Sunday, July 30, 2006

Revoking a Rabbinic Ordination - By Rabbi Mark Dratch

Revoking Ordination

Can a rabbi’s semikhah (ordination) be revoked? Contemporary rabbinic ordination is known as “heter hora’ah” (license to adjudicate) by which they are empowered to decide matters of Jewish law.23 At times this authorization is limited either to specific areas of Jewish law24 or to limited periods of time.25 However, even if granted this license, an unqualified person is ipso facto not a rabbi, even if ordained.

Rambam rules,
One who is not fit to [serve as a] judge [either] because he does not know [the law] or because he is not [personally] suitable, who was [nevertheless] granted license [to adjudicate matters of Jewish law] by the exilarch or who was erroneously appointed by the Bet Din, his authorization is invalid until he [becomes] qualified, [similar to one] one who sanctifies a defective animal [as a sacrifice to be brought on] the altar, which does not become sanctified.26
Rabbi Yehudah Aszod, (Hungary, 1794-1866), author of Teshuvot Yehudah
Ya’aleh, instructed a disciple of his to revoke the ordination that the latter had granted
someone who violated the trust of the rabbinate and, furthermore, to publicize the fact
that he was doing so.27 The Code of Jewish Law goes a step further and records that a
scholar, who is rumored to be involved in heresy or immoral behavior, such that he
causes a desecration of God’s Name, is to be excommunicated.28 Such a person
certainly is no longer considered a rabbi.


Can a rabbi or teacher who has been removed from his position ever be reinstated? May one learn Torah from an individual who has engaged in illicit activities and has subsequently repented?29

At first glance, the answer of seems straight forward: “One is not permitted to learn from a rabbi who does not follow the good path, even if he is a great sage and the entire nation depends on his [teaching], until he returns to the good.”30 This allowance is based on the premise that once a person has been punished or has repented, his credibility is restored.31 At times, punishment alone is not sufficient; a person may have to prove that he has really turned over a new leaf. The Talmud elaborates upon the repentance required of those engaged in illicit activities that bring undeserved or illegal financial gain such as dice playing, usury, pigeon raising, and trading in the forbidden produce grown in the Sabbatical year. In each circumstance, the sinners must not only compensate any losses they may have caused others to suffer, but must conduct themselves in ways that are straight and honest and must bend over backwards to prove their integrity and transformation in those specific areas in which they sinned.32 Consider the case of a butcher who deceives his customers by selling non-kosher meat as kosher, “he who is suspected of passing non-kosher meat [as kosher] cannot be rehabilitated unless he leaves for a place where he is unknown and finds an opportunity of returning a lost article of considerable value, or of condemning as non-kosher meat of considerable value, belonging to himself.”33 Depending upon his misconduct, a “defrocked” rabbi may have to prove that he is no longer susceptible to the same illicit behavior. In some
abusive behaviors, the rate of recidivism is high and experts maintain that it may be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to refrain from repeating the offense. In such cases, reinstatement should never be an option.

However, with regard to reinstating a person to a rank of communal and religious leadership, Rambam notes a distinction between two different positions. It is from these rulings that we might extrapolate guiding principles for contemporary rabbis and teachers. Rambam writes:
A High Priest that sinned is lashed [in front of a court of] three like the rest of the people and then returns to his prominent [position]. But a Rosh Yeshiva (the Head of the Sanhedrin) that sinned is lashed and is not reinstated to his station. He is also not appointed as a regular member of the Sanhedrin because [of the principle that one always] increases sanctity and does not diminish it.34.
What is the difference between the offices of the High Priest and the Rosh Yeshiva such that one allows for a reinstatement and the other does not? The Jerusalem Talmud suggests that the High Priest would also not have been reinstated were it not for the uniqueness of the sanctity of a kohen: “‘Neither shall [a kohen] go out of the sanctuary nor profane the sanctuary of his God;] for the crown of the anointing oil of his God is upon him; I am the Lord’ (Lev. 21:12), just as I (God) [always retain] My sanctity, so Aaron (as well as every kohen) retains his sanctity.35 Thus, because the kohen is the exception, the rule is that once any leader betrays his office he can never be restored to it. His original status was a function of his initial election or appointment which was revoked and he no longer has any claim to it; the status of a kohen, whose sanctity is conferred by divine decree, can never be rescinded.36

Why was the Rosh Yeshiva not reappointed? There are many explanations: fear that a leader, once punished, may take advantage of his reappointment to exact revenge against those who convicted him or punished him;37 Jewish law does not sanction it, even if there is no fear of retribution;38 concern that the masses may continue to belittle or disparage the leader;39 the violation is public and constituted a hillul Hashem, such a person can no longer serve as a proper role model for the community.40


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