(RNS) — Somewhere in the bowels of my dresser, there exists an almost three-decade-old T-shirt emblazoned with the inscription: “That’s Dr. Salkin to you!”
That was because I had just earned the degree of Doctor of Ministry from Princeton Theological Seminary.
As soon as I got my degree, some of my congregants asked me: “Does this mean we have to call you ‘Doctor’ now?”
My response: “No, thanks. ‘Rabbi’ is sufficient.”
(In fact, nowadays, when someone asks me: “What do you want us to call you?” I respond: “Whatever you need to call me. But, please — not ‘Rabbi Jeff.’” I find it irritating and cloying — and some of my women colleagues find Rabbi First Name to be demeaning.)
An earlier generation of rabbis liked to use their doctoral titles — whether earned degrees or honorific, as in the honorary Doctor of Divinity degree rabbis receive on the 25th anniversary of their ordination.
I don’t disdain the title of “Doctor.” It has always been my practice to use academic titles where they count — in academic settings. When I was in rabbinical school, almost all of our professors were also ordained rabbis. In class, however, they were “Dr. (Eugene) Borowitz.” That was the role; that was the title.
In a similar sense, my physicians have often been congregants. When I am in their offices, I call them “Doctor,” and they call me “Jeff.” On “my turf,” it is “Mike” and “Rabbi.” The role determines the title.
The whole “rabbi doctor” thing is interesting.
The late Milton Himmelfarb was fond of quoting the following anonymous bon mot: “The Jewish people was healthy until its rabbis became doctors.”
But, in our modern setting, the preference of “doctor” over “rabbi” is a matter of sociological curiosity.
Recall the old Jewish joke: It is the inauguration of the first Jewish president of the United States. The president’s mother is in the crowd. She turns to someone and says, “His brother is a doctor.” In other words: The best thing a Jewish boy (yes, a boy) could become was a doctor. A “real” (i.e., medical) doctor.
Which brings me to that recent, controversial essay in The Wall Street Journal: “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.,” by Joseph Epstein.
Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the “Dr.” before your name? “Dr. Jill Biden” sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic. Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title “Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.” A wise man once said that no one should call himself “Dr.” unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr. Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.
What, in part, is Epstein’s reasoning?
The Ph.D. may once have held prestige, but that has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness and the relaxation of standards in university education generally, at any rate outside the sciences. Getting a doctorate was then an arduous proceeding: One had to pass examinations in two foreign languages, one of them Greek or Latin, defend one’s thesis, and take an oral examination on general knowledge in one’s field… (In) the few doctoral examinations I sat in on during my teaching days, candidates and teachers addressed one another by first names and the general atmosphere more resembled a kaffeeklatsch.
In other words, with the general relaxation of academic standards, and their yielding to a general sense of kumbaya, Dr. Biden’s degree is in Epstein’s opinion, at the very least, devalued.
Oh, but have no doubt: The Wall Street Journal published that essay not because it is interested in critiquing academic standards.
No, the whole point was to “diss” Dr. Jill Biden (“kiddo”).
First, as the now, official first lady. Because who can say how many WSJ readers believe the un-degreed Melania will still be the first lady after Jan. 21?
Second, as an “elitist,” the right’s favorite attack word. You can use “doctor” as a medical title. But to use “doctor” as an academic title signals to the world you are an intellectual. That would be a cardinal sin.
Third, as an uppity woman. It would be hard to imagine Epstein would have written this piece had the subject been a man.
Doctor Biden: You want people to call you Doctor Biden? Especially since you worked so hard for that degree?
That is your right, and your prerogative. Don’t let them take that away from you.
Yes, in my rabbinate, I eschewed the use of “doctor.”
That was my call. It is a mark of professional courtesy to allow people to choose the title by which they would be known. Even when it is a little absurd. Recall Elaine on “Seinfeld,” who dated a conductor who insisted on being called “Maestro,” even when not wielding his baton before an orchestra.
But, if we were to return to the “typical” sense of Doctor as healer, this is what I hope Dr. Biden will do.
This nation needs healing. Badly.
Be the doctor. Help your husband.
Help all of us.