Every so often Jacob Stein needs to do something to draw attention to himself. Having failed out of nursing school because of his openly anti-gay attitude he has now chosen a fight with one Jeffrey Fallick, a man who runs his own blog under the moniker: Atheist Rabbi.
Never one to pull punches, Stein's post on Fallick has crossed a line in terms of acceptability on the internet. In addition to attacking Fallick's character he published personal information. Was it in the hopes of creating a campaign of harrassment against the poor guy?
Fortunately it seems to have backfired and the only person getting harrassed is Stein himself. Criticism is piling up againt his very poor choice of posting and none of it is the least bit friendly.
However, the original question - can an atheist call himself a rabbi? - remains unanswered.
I'm going to supply mine: sure, why not?
There was a time when the title "Rav" meant something. It meant you had spent years studying under one or more qualified rabbonim. You had learned a good chunk of the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch in-depth and by heart. You had dedicated your life to understanding halacha and how to pasken it.
In today's society, however, a lot has changed. Take the issue of professional titles, for example. Once upon a time you needed to either produce a really good thesis or complete medical school to be called "Doctor". Nowadays you can call yourself "doctor" if you dispense medicinal water (homeopath), boiled herbs (naturopaths) or really good low back massages (chiropractor).
It's the same thing with the rabbinate. While many Torah-observant folks dislike referring to graduates of Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Centre as rabbis the fact is that these institutions have the legal right to grant a degree that comes with the title. A graduate with the diploma is entitled to use the title "rabbi" and be addressed as such. So if Jeffrey Fallick is a gradute of Hebrew Union College or another Reform seminary that has such authority then he is indeed a "rabbi" regardless of his lack of belief in God, his lack of acceptance of the authority of Torah or his "alternative" lifestyle.
As for the other issue Stein raises in his post, well the news coming out of Israel clearly disproves his thesis that belief in God and acceptance of the authority of Torah leads to a peaceful, righteous behaviour pattern. Indeed, if most Torah observant Jews were given the choice of inviting either Fallick or Amram Shapiro, a rav with a genuine semicha for Shabbos dinner most would choose the former. After all, we might disagree with pretty much all of Fallick's main beliefs but he's unlikely to scream "shaygitz!" and toss his bowl of hot soup in our faces if we did so. With Shapiro one cannot be so certain.
The real challenge nowadays for Torah observant Jews is to lead an exemplary life both in bein adam l'Makom and bein adam l'Chaveiro. As we are seeing on the news over and over, finding such a balance in which kavod haShamayim and kavod haBrios is not easy and one can easily fall to the extreme of one side or another, leading to great sins being committed in the process in the name of "righteousness".
If Jeffrey Fallick wants to openly preach about being both a rabbi and an atheist, that's his business and his cheshbon with the God he doesn't believe in. I'm not worried that someone will mistakenly go to him for spiritual advice. I doubt anyone frum will turn to him and those that do confide their troubles in him aren't looking for the right story from the Gemara but a warm smile and a supportive voice. And that's likely what they'll get. Who is Stein to criticize that?