Q. Why is it that in Australia some Jewish ministers are called “Reverend” and some are called “Rabbi”?A. The traditional title is of course “rabbi”, though the role of the rabbi is not identical with that of the modern clergyman or minister. Rabbis were always concerned for human beings and their welfare, but the rabbinic role was that of sage, scholar, teacher and judge.
The title “Reverend” (strictly speaking it is not a noun but an adjective, and those who are particular will not say, for instance, “Reverend Cohen” but “The Reverend Isaac Cohen”) came into use in 19th century Anglo-Jewry to denote a religious functionary who lacked full rabbinic qualifications.
When Jews’ College was founded in London in 1855 by Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, the curriculum was broadly based without the intensity of Talmudic studies customary in yeshivot. What resulted was summed up by the Jewish Chronicle many years later in the words, “The Anglo-Jewish minister was a peculiarly British phenomenon who flourished in the nineteenth century. The congregational rabbi is an entirely different figure.”
Some ministers were competent Talmudists; most were not. The emphasis was not on traditional learning but on practical skills – liturgical duties; preaching in passable English; pastoral work and presiding at life-cycle events; teaching children the rudiments of Hebrew and Jewish practice; and in some places synagogal administration: some men had to be both minister and secretary of their congregations.
Since the title that went with the position was “The Reverend…”, the British Chief Rabbis began to be called “The Very Reverend…”. Israel magazine wrote in 1899 that this produced a unique anomaly – if all the ministers were “The Reverend…”, this made the Chief Rabbi a general without an army.
A few ministers went across to the continent to gain deeper rabbinic knowledge, but returned still unable to use the title “Rabbi” until eventually there was “a storm in the hierarchical chair,” as one of them, Hermann Gollancz, put it. Even the principal of Jews’ College, Adolph Buechler, frankly called the Anglo-Jewish minister “the half-baked product of unsuccessful training”.
The last half-century has seen a sea-change, and today students take it for granted that they should aim for full rabbinic ordination. This is of course no denigration of the non-rabbinical ministers, but today they are few and far between.