Culture, Mishegas, Religion

Grumpy old curmudgeon pet peeve of the day

At least once a day, I get an email from someone advertising something in a particular, but unnamed, liberal part of the Jewish community that mentions a woman and gives her the title “Reb.”
Can someone please explain to these folks that the word “reb” means “Mr”? “Reb” does NOT mean “Rabbi.” Reb, when a rabbi uses it in front of his name, is a sign of modesty on his part (or alternatively a claim to it that’s akin to the old joke which ends “look who thinks he’s nothing!”).
“Reb,” when a woman uses it in front of her name, is demonstrating that contrary to being knowledgeable, she (or whoever put the title there) is actually ignorant about the Yiddish culture she is attempting to co-opt. Granted there is at least one woman rabbi I know of who uses this term knowingly, and I acknowledge that there is a need for terms that parallel respectful terms for men, but if you’re a rabbi, can you please just call yourself either “Rabbi” or “Rabbah?” Or coin a new term, I don’t care. “Reb” just makes you ridiculous. Seriously, I can’t help but wonder if Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who seems to have some connection with this usage and certainly knows better, is having a private laugh at you behind your back.
Rant off. Thanks for listening.

40 thoughts on “Grumpy old curmudgeon pet peeve of the day

  1. Reb Mimi was ordained by Reb Shlomo Carlebach…why such a stretch that she would take her teacher’s title? So it’s a little transgressive…but what isn’t a little transgressive about an woman orthodox neo-hassidic rabbi and mystic?

  2. Reb Mimi definitely knows her stuff, and deliberately is not calling herself Rabbi, but you know what, she deserves to be called rabbi, as do whatever maharats we get in the future. The problem with using Reb transgressively is that
    1. All those female rebs are honorary men? What, women can’t be honored or knowledgeable? Let’s get some feminist language theory in here, quick, and
    2. Most of the people using the term just don’t know any better, so it isn’t transgressive. Reb Mimi aside, most of the people using it are ignorant, not transgressive.
    3. Calling a person who ought to be called Rabbi “Reb” is demoting them.
    And, by the way, “Reb” Carlebach was using the title not in place of Rabbi – is it thus his title? It’s sort of like President Washington refusing to be called “his highness” and opting for “Mr. Washington” instead – but it would be totally inappropriate to call the first woman president Mr. – the appropriate title would be “Madam whoever” (Just like technically, the supreme court justice’s titles are Mr. Justice and Madam Justice).
    Seriously, what’s so difficult about having an appropriate title for women?
    Uless we’re all going to go with the gender is totally a social construct argument, then we need to have a way to be polite to women without making them honorary men – because saying that you can’t be a (Whatever positive thing) unless you’re an honorary man – that’s insulting.

  3. “Reb, when a rabbi uses it in front of his name, is a sign of modesty on his part (or alternatively a claim to it that’s akin to the old joke which ends “look who thinks he’s nothing!”).”
    Every thought process these days has to be part of an infinite regress.

  4. In the Jewish Renewal community, calling rabbis — male and female alike — “Reb” is common practice. I don’t think this reflects lack of knowledge; I think it’s a new usage of the term. I respect your point that this isn’t the way the term has historically been used, but it is one way the term is currently being used; and arguing that we’re all wrong for using the term in this way probably isn’t going to change things. 🙂

  5. I didn’t name the movement, but ok, yeah, that’s it. The term is being used because people think that “reb” is a catchy shorthand for “rabbi.” It’s not. Even if everyone keeps doing it.
    (The fact that grocery stores everywhere have the sign “10 items or less” up all over the country doesn’t make the confusion of mass and sortal terms good English).
    I did preface the post by saying it was the grumpy old curmudgeon pet peeve of the day, and I stand by it. It is wrong, wrong, wrong. And don’t let me catch you using an oyster fork on kosher fish, either.

  6. Not just a Renewal thing either – I’ve heard rabbinical students in all the egalitarian denominations refer to their training institutions as “reb school,” thus unwittingly demonstrating the fine modern principle that egalitarianism means “letting women play at being men.”

  7. Not so germane to the original point (or to much else in life), but just as a point of information:
    The rabbinical students (often abbreviated to “rab students”) I know refer to their schools as “rab” (not “reb”) schools– as shorthand for “rabbinical.” I do it myself sometimes. Why? A little bit because during my time as a rab student I had one too many conversations that went exactly like this:
    Ploni: What do you do?
    Me: I’m a rabbinical student.
    Ploni: Oh wow. Medical school is so HARD!
    Either my pronunciation stinks or “rabbinical school” and “medical school” sound eerily similar!
    But I’m sure it’s also the case that some rab students call their institutions “reb schools.” Those are probably the same people who astonished me by giving themselves titles and email addresses like “[email protected]” or “[email protected]” before they were actually ordained.

