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Rabbis and Fathers

matthew 23.12

May Messianic Jews appoint Rabbis?

Messianic Jews have a natural predisposition and tendency, as Jews who care about our people and our peculiar calling, to maintain the traditions and culture of our ancestors. This means that in our lives, traditions and prayers it is most natural and fitting for us to follow the ways of our people’s lifestyles, traditions and prayers which are founded in the complete Jewish Bible and secondarily in the sea of Jewish holy writings and literature that we have inherited.

It is therefore with great surprise that many Messianic Jews have considered the words of Yeshua which seem to prohibit calling anyone ‘rabbi’ (= ‘teacher’), ‘father’, or even ‘leader’. Does this mean that Messianic Jews may not ordain rabbis, or may not call their teachers by that title? Christians call their pastors ‘pastor’, or their teachers ‘teacher’, don’t they? Why are rabbis in particular singled out?

The immediate context is the first place one should look for an answer:

In Matthew 23:1-12 (CJB), Yeshua addressed the crowds and his talmidim: “The Torah-teachers and the P’rushim,” he said, “sit in the seat of Moshe. So whatever they tell you, take care to do it. But don’t do what they do, because they talk but don’t act! They tie heavy loads onto people’s shoulders but won’t lift a finger to help carry them. Everything they do is done to be seen by others; for they make their t’fillin broad and their tzitziyot long, they love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and they love being greeted deferentially in the marketplaces and being called ‘Rabbi.’
“But you are not to let yourselves be called ‘Rabbi; because you have one Rabbi [here ‘Teacher‘ in the original], and you are all each other’s brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘Father.’ because you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to let yourselves be called ‘leaders,’ because you have one Leader, and he is the Messiah! The greatest among you must be your servant, for whoever promotes himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be promoted.

These terms: teacher/master/Ῥαββί (=’διδάσκαλος’), and father/πατέρα and leader/καθηγηταί are innocuous enough. It is their use in the realm of the community – synagogue and marketplace that is a problem. The problem is their use as a basis for pride and elitism (versus Yeshua’s egalitarianism).

What is Yeshua saying?

First, we must note the content of what he says:

  1. Yeshua notes that these people do sit in Moses’ seat. This is a place of authority and prestige.
  2. Yeshua notes that these people do not help others with the burdens that they impose upon them.
  3. Further, these people glory in the prestige they are accorded.
  4. Yeshua teaches:
    a. equality among the people
    b. the fatherhood of God
    c. the leadership of Messiah
    d. the necessity of humility.

Here, Yeshua is opposing elitism and the honouring of persons. As he does elsewhere in Matthew, Yeshua teaches servant leadership where the leader does not self exalt nor is exalted by those he or she serves. Thus no one is to be called rabbi, father, or leader. But it is interesting that there are few who would quibble about calling their fathers ‘father’ or leaders ‘leader’. Innately, it is understood that Yeshua is teaching regarding what is behind the use of these terms, as the context shows: The leaders he castigates are those who love the honour accorded them. This is what is unseemly. As Yeshua’s followers, we should not be enamoured by titles but together, equally, give all honour to God and Messiah.

After looking at the immediate context, we must look at it in the context of all Scripture. No major teaching stands alone or should be asserted on the basis of one passage.

If this were the only Scripture that we have that bears on the topic, it would be case closed: Don’t use the terms rabbi, father or leader. Yeshua decries the elitism that these terms engender.

Other Scriptures show that against the problem of pride and elitism, a statement of fact in a way that does not glorify individuals other than God or Messiah is appropriate. Yeshua himself did not hesitate to call teachers by their title, as was the case with Nicodemus (John 3:10).

Teachers and leader in the New Testament are also frequently addressed as such. Thus Paul asserts his apostleship too many times to mention (e.g. Gal 1:1). He does this for the purpose of establishing his God-given authority rather than to exalt himself. Likewise he calls himself the father of the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:15). Again, he does not do so in such a way to glorify himself but as a statement of what is known.

The real message of Yeshua’s teaching is that The greatest among you must be your servant (Matt 23:12). This is also what He says in Luke 22:26-27: let the greater among you become like the younger, and one who rules like one who serves. For who is greater? The one reclining at the table? or the one who serves? It’s the one reclining at the table, isn’t it? But I myself am among you like one who serves. Yeshua is to us the supreme example of servant leadership, and that is what He asks of us. He asks us to serve one another. 

The result from a look at Matt 23:1-12 as a whole, and its relationship to the rest of Scripture is that titles are not to be used by individuals to exalt themselves nor by others to exalt those individuals. On the other hand, titles such as rabbi (teacher), father and leader are indeed appropriate when used in a descriptive sense or as a statement of fact.

Messianic Jews have good reason to use the term rabbi of their ordained teachers and leaders. It is not that that teachers should be called rabbis if they are not appointed as such by a reputable body. Abuses of this abound, and remind one of the doctoral degrees that are proverbially offered via cereal box tops for a sum of money. It is in fact a statement of fact. It asserts to the community, the Jewish community and the world at large that Messianic Jewish communities are in fact Jewish communities.

