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What exactly is meant by "rabbi?" So many times people will question a rabbi as to whether he is a "real" rabbi or fake. Do the different branches of Judaism have different criteria?
I thought anyone could be ordained a rabbi (irrespective of age) if he demonstrated that he had sufficient knowledge (encyclopedic level) of the Talmud. And that the first "level" of rabbinic ordination signifies knowledge of all the laws of kashrut.
Am I right, or is there more to it?
Rabbi literally means "great one", But I think the best way to describe the education of the rabbi is that he is a “Judaism Lawyer” with a Ph.D in social work and education.
On a the most basic level, a rabbi is one that has studied Torah sufficiently to teach and issue rulings on issues of Torah law. On a deeper level, a rabbi, through his efforts and erudition in Torah, has developed wisdom – the ability to analyze events and their effects without any bias. In other words, he is a man of Truth. This ability has made rabbis our community leaders, the ones we turn to in all areas of the human experience, even those which have nothing to do with Torah law per se.
The full requirements for a rabbi are explained by Maimonides (Laws of Sanhedrin 2:1,7):
"Only wise and understanding people are to be appointed to the Sanhedrin. They must be experts in Torah law, with a wide breadth of knowledge. They must also know secular subjects like medicine, mathematics, astrology and astronomy. They must also be familiar with magic and idolatry, in order to know how to judge such cases...
"Even a judge for a regular court must possess the following seven qualities: Wisdom. Humility. Fear of God. Aversion to materialism. Love of truth. Pleasant and likeable. An unimpeachable reputation. All these are specified in the Torah."
In other words, mastery of the material is just one aspect.
If you want a teacher, don't just take the nearest expert – the one on the block. "Shop" for a teacher. When you come across someone with wisdom, get references. Check his credentials. Test his wisdom with questions and more questions. See if he lives honestly and consistently with his knowledge. Then check his sources. Know who his teachers are. Make sure he's part of a respected community. See if his students are respectable as well. These are all indications of the rabbi's "authenticity."
Above all, a rabbi must be dedicated to following the 613 mitzvahs of the Torah.