'This is what an Orthodox rabbi looks like' - Rabba Dina Brawer's speech to the Jofa dinner

The first British Orthodox woman to be ordained as a rabbi reveals her path to 'Orthodox feminism'

July 13, 2018 17:38

This is what an Orthodox rabbi looks like.

I did not do this for me, I did not do this for you, I did it so that somewhere a seven-year-old girl could dream of becoming an Orthodox rabbi.

My path to Orthodox feminism and studying for semichah at Yeshivat Maharat was shaped by all of you. Every question, comment, and conversation broadened my understanding and expanded my ability to empathise with the variety of women’s religious experiences.

It made me realise the need for women to enter the Orthodox rabbinate and widen the boundaries of what is possible for women in the Orthodox community.

My goal in becoming an Orthodox rabbi, was, to borrow Steven Johnson’s phrase, to open “the adjacent possible”, actualising a set of opportunities and reaching for boundaries that were until now just out of reach.

I meet so many women who are smart, talented and passionate. Women who are at the top of their fields; in art, law, medicine, science, engineering, tech.

Women who dedicate themselves to community building and improving our world. But too many of them have relegated religion to the men’s side of the mechitzah. They find their spiritual nourishment elsewhere. I want to say to all of you: your strength, your wisdom, your talent, should be for Torah.

Women accomplish so much — their contribution in every field is valued — but our Jewish religious and intellectual spaces are impoverished without your contribution.

And here I want to share with you a three-point framework that has guided me, so you may apply it in the important work that lies ahead.

One, stop using superlatives.

My decision to study for semichah may have been bold, the journey long and intense. It was both hard and exhilarating work. But I ask you not to use the superlative when speaking of my achievement — incredible, amazing. It is not helpful. It puts becoming a rabbi on a pedestal. It creates distance, and turns it into a goal attainable by only the very few. It is hard work, but it is attainable.

Two, talk it up, don’t talk it down. Do not say, it’s impossible, it will never happen or it will never happen here. Look at how much has changed since the launch of Jofa UK.

Using positive language to describe the change you envisage, you can invent a future that offers greater engagement in Torah study and leadership for women. Positive language creates a positive reality in which everything is possible.

Finally, don’t ask permission. Often we know what needs to change, we know how to enact change, but we are afraid to act without permission,from the establishment, from authority figures.

This form of paralysis is particularly problematic in this country where hierarchy is entrenched. But institutions rarely change of their own volition. Institutions protect the status quo. Waiting for the establishment to act or grant permission is futile.

Positive change usually happens from the bottom up. Let’s remember — leaders and institutions are there to serve the needs of the people.

If you are not finding the spiritual and intellectual nourishment, don’t wait for top-down change — take responsibility.

Empower yourselves through education and have informed conversations with your rabbis and communities.

Direct them toward the key questions: how can we best create an exciting and engaging Judaism for both women and men in our community?

This is an edited version of Rabba Dina’s speech to the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance dinner in London on July 8

July 13, 2018 17:38

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