbi. So InterfaithFamily.com’s policy is to not pass judgment on whether people who say on our Network that they are rabbis are “really” rabbis. Instead, we present basic information about what the various ordination and affiliation standards are, so that site visitors can make an informed decision.

In the United States, the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Humanistic movements have seminaries or rabbinic programs with prescribed, multi-year courses of study that lead to ordination as a rabbi.

Most people accept as a rabbi an ordained graduate of:

Fewer people accept as a rabbi people who have been ordained by other organizations, including the Rabbinical Seminary International (transdenominational) and the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute (Universalist, multi-denominational), because of concerns about the degree of education and training that they require.

Even organizations like the Universal Life Church and the Esoteric Theological Seminary say that they ordain rabbis; these ordinations are held suspect because they require no education or training and function much like obtaining a Justice of the Peace license that some states issue to non-clergy. If it is important to you that a rabbi you work with be accepted as a rabbi by a particular community, and you are considering a rabbi who was ordained by one of these or similar organizations, you may want to ask for more information.

Another way to become ordained as a rabbi is private smichah, or private ordination. Traditionally, any three rabbis from any of the movements have the authority to ordain someone as a rabbi within their own movement. There are no consistent rules that apply to all private ordinations; some occur only after extensive education and experience akin to a seminary program, but others do not. Some people would accept as a rabbi someone who was privately ordained by certain rabbis but not someone ordained by others. So if it is important to you that a rabbi you work with be accepted as a rabbi by a particular community, and you are considering a rabbi who was privately ordained, you may want to ask for more information.

Most of the Jewish movements have associations of their rabbis — the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative), the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform), the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (Reconstructionist), Ohalah (Renewal). The associations have their own rules as to who can become a member. Some local Jewish communities have Boards of Rabbis, which have different functions in different communities, and those Boards of Rabbis also have rules about who can become a member. If it is important to you that a rabbi you work with be a member of a rabbinic association or organization, you may want to ask for that information. Rabbis who are members have been vetted by these associations and boards and have ethics codes that they must abide by to gain and maintain membership.

InterfaithFamily hopes that this information and our other resources help you make an informed choice of Jewish clergy for your life cycle ceremony or other needs. We hope that you find Jewish clergy who support your connection with Jewish engagement, whatever that comes to mean for you and your family.


About InterfaithFamily

InterfaithFamily is the premier resource supporting interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and inclusive Jewish communities. We offer educational content; connections to welcoming organizations, professionals and programs; resources and trainings for organizations, clergy and other program providers; and our new Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship will provide offerings for couples in cities nationwide. If you have suggestions, please contact network@interfaithfamily.com.