Does it really matter how we refer to someone?
Does it really matter how we refer to someone? Names and titles are mere conventions, symbols that help us form a common language when referring to specific people in our conversations. However, this semiotic rule is more complex than that: The symbol used may also contain other connotations – negative or positive, deferential or irreverent – besides the designation of the particular person. This reality calls for sensitivity in the use of labels, for even when one person wants to accord respect, the other may hear derision.
The issue crops up, for instance, when referring to the famous leader of the Lubavitch Hassidim, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994). The Lubavitch faithful refer to him simply as “the Rebbe” – a perfectly appropriate title from within the milieu where he holds sway. Given his international recognition, many people beyond the Lubavitch community would also immediately understand whom we mean when we use the term “The Rebbe.”
This situation is akin to American Modern Orthodoxy, where “the Rav” is none other than Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik (1903-1993), or Israeli religious Zionist circles, where “Harav” is former chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook (1865-1935). Such conventions are not limited to rabbinic figures: The first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) became known as “Hazaken” (the elder).
There are, of course, other options for referring to the last leader of Lubavitch. Lubavitch hassidic history reveals a prevalent pattern. Of the seven hassidic masters to lead Lubavitch, the fourth, fifth and sixth are all known by abbreviations of their names: Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn of Lubavitch (1834-1882) is known as “Maharash” – an acronym for moreinu harav Shmuel (our master, Rabbi Shmuel). The Maharash’s son and successor, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber (1860- 1920), is known by the initials “Rashab” – Rabbi Sholom Ber. The Rashab’s only son and successor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok (1880-1950), was generally known as the Friediker Rebbe (previous master), but he is also known by the abbreviation “Rayatz.”
Following this Lubavitch trend, one could appropriately refer to “the Rebbe” by the acronym “Ramash” – Rabbi Menachem Schneerson. Indeed, there is a precedent for using these initials as a deferential title. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, before he took the helm of Lubavitch and soon after, this was one of the titles in use. The Rayatz referred to his son-in-law and eventual successor by a number of acronyms, including, but not exclusively, Ramash. Lubavitch Hassidim used “Ramash” in their diaries, and it was common in official letters and notices.
What about the first three Lubavitch masters? The third leader of the Lubavitch Hassidim, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1789-1866), was known by the title of his voluminous writings in Jewish law, Tzemah Tzedek – a title that has the same gematria (numerical value of the Hebrew letters) as his name, Menachem Mendel. His predecessor, father-in-law and uncle, Rabbi Dov Ber Shneuri (1773-1827), is known in Yiddish as the Mittler Rebbe, or in Hebrew as the Admor Ha’emtza’i, meaning the middle rebbe.
What about the founder of the Chabad dynasties? Chabad adherents refer to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (ca.1745-1812) as the Alter Rebbe or Admor Hazaken, meaning the old master.
This influential thinker is also known by either of the titles of his two seminal works – Tanya and Shulhan Aruch Harav. Other times people refer to him by the acronym “Rashaz.” Calling him by that abbreviation is not only convenient, it appears to be in line with Lubavitch norms.
We might therefore be surprised to learn that there was one rabbi – Rabbi Avraham Yosef Igra (ca.1841-1918) – who condemned such a form as disrespectful.
Does it really matter whether we call Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady by the abbreviation “Rashaz” or Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson by the abbreviation “Ramash”? Surely the substance of the material is far more significant. The choice of a name, title, abbreviation or other label is not the only thing that demonstrates respect – or for that matter, derision.
Indeed, it would seem that the contemporary Lubavitch community has generally not judged a book by the author’s choice of moniker. In 2010, professors Samuel C. Heilman and Menachem M. Friedman published their biography of the Ramash in Hebrew and in English. For the title of their book, they chose The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Despite the respectful title that hints at the Ramash’s worldwide fame, the Lubavitch community was incensed by the book. The most dedicated, detailed and scathing responses to the biography came from Rabbi Chaim Rapoport – a Lubavitch Hassid – and he used the acronym Ramash.
Soon after, in 2011, Prof. Immanuel Etkes published his Hebrew biography of the founder of the Chabad school. He entitled his work Ba’al HaTanya: Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady and the Origins of Chabad Hassidism, focusing on the hero’s influential work in hassidic thought.
Throughout the book, Etkes used the acronym “Rashaz.” Though Rabbi Igra, as noted above, questioned this abbreviation, Etkes’s work was nonetheless well-received in Lubavitch circles. In fact, Etkes – who is not affiliated with Lubavitch – was invited to speak about his research in front of the annual gathering of Lubavitch emissaries in Israel, which took place in Nir Etzion in January 2012. Moreover, the Lubavitch media proudly reported his participation.
When seeking to accord respect, on the one hand, and to address the audience on the other, perhaps the best route is to let the forum dictate which term should be used. For instance, when addressing a Lubavitch audience, it would make sense to use the generic “the Rebbe”; when addressing the general public, “Ramash” might be respectful and appropriate.