  8. My fave woman rabbis are RABBIS, thank you very much. Renewal or not.
    I applaud the effort to inject linguistic understanding into Renewal terminology. If enough people giggle at the use of ‘reb’ for woman rabbis, I bet it stops.

  9. Actually I think my friend and almost a rabbi Rachel is wrong here. In renewal circles Reb has been used as an honorific not necessarily implying “Rabbi,” but someone who is greatly respected. I’ve heard a number of leaders and respected non-rabbis called “Reb.”
    In the KRG is partly correct in that when Shlomo used it is was a form of modesty, as opposed to Rebbe. In JR people can be called “Reb”, “Rabbi,” and “Rebbe,” with somewhat different connotations, often for the same person in different context. You are right that it has been clearly de-gendered in this context (though some JR women have said they don’t want to be called “Reb.”)

  10. meh. i use reb all the time, as a badge of ignorance. is it hebrew? yiddish? aramaic? please to inform us rubes.
    did not mean to offend anyone with ill-usage. 🙂

  11. Woo. A conversation. Maybe there’s hope for people to stop using it after all.
    @Jeff: People don’t seem to makemuch differentiation between rebbe and reb, although I have noticed that they seem in those circles to view “Rabbi” as a somewhat cooler (in the sense of less friendly) term, and “reb” is used as a diminutive form. I could actually live with “rebbe” for women rabbis as a chassidic-specific term for “rabbi” But please, no more “reb!” Find a non-gendered or female specific term if you must find a yiddishy/renewal word –

  12. I wonder if it’s just an evolution (or regression depending on your pov) of the word Rav. It’s a pretty easy jump from Rav to Reb especially if one is not aware of the original difference in meaning. KRG, thanks for the rant but like you said it is your “grumpy old curmudgeon pet peeve of the day”. Why not leave it at that and let each Jewish context decide for itself what is and what is not a term of respect/disrespect.

  13. It’s not much of a jump from “Fewer” to “Less,” but it’s still poor grammar to use “less” with sortal terms.
    I stand by my grump fully. Down with “reb!” (Unless, of course, you mean “Mr.”)

  14. “fewer” and “less” don’t sound alike the way that rav and reb do. especially when pronounced quickly and in ashkenazis. i still respect your right to grump.

  15. you’re not understanding the reason that Reb Mimi has chosen the title. She describes herself as “an orthodox rabbi” or a “rav” all the time. She uses the official title Reb out of respect for those in the world which she was raised in, grew up in, and still emotionally and theologically resides in who are uncomfortable with her using the title Rav or Rabbi. She may have changed her reasonings, but this is how it was explained to me. Furthermore, she’s a Hasid and that, as has been noted, is a term circled in that community and as someone aptly noted, Reb Shlomo was her teacher and she has every right and reason to use his title if she chooses. Perhaps, KRG, you need to let each individual select their own title and not pass judgement on them and perhaps, also, in the 21st century, Reb might no longer mean mister and might simply be understood by everyone other than you and a few yiddishists as a Hasidishe title for a rabbi. Get over yourself and show teachers the respect they deserve.

  16. I am disappointed that this conversation has progressed this far without anyone bringing up the case study of Mr. Saavik, Kirstie Alley’s character in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (later played by Robin Curtis).

  17. @Uzi – I take your point about the sound-alike qualities. My guess is that that IS probably how it started, now that you mention it, something like “Sounds alike: must mean the same thing!”
    Reb Mimi may be a hasidic rabbi, but in the general hasidic community “reb” is not used that way -only in Renewal. In fact, if “reb” were used that way in the hasidic community, it would undermine Reb Mimi’s reasons for using it.
    You are correct about the reasons that Reb Mimi chose to use the address “Reb,” and in no way do I consider her anything less than a full rabbi, nor would I call her anything other than by her chosen moniker. It is certainly her right to call herself “reb” if she wishes, and I respect her for acknowledging the discomfort of those from her background and not using the title of “Rabbi” or “Rav” for their benefit- however, rather than contradicting my point, this only underscores it (it’s just the same as the maharat problem and that’s also why “rebbe” wouldn’t work). If there were a respectful title for women that recognized learning and authority in a woman in the Orthodox community that didn’t mean only being married to a rabbi when she – one of the pioneers of Orthodox women rabbis- was given her smicha, perhaps she would have used it.
    There’s nothing disrespectful about calling oneself Mr. rather than Rabbi or Rav – to the contrary, humility is to be admired. Mr. Carlebach -(I’m choosing the address for him as a translation, not because I’m denying that he’s a rabbi, just to be clear, since we’ve all got our backs up now) without getting into the details- was presumably choosing to act in humility in choosing that form of address for himself. But it isn’t a title, just a form of address. I could call George Gordon Byron, “Mr. Byron,” instead of “Lord Byron,” but it would be weird to call him “Ms. Byron,” don’t you think? I suppose if everyone called him Ms. Byron, or even Lady Byron, then eventually we’d all think it was fine, eventually, but is it worth the trouble to do so? Even then, just because we called him Lady Byron, does that mean that all Romantic poets, male or female, should be titled “Lady something or other?”
    And you don’t need to defend Reb Mimi’s honor. She’s a very smart, learned, tough person and she can take being tangled with if she feels the need. The point I was making was general, not directed at her (I, you recall, excepted her in the original post, and at least once again in the comments section).
    Of course language can change, but my point is that I think it’s a BAD IDEA here because the implication is that a woman can’t be genuinely learned and authoritative in herself – and if she is, it’s because she’s somehow a fake man.
    And quit using the bread and butter plate for your tea cup.