Titles are widely used in the Christian world. Elder, Pastor, Father, Brother, and so on. These too find their genesis in the complete Jewish Bible. They also perform a role in their communities to provide a sense of order. Yeshua says to the use of such terms: Do not use them to aggrandise. We are all siblings, we all look to God and His Messiah, not to others.



6 Responses

  1. Well said, but somewhat incomplete. One missing element is that someone bearing the title of rabbi should be worthy of that title, a worth measured by depth of knowledge and exemplary behavior, including the ability to teach and demonstrate traditional Jewish praxis and halachah. The attitudes that Rav Yeshua demanded are implicit in the measure of such worth; and thereby is the one who thus serves worthy of all honor. Seeking the honor rather than the qualifications that justify such honor is a virtual guarantee that the honor is not deserved. Consequently, if Jewish messianists wish to be seen as honorable, they must demand of their rabbis commensurate qualifications.

    Another missing element may be considered a qualification for discipleship under haRav Yeshua ben-Yosef. In the Mt.23 passage, rightly cited for its vs.12, one must not neglect vs.2-3, in which he commands his disciples to obey what the scribes and Pharisees taught from their Mosaic seat of authority. In vs.23 he even cites a minor point of Oral Torah, that is to be kept along with the more important Torah precepts, indicating that he accepted this as included within the Torah when he observed in Mt.5:18 that its finest details remain valid as long as the heavens and earth endure (which period includes the entirety of the millennial messianic reign). Thus its diligent observance and teaching, even more so than that of the scribes and Pharisees, that makes one great in the kingdom of heaven, and is fundamental even to being able at all to enter repeatedly into its mindset, must be deemed obligatory of anyone who wishes to consider himself or herself a true disciple of Rav Yeshua who therefore obeys his teachings.

    Contrast this with the Mt.5:19 behavior that makes one least in the kingdom of heaven, and one might question whether many who call themselves Messianic Jews are not even trying to be worthy of the name “disciple”, or of entering into the kingdom. I think you’ll agree that the importance of this far outweighs the question of honorific, professional, or familial titles.

    • Great comments. You’re right it’s incomplete. This note was merely to address whether the term may be used at all. I’m completely in agreement with your comments regarding the need for people bearing the title to be worthy of it. I’ve seen much abuse of this, and no doubt have you.
      There is definitely an academic standard that needs to be maintained, and I’d say that to measure up to the title of Rabbi that requires not only competence in the Hebrew Scriptures but familiarity with and competence in the whole of Jewish scholarship from the Tannaim on. There also needs to be accountability to a reputable ordaining body. There also needs to be character at the personal level. The last may be the hardest, and difficult to maintain even in orthodox circles, let alone Conservative or Reform, etc.

  2. Good point. Too often taken out of context, but the immediate use of leader and father brings it home. However, one point you have not yet addressed is Yeshua’s statement not being able to be made against “rabbi” as an office as it was later known. This murky water, probably needs some further investigation and elaboration. The injunction against “rabbi” probably never meant the “rabbi” as we know it from post-70.

    • Very true. There is an ongoing debate as to whether the office of Rabbi existed in Yeshua’s day.

    • To the best of our knowledge, the synagogue also was not yet developed into the institution that it became in the galut after 70CE, in fact, after 135CE. So of course the institution of rabbi was likewise simpler and more focussed on Torah study and halachic development. Nonetheless, Rav Yeshua’s observation applies as discussed above. He never protested that his disciples called him “rabbi” or its Aramaic equivalent “rabbani”. He merely addressed the attitudes associated with honorific titles.

    • My last reply was a bit rushed, because I input it via my smartphone and did not have opportunity to cite the passages where these terms were used. I hope the point was not lost however, that the very existence of the discussion and the usage in the apostolic writings confirms that the terms existed and were in use meaningfully during his lifetime. Thus, unless someone wishes to deny the historicity and veracity of the apostolic writings, there can be no doubt that the “office” of “Rabbi” did exist, even if not yet incorporating all the responsibilities taken on later in the galut. One cannot consider these references to be anachronistic back-formations, as possibly could be asserted about references in the Talmuds to rabbis of prior centuries such as among the Gaonim and the Tannaim, or Zugot such as Shammai and Hillel.

      The references to Rav Yeshua as a rabbi are rooted firmly in the first century, only a century subsequent to Hillel. We see examples in Mt.26:25,49; Mk.9:5; 11:21; 14:45; Jn.1:38,49; 3:2,26; 4:31; 6:25; 9:2; & 11:8. There are also the general references in Mt.23:7,8 that were the basis of the above discussion about Rav Yeshua’s instruction. Further, we have two references where he is addressed by the Aramaic term “rabbani”, in Mk.10:51 and Jn.20:16.

      Even if one allows for the possibility of later Christian meddling or editorializing in the apostolic text, they were motivated in exactly the opposite way, toward expunging specific Jewish descriptions of Rav Yeshua and universalizing him into a Greek image insofar as possible. They would not have inserted anachronistic references to him as “rabbi”.

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