Rabba attacks ‘brain drain’ of women

Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz has encountered 'so many women who are very unhappy' with their place in Jewish religious life


Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz, the Orthodox academic who was dropped by the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS) after she obtained rabbinical ordination from the New York-based Yeshivat Maharat, has opened up about what she sees as the “tragic” alienation of women in the Jewish world.

The renowned college parted company with Rabba Dr Taylor-Guthartz because Yeshivat Maharat’s ordination of Orthodox women is not recognised by much of the Orthodox world, including the LSJS president, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.

Rabba Taylor-Guthartz talked of encountering “so many women who are very unhappy” with their place in Jewish religious life. Referring to the 1994 Preston