Let’s Talk About Women Rabbis
Posted on May 22, 2012
I asked two of the women being ordained by The Rabbinical School of The Jewish Theological Seminary this year to reflect on their hopes and aspirations for—and anxieties about—their new careers in the rabbinate, and on how all of their goals and emotions are affected, in their view, by being women in a field still dominated by men. The reply immediately below is from Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky (RS ’12), who will be serving this coming year as chaplain resident at the VA New York Harbor Health System and completing a CPE residency.
Dear Chancellor Eisen,
You asked if the role of a newly ordained rabbi entering the field is different for a woman than it is for a man. I wish that I could say no. I wish I could be viewed simply as “rabbi” and not as a “woman rabbi,” as if putting my gender in front of my title explains everything about who I am and the Torah I teach. I wish I didn’t have to prepare the answers to questions about managing my family and my job or worry that a specific piece of jewelry I may wear will cause people to think I’m not serious about my work. But do I wish to be the same kind of rabbi as my male colleagues? The answer to that is also no, because I don’t want to be the same rabbi or assume the same role as anyone other than myself.
Every rabbi is different, and not just in terms of gender. Two men vying for the same post as rabbi are going to bring very different life experiences, abilities, and understanding of Torah to the interview. We should not expect the role of the rabbi to be the same for men and women, because the role of the rabbi is unique to every rabbi. The process of finding jobs is truly a shidduch: a match made between a rabbi and a community that are meant to be together. If the rabbi is the right fit for the community, the rabbi’s age, gender, sexuality, family status, and so on won’t matter. The community—whether it is a congregation, school, hospital, or organization—will value that rabbi for who he or she is, not the role that the rabbi is expected to fill according to some long-established paradigm of what a rabbi should be.
I wish I could say that every rabbi is treated equally, respected, and valued for all that he or she brings to the field. However, women are still at a disadvantage at this point in time. Due to the relatively short history of women being ordained as rabbis in the Conservative Movement, and the limited access that women have had to some of the top jobs in our communities, the role of women in the rabbinate is unlike the role of men. It is different because we still need to wage internal battles over whether or not we officiate at conversions and other legal situations. It is different because we know that even though our communities may accept us, love us, and give us nothing but the deepest respect, we are not even counted in a minyan if we venture into more religious communities, let alone given rabbinic authority. The role of women in the rabbinate is shaped by these external forces. I wish that would change.
Dear Rabbi Sharofsky,
Thanks for your candid reply to my question. Clearly, we have a long way to go when it comes to acceptance of women rabbis in the Conservative Movement (and beyond) and appreciation of the distinctive skill set that women bring to the rabbinate. I, myself, believe that gender matters enormously when it comes to that skill set. Without “essentializing” on gender grounds—that is, assuming that “all men” share attributes A,B, and C, and “all women” share attributes X, Y and Z—I’d say from observation that women rabbis as a group do bring some different experiences, sensibilities, and concerns to their rabbinates. This is as it should be. One question is how our communities can best take advantage of the opportunities that female leadership brings.
My colleague at JTS, Assistant Professor Emerita of Jewish Literature Anne Lapidus Lerner, points out one such opportunity in “The Impact of Feminism on Conservative Synagogues,” the essay she wrote for the 2008 anthology by Elyse Goldstein and Anita Diamant, New Jewish Feminism: Probing the Past, Forging the Future: “The importance of women clergy as accessible role models for women and girls in congregations cannot be overestimated.”
Steven M. Cohen and I discovered in the course of our research for our book, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America, that role models make a tremendous difference to the choice for (or against) substantive Jewish commitment. I became chancellor of JTS in part because several of the most important influences on my own Jewish formation were male Conservative rabbis who taught and mentored me as a teenager. Several of the most important influences on my thinking about rabbis, synagogues, and Torah have been female rabbis and scholars whom I have known and been privileged to call friends as an adult. These men and women did not speak, teach, and act primarily as men or as women—I am not sure what that could mean—but neither was their gender incidental to who they were and the influence they exerted.
