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Thursday, March 18, 2010


At Boston College I am usually called, “Professor” or “Rabbi.” (Once, I was even called “Father”--Well, I teach in a Catholic College!). However, recently, one of my students wrote me an email addressing me as “Hey.” In another case, a student sent me a note that began with “Dear Rifat.” I was surprised and taken aback. Who are these bad-mannered individuals who dare to address a teacher “Hey” of by his first name? What kind of an upbringing did they have from their parents and other adults? Newspapers often report on how some students disrespect their instructors in the public schools. There is even as association called National Association for Prevention of Teacher Abuse (NAPTA); that is, for abuse by students.

I grew up in a community that demanded high respect for elders and teachers. When I was in High School in Istanbul, we used to stand up when the teacher walked into the classroom. Even in Law School, when the professor entered the lecture hall, the entire class stood on its feet. We never addressed our teachers by their first name. Later on, when I was at the rabbinic seminary and then at my graduate school, we always called our professors by their title. Even now, after so many years, I still call my former teachers, some of whom are my age and a few younger than me, by their academic titles; never by their first name. That does not mean that I liked or loved all my instructors. In fact, some I did not care for, others I feared, and a few I could not stand. But there were others, maybe five or six, who had tremendous influence in my life, and I am who I am because of them. But I always treated all my mentors with respect. That is what I was taught.

Rabbinic literature urges every individual to find a mentor: “Get yourself a teacher” (Avot 1:6). “Revere your teacher as you revere Heaven,” says another source (Avot: 4:15 end). Ancient Rabbis place a teacher on a higher plane than a parent. Thus, they argue, if one finds a lost article belonging to a parent and another to a teacher, the teacher’s article must be returned first” (BM 33a). Though the honor due a teacher is a given in rabbinic literature, the sages also state that the teacher needs to earn this trust and respect: “Let the honor of your disciple be as dear to you as your own,” states one Rabbi (Avot: 4: 15a).

As a teacher I try to emulate the best of my mentors, because I realize that by teaching I am also molding my students’ character. What a high responsibility! I hope you too will always remember your favorite teachers, and bless their name every day.

Rifat Sonsino


  1. I once had a student arrive wearing only shorts, shoes, and socks. He sat spread-legged with his hands clasped behind his head. Students looked surprised, but one of my Arab students complained to me personally after class about the disrespect. I asked the student to wear a shirt in the future. Here in the South I am sometimes addressed as "Mr. David," which took some accomodation. It is a Southern courtesy, although I do prefer Doctor, Rabbi, or Professor. Rarely do my students call me by first name, but I try not to get too upset. Some former students call me by first name and some who perceive themselves as being close call me "Doc."

  2. It seems a simple matter to find out how a person prefers to be addressed then address them in that manner. Automatic familiarity is neither a sign of respect nor equality; it is simply boorish.

    Now it's also true that if someone has an overly exalted sense of self and wishes to be known by a title stolen from the Mikado, I don't feel obligated to kowtow to such arrogance (unless he has the authority to behead me).