    1. You’d think the general public would have seen Fiddler on the Roof and would know that Reb Tevye and Reb Lazer Wolf were anything but rabbis.

  18. I just has the thought that if it could somehow be shown that all those people in Renewal were calling themselves “Reb” in support of Reb Mimi and the fact that people in her own community can’t recognize her (and others) as a learned woman with her own title, or at least with the American title of “Rabbi,” I might be convinced to be less grumpy about it.
    I think that would have to mean something like everyone calling themselves “Reb Mimi so-and-so” though.
    (“Hi, I’m Reb Mimi Avi Weiss,” for example).

  19. @Jeff, I appreciate your comment, and stand corrected. 🙂 I stand by my larger point, though, which is that I think that usage of the term “reb” has evolved beyond its original meaning.
    @Rooftopper, yes, I sometimes refer to my program (usually in written correspondence, not so much in spoken language) as “rab school;” it’s shorthand, like “med school.” No disrespect is intended; just convenience! 🙂
    (And @KRG, for what it’s worth, supermarket checkout signs which say “Ten items or less” when they ought to say “Ten items or fewer” drive me nuts too! So I empathize; I just don’t share this particular peeve, because I’ve grown accustomed to hearing the term in its new context.)

    1. I stand by my larger point, though, which is that I think that usage of the term “reb” has evolved beyond its original meaning.
      I think the Beg The Question FAQ is instructive here:
      Shouldn’t we accept that words change in meaning over time?
      True, words like “cool” and “gay” gained new meaning via a process of modern association with their understood meanings, but BTQ abuse rises from a misunderstanding of its original use. It would be as though people started using “the die is cast” to mean dying, simply because the word “die” is in there, without any knowledge of Caesar. Is there any idiom — not a single word, but a full phrase — whose meaning has changed over the years, simply by virtue of its being misunderstood by the linguistically inept or the historically ignorant?
      But language is constantly evolving.
      That’s great to know! Descriptivist linguists, whom we do not fault for their stand, are quite free to watch as we bring about an evolution in the vernacular understanding of “begging the question.”

  20. “(The fact that grocery stores everywhere have the sign “10 items or less” up all over the country doesn’t make the confusion of mass and sortal terms good English).
    “…it’s still poor grammar to use “less” with sortal terms.”
    From Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage (via LanguageLog
    “The OED shows that less has been used of countables since the time of King Alfred the Great — he used it that way in one of his own translations from Latin — more than a thousand years ago (in about 888). So essentially less has been used of countables in English for just about as long as there has been a written English language. After about 900 years Robert Baker opined that fewer might be more elegant and proper. Almost every usage writer since Baker has followed Baker’s lead, and generations of English teachers have swelled the chorus. The result seems to be a fairly large number of people who now believe less used of countables to be wrong, though its standardness is easily demonstrated.”
    Also interesting to note from :
    “* littlest-littler-little–large-larger-largest
    * least-lesser-little–great-greater-greatest
    * least-less-little–much-more-most
    * fewest-fewer-few–many-more-most
    “Less” goes with “much”, for quantities in Q or R.
    “Fewer” goes with “many”, for quantities restricted to N.
    Of course, many who wince at “less than ten items” don’t bat an eyelid at “at least ten items”. I could never be such a pedant as to say, much less insist, on “at fewest ten items”.”

  21. Isn’t it a bad idea (or grammatically incorrect) to call anyone Mr. (first name)?
    Mr., when formally used, is always followed by one’s last name or family name. Mr. Zalman or Mr. Shlomo makes no sense to me, just as Reb Mimi makes no sense to some.