I don’t see how it can be otherwise, and would not want it to be. Judaism goes as deep as deep can be. Torah is lived heart, soul, and mind and speaks to heart, soul, and mind. God is conceived, encountered, and served with all that we are: sons or daughters; mothers or fathers; male or female friends to other men or women; husbands or wives; and, yes, beneficiaries of gender bias in the workplace or victims of that bias; objects, on the bimah, of differing transferences by congregants; teachers or counselors or leaders to whom people react differently because of gender, among other things.
An essay that has much influenced me, Max Weber’s “Scholarship as a Vocation,” recommends that we think about any vocation from the outside in; that is, that we start with what he called the “externals” of how one makes a living and advances in each given profession, and only afterward take up issues of meaning. I appreciate your answering my question about the externals that women rabbis face, Abbi, and appreciate, too, your wish that those particular externals were no longer significant enough for discussion. May the rewards you experience make up for the obstacles on the path.
The following reply is from Rabbi Annie Lewis (RS ’12), who will serve as the new assistant rabbi of the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia.
Dear Chancellor Eisen,
Thank you for your thoughts on the unique perspectives that women bring to the rabbinate. I am glad to be part of this conversation with you and Abbi. When I encounter sacred texts authored by men through the lens of my experience as a woman, I come with a willingness to question and a thirst to imagine all the stories that might spring out from the silence. My ear is attuned to the voices on the margins, to the truths buried beneath the surface, and to the power of holy words to injure and to heal. In this way, my gender identity fuels and enlivens the way I study and transmit Torah.
On the cusp of ordination, I felt immense gratitude for a sense of connection to a community of women that spans time and space. At last week’s Tekes Hasmakhah, I wore a strand of pearls that belonged to my grandmother Ann, for whom I am named. She was an active member of her synagogue in the tiny town of Hamilton, Ohio. She cared passionately about Jewish continuity and the flourishing of her congregation. She died in 1964 and never knew a woman rabbi in her lifetime, but I have no doubt she would be pleased with the way things have changed. As I walked across the stage, I thought of the women of Ezrat Nashim who raised their voices at the Rabbinical Assembly Convention in 1972, advocating for full and equal participation for women in ritual life and leadership in the Conservative Movement. When I received my tallit, I remembered how Rabbi Karen Reiss Medwed invited me to a special oneg at Camp Ramah in the Poconos for girls and women who wore kippot, tallitot, and/or tefillin the summer after I became a bat mitzvah, and I carried the stories of the women who have come before me and who carved out the space for my colleagues and me to become teachers of Torah.
I am grateful for the courage of the women and men who spoke out for the inclusion of women in rabbinic leadership, who wrestled with the tradition and found openings for change. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to carry on their legacy, to continue to push for more just and egalitarian institutions in my rabbinate, both in terms of ritual life and in terms of the “externals” of how clergy make a living and the ways in which we are able to sustain ourselves and our families. As a woman rabbi, blessed to be a Jew in America in 2012, I feel called to continue to work for a Movement that is fully inclusive of Jews of different sexual orientations and gender identities.
Stepping into the title “Rabbi,” I pray that the women of our class, with our different voices and visions, will continue to weave a tapestry of deep and supportive relationships; that we will speak our truths with confidence; that we will dream big.
Dear Rabbi Lewis,
What you are saying flows, in my mind, from Torah’s command to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind―all rather than a single part―which means that all of all of us is needed. Last week’s ordination and investiture ceremonies were, as always, very moving to me―in part because the new rabbis and cantors are bringing so much idealism to the task, and so much experience: law, business, childbearing, summer camp, coming out, Hillel work, studying Talmud, education and synagogue internships, service in the IDF, being an insider, being an outsider, more Talmud. The combination bodes well for the future of Judaism, and particularly for Conservative Judaism.
I trust that both you and Abbi Sharofsky are ready for the hard labor that awaits all women and men who want to serve Torah and the Jewish community. I hope we can meet a decade from now and look back contentedly on what has been accomplished.