Keren David

The bar on female rabbis is about economics

The men in authority use halacha as an excuse — they are really protecting their position


Vector illustration of a woman symbol surrounded by men symbols in a repeating pattern against a purple background.

July 15, 2021 15:56

My grandmother was a teacher in the Rhondda Valley in the 1920s. She married at 27 — and was immediately dismissed. The argument was that in a time of unemployment, women should not take jobs that could be done by men. The ‘marriage bar’ in teaching wasn’t lifted until 1944.

Such sexist thinking is generally thought to have been eliminated. Grandma was proud to see her grand-daughters take our places in the workplace — she’d have been even prouder to know that one of her great-grand-daughters is a teacher.

But alas, the world of Orthodox Judaism lags well behind on women’s equality.

Take the case, a few years ago, when Israel’s Supreme Court was called upon to rule on whether women could become kashrut supervisors. Clearly, Orthodox women are completely capable of supervising kashrut — they are, after all, generally the people who maintain kosher kitchens in the home. The halacha is clear, women are not banned in any way from kashrut supervision.

But when the Israeli social welfare organisation Emunah started a scheme to train women to work as supervisors, the Israeli rabbinate refused to issue certificates, simply ignoring the request to do so.

Happily, the petition to the Supreme Court worked its magic and Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi decreed that women could after all become kashrut supervisors. And then, no doubt, went home to a delicious kosher meal, cooked by his womenfolk in an impeccably kosher kitchen.

I suspect that the rabbinate’s unease came simply from a fear of social change. When you are part of a deeply conservative organisation, dedicated to keeping things as they have been for generations, any change can feels threatening.

But it is also undeniably the case that allowing women to be kashrut supervisors could remove a useful source of income from the men currently doing the job — or at least create more competition for them in the future.

I imagine that the recent decision in this country to draw a boundary in the case of women studying to be Orthodox rabbis wasn’t consciously made on economic grounds — it was more likely to have been a kneejerk reaction from those whose instinct is to preserve ancient traditions.

And yet, the economics can’t be ignored. When a woman studies to take semicha, she threatens the status quo. And that status quo involves jobs for the boys.

Just imagine a situation where we had scores of British Orthodox women studying to become rabbis. The competition for jobs in teaching, in pastoral care, in informal education would be far greater.

This is even more true in the UK — where our community is small — than in Israel and the US. There, women rabbis have been able to find jobs within Modern Orthodox communities. They aren’t leading services, they are doing almost everything else that a male rabbi would do. But here, the atmosphere feels more hostile, more closed.

Just as my grandmother was sacked upon her marriage, the authorities at the London School of Jewish Studies waited for the eve of Dr Lindsey Taylor-Gurhartz taking semicha in order to tell her she could no longer continue as a Reseach Fellow there. A happy event, deserving of congratulations, was overtaken by a harsh judgment. And although there has been a climb down, and Dr Taylor-Gurhartz has been reinstated, the core problem has not been resolved.

It is a great shame, I think. Dr Taylor-Guthartz herself has researched Orthodox women’s attitudes towards their Judaism. “Orthodox women do not seek to overthrow or combat the system as a whole,” she said, back in March when her book Challenge and Conformity was launched, “but rather seek to negotiate an expanded role within it”.

What might the result be if there were an expanded role for women like her? Perhaps more women would be attracted to Modern Orthodoxy if it looked a little more like the outside world which they navigate every day. Perhaps they would have more confidence that their daughters might want to remain Jewish? I talk to women all the time who have left the traditional Anglo-Jewish world of their childhoods. They got tired waiting for things to change — even though things have changed. The pace of change, the tone of it, just wasn’t enough.

My grandma never got her job as a teacher back. Instead she spent many years running a draper’s shop in the village. She brought up three sons. She crocheted glorious blankets.

But she was always a thwarted teacher. When I think of the generations of pupils that she could have inspired, I am sickened by the waste of talent and work. All for the sake of preserving a male-dominated status quo.

July 15, 2021 15:56

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