Why aren't women viewed as 'proper' rabbis?

Until Regina Jonas, many women studied but none took away more than a certificate that qualified them to teach Judaic studies

May 28, 2015 15:03

In the Bible, the number 40 is code for "a very long time". Years marked in tranches of 40 are also times of trial or probation. Forty years ago Jackie Tabick was ordained as the first woman rabbi in the UK. Forty years before that, in 1935, Regina Jonas was ordained privately in Germany.

Before Jonas, there had been other women who achieved the scholarship required to function as a rabbi, and there were a number who had sought to be ordained as rabbis and failed. The question about women's ordination was asked yet never answered, responded to instead with ridicule or outrage or dissembling. Even where there appeared to be a rabbinic will to ensure religious equality, somehow this never got past the ideological stage. The father of German Reform Judaism, Abraham Geiger, called for equality for women as long as it did not transgress "the natural laws governing the sexes", while those who left Germany to develop Reform Judaism in the US also called for full religious emancipation for women but failed to discuss the measures needed.

Until Regina Jonas, many women studied but none took away more than a certificate that qualified them to teach Judaic studies. Jonas was different. Formidably determined, with no status to lose either within the Jewish world or the rapidly disintegrating secular environment, she pushed and pushed, writing her thesis on the question "May a woman hold rabbinic office?" And having examined the rabbinic literature, concluding "Almost nothing halachically but prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office".

Jonas studied at the Berlin Hochshule, where a number of teachers at both Leo Baeck College in London and Hebrew Union College in the US had trained. They must have been aware of her and her struggle to overcome the prevailing culture that mitigated against the early ideology of Reform Judaism, and yet they never spoke of her. They didn't tell us of her semicha, or her work as rabbi and teacher in Berlin albeit not in the synagogue setting. After her death in Theresienstadt she vanished into history until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of archives, ironically to be rescued by Dr Katerina von Kellenbach, a Christian researcher who had written on anti-Jewish themes in feminist theology.

In the daughter seminaries of the Hochshule, women came to study, but fell by the wayside before reaching ordination. It is noticeable that Sally Priesand and Jackie Tabick, the two women first ordained in the US and in the UK, were women who entered their respective seminaries unsure that they would be seeking semicha, women who were by nature private and introspective people, who chose ordination after beginning their studies. Somehow it seemed they flew under the radar, not challenging the rabbinic faculty, not interested in what Priesand called "the unbelievable and almost unbearable pressures of being the first woman rabbi", and possibly because of their unconfrontational natures they found themselves at the end of their studies with the majority of their teachers willing to give them ordination - though this was not unanimous.

Both became associate rabbis in large synagogues and both left after serving well and faithfully when it became clear they would not become the Senior Rabbi. As Sally Priesand said, she believed "ability, sincerity and dedication would outweigh gender" but she learned that "competence and commitment are enough for a man, but not for a woman". There was certainly a view among the pioneering women rabbis in this country that we had to work extra hard to justify our desire to enter the rabbinate, though this fear has weakened over time.

So has the Jewish world come to terms with women rabbis? In the non-Orthodox world women rabbis are a fact of life. Leo Baeck College has ordained 52 women for progressive movements around the world, HUC many more. In the UK, women are the Senior Rabbis of both the flagship synagogues for Reform and Liberal Judaism, both Rabbinic bodies are chaired by women rabbis, the Leo Baeck College Principal is a woman as is the Senior Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism. And Rabbi Jackie Tabick is the Convenor of the Reform Beit Din. So it looks good for women – but...

Comments are still made about the bodies of women on the bimah, as are derogatory remarks about the feminisation of the Rabbinate, about women not having the authority or gravitas of men. More worryingly there is still a view that there can be "too many women", and here the fact that women have risen to prominent roles is seen as a negative rather than a positive phenomenon. More than one person suggested to me that celebrating the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the first woman rabbi in the UK might not be a good idea as it would "draw attention to the number of women in senior roles".

Colleagues tell anecdotes showing that for those who are familiar with women rabbis, the phenomenon is unremarkable, but for those who have not been so exposed it remains alien and "not quite right". People still ask for a male rabbi for their life-cycle events, or comment when there is more than one woman rabbi at a service, or tell male rabbis that they are pleased to have a "real" rabbi.

Forty years is just over one generation. It has certainly been a testing time for the women blazing this trail. It's time to see the role of rabbi as fit for both women and men of ability, sincerity and dedication.

May 28, 2015 15:03

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