  22. @ML, I think that actually, Mr. Last name is for eldest sons, and second sons get Mr. plus first name. This is a question for Judith Martin. Hey – does Miss Manners read Jewschool? She is Jewish!
    Can someone get her to weigh in?

  23. @Kol Wikipedia supports that claim. It also does note (way down at the bottom) that Reb is to be used with the first name, rather than surname (so I stand corrected). Ironically, it’s under the entry for “Mister (Mr.)”. I was hoping to find out at what age a boy/man went from “master” to “mister” but it was not specific.

  24. @KRG: The point is no-one needs a mnemonic, unlike the case of ‘Reb’ or ‘Begs the question’ there is nothing historically incorrect in the usage ‘less crackers’.

  25. Oh, jeepers. I guess as the only one around here who actually uses the ‘Reb’ moniker I ought to chime in.
    The real linguistic question is: Where did Reb Zalman and Reb Shlomo z’l get the term, and why did they choose it? The question is not the general Yiddish linguistic meaning of the term, but what specific, probably Hassidic/Yeshivish subculture, did they adopt it from? It clearly is a 1960s reaction against the way Rabbi in American English had connotations of aloof, distant, dry and boring — in short, not someone you’d want to get high with.
    The fact that “Reb” is inevitably gendered in Yiddish is no reason to insist on gendering it English. Rabbi has turned into perfectly good English for women, though Rabbah makes more sense for Hebrew-speakers and people who like gendered terms such as aviatrix. So while we would say Mr. Tevye and Ms. Golda, I don’t see any reason why we can’t have Reb Tevye and Reb Golda.

    1. The gender issue is just one issue; the other is that (even for men) people don’t seem to know that “Reb” is an address to use instead of “Rabbi”, not a more heimish synonym for “Rabbi”.

  26. @Reb Yudel:
    “The real linguistic question is: Where did Reb Zalman and Reb Shlomo z’l get the term, and why did they choose it? ”
    WE’ve already mentioned this. It was common practice in chassidic culture to use Reb (mr) instead of Rabbi to show humility (Kind of like someone with a phd refusing to be called “Dr.” – of course it can also be a kind of reverse snobbery, too, but that’s a whole ‘nother subject)
    The point is though that “reb” does NOT mean rabbi. It’s not rabbi, it means “just another average Ploni” but a polite address for him.
    Reb Tevye and reb yudel are fine, if you’re not a rabbi, or a rabbi trying to be humble and not be called rabbi.

    1. (Kind of like someone with a phd refusing to be called “Dr.” – of course it can also be a kind of reverse snobbery, too, but that’s a whole ‘nother subject)
      Speaking of which, I recently learned that Freeman Dyson doesn’t have a Ph.D.; how wild is that?

  27. I’m sorry I haven’t been back here to participate in this discussion. I want to clarify the differences in meaning in the JR world. “Rebbe” is a charismatic religious leader. Reb Zalman, after resisting for a long time, finally accepted that he was a rebbe, but insisted that we all have to take on that role from time to time, and he is not “The Rebbe” when is is at the movies. He even, at least once or twice, had a tisch where he sat at the table and taught, then had everyone move one seat (to the left or right I’m not sure) and the next person in the “rebbe seat” taught Torah, and so forth.
    A “rabbi” is someone who has ordination that you consider legitimate, something we might not all agree upon. As noted, this was also originally a male term, but is now for most of us gender neutral.
    “Reb” is a term of respect. The closest in English is “Mister,” but one would make a mistake to take that translation too literally. It is more informal than the other two. As noted by BZ, Tevye was called “Reb,” though I doubt so by the rich man in town except ironically. In fact, in Fiddler on the Roof, I think he only refers to himself that way when thinking of himself as a rich man.
    Sorry, KRG, but there is no more reason to insist that it has to be limited to men than “rabbi.” IMHO

  28. The JR and New Age types attempting to change the meaning of “reb” are “mitatef be-talit she-eno shelo”. It’s not their language (Yiddish) or their culture, and as someone whose language and culture it is, I resent their stealing it and misusing it. It’s a form of cultural imperialism.
    To answer one reader’s question, one became a reb at least after marriage or more commonly well into middle age. When you were a citizen of consequence or substance, and merited an honorific, which is what this is.

  29. Dear Reb Kol, or is it Rabbat Ra’ash:
    Does one really have control over what others call them? No one ever calls me what I’m comfortable with, only what they are comfortable with.
    Thanks for listening to this mini-rant from Mrs., Ms., Rabbi, Dr., non-hyphenated last name, birth name, married name

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