Wanted: educators, not wives

By Dina Brawer, January 6, 2013

After much pressure the United Synagogue finally agreed to allow women to chair synagogue boards. Two weeks later chief rabbi-elect Ephraim Mirvis appointed Lauren Levine as a yoetzet halacha (halachic advisor) to Finchley Synagogue. It is often uncomfortable for a woman to ask sensitive halachic questions of a rabbi. This removes that barrier and so enables greater observance of the area of Jewish law that relates to marriage and sexuality.

The former might be interpreted as little more than a concession to feminist elements within the US. But the latter move indicates the start of a thoughtful approach to women's communal leadership, at least in the mind of the future chief rabbi. Of particular interest is what he told the JC: "Women should be among our top educators. Women should not only be educating women, women should be educating communities." Yet any strategy must seriously question the role of the rebbetzin.

A look at recent adverts for US rabbinic vacancies reveals that communities are no longer advertising for the position of just "rabbi" but rather they are seeking "rabbi/rebbetzin couples". If on the surface it appears that communities are finally coming to grips with the need for a formally recognised female member of the rabbinic team, in reality this serves only to undermine the female leadership role. If communities recognise the importance of female leadership, what message are they conveying by limiting the job spec to women who happen to be married to rabbis?

Unlike the academic title "rabbi" - conferred on a deserving candidate upon demonstrating competence in areas of Jewish law - the title "rebbetzin" is given to any woman who happens to be married to a rabbi. It reveals nothing about the capabilities of its bearer. It is not earned but acquired.

Restricting the female component of a rabbinic team to the woman who happens to be married to the rabbi sends the wrong message. Would any self-respecting
synagogue take as its rabbi a man who just happened to be married to the rebbetzin? And if they did, what would this say about the role of rabbi?

The title 'rebbetzin' is not earned but acquired

If we are serious about female leadership we must devise a way of divorcing the role of rebbetzin from that of rabbi's spouse. We must create a job description for a female communal educator that is independent of being married to the rabbi, even if this might be true of some qualified candidates. Key qualities would include a high level of Jewish education, the ability to teach Torah in an inspirational way and the wisdom to apply it to real-life situations. Women who meet these criteria should be considered regardless of who they are married to.

In the last decade the London School of Jewish Studies' Susi Bradfield Fellowship has created a significant cohort of female scholars. While many of them teach ad hoc, we are not making the most of them as a community. Perhaps if we created formal roles for these qualified graduates, more people could benefit from their expertise and wisdom. They would also serve as positive role models for aspiring women leaders in the Orthodox community. The programme could be expanded to train yoetzot halacha and to'ennot halchati'ot; experts in Jewish divorce law who advocate on behalf of women in divorce cases.

The title "rabbi" automatically gives its holder an authoritative voice in the Jewish conversation. If the conversation is to include the voices of women, then a parallel tile - beyond the hollow "rebbetzin" - needs to be found.

This change wouldn't come cheap, since communities could no longer get a "two for one" deal. Independent women leaders would require respectable salaries reflecting their qualifications. For this reason alone some short-sighted communities may prefer the old model. But you get what you pay for and they should not be surprised when inspirational and creative community development occurs elsewhere.

Dina Brawer is a Jewish educator and the UK ambassador for the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance

Last updated: 4:27pm, January 9 2013