A child rabbi? I don't think so

A prodigy, aged 14, has passed a rabbinical exam, but there’s much more to being a spiritual leader than that

By Geoffrey Alderman, August 26, 2010

I once agreed to be a member of a panel set up by a synagogue to choose a new rabbi. To begin with all went well. Advertisements were placed in suitable newspapers. My fellow panel members and I drew up a shortlist of those applicants we intended to interview. There was one outstanding CV, that of a mature man, just turned 45, well qualified in terms of both his religious and secular education, and with excellent references.

We decided to interview him and another candidate, a much younger gentleman, scarcely 24, but also well qualified on paper, and also with excellent references.

Apart from age there was one other crucial difference between the two contenders. The older man had spent his entire adult life in what I shall call the professional rabbinate - he knew virtually no other life or vocation. The younger man, however, having obtained his semichah from a leading Israeli yeshivah, had literally travelled the world.

Given the precise needs of this particular community, my vote went to the older man: I voted for age and experience over youthful vigour and scarcely-tested promise. But (not for the first time) I found myself in the minority. The younger candidate was appointed. To make a long story short, the appointment was a disaster, both for the synagogue and for the young appointee, who, though he had all the paper qualifications you could ask for, simply lacked the maturity to function effectively in that particular milieu.

I recalled this history to mind as
I read the disturbing story of Moshe Raziel Sharify, the 14-year-old wonder boy from Netanya, whose life is apparently about to be dragged through the Israeli court system in an action that can do him little genuine good.

To be a rabbi, you need experience, maturity and sensitivity. No amount of book-derived knowledge can compensate for them

Moshe Sharify is an ilui - a child prodigy. Of this there can be no doubt. A number of leading rabbonim and dayanim in Israel have testified
to his outstanding grasp of Talmud, and to the range of his knowledge of Talmudic commentaries. Such prodigies occur in every generation. The famous 18th century "Gaon
of Vilna", Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, is said to have astounded his audience (in a city not short of Talmudic heavyweights) by giving a complex halachic sermon at the age of 6. Rabbi Louis Jacobs was described as an ilui by his teacher, the then head of the Gateshead Kollel (Rabbi E E Dessler), in 1942.

Nor has Moshe Sharify's Talmudic prowess come as a bolt from the blue. Nurtured by loving Orthodox parents (both of whom have doctorates from Bar-Ilan university), he has already won a number of Bible competitions.

Earlier this year, his parents decided to enter him for the regular rabbinical examination held under the auspices of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. The application fee was paid and the application was accepted. Moshe travelled to Jerusalem and wrote the five-and-a-half-hour exam.

But now the Chief Rabbinate has indicated that it will not permit his answer-paper to be marked, citing
an unwritten rule that "no one can
be examined for the rabbinate until they reach the age of 22, and Moshe Sharify is no exception".

One half of me feels the anger that must be felt by Moshe's parents and supporters. Having accepted his application fee - and the application that went with it (which naturally included his date of birth) - and having permitted him to sit the test, the refusal of the Chief Rabbinate to mark Moshe's exam strikes me as inept at best and, at worst, as downright spiteful. It might also turn out to be illegal, and if it does so turn out, and the Chief Rabbinate is forced to give Moshe a grade for his work, and perhaps confer upon him the title of rabbi - even at the age of 14 - so be it.

That is what one half of me feels. But the other half asks what on earth Moshe's parents thought they were doing in permitting (indeed encouraging) him to take the rabbinical test in the first place.

There is much, much more to being a rabbi than passing a test of Talmudic knowledge. There is experience, maturity, adult sensitivity. No amount of exam-passing can confer these attributes, and no amount of book-derived knowledge can compensate for them.

Moshe sat the test. If he has passed, he must be given the result. If his parents are sensible they will then insist that, genius or no genius, this 14-year-old boy be allowed to mature first before taking his rabbinical studies any further.

Last updated: 11:21am, August 26 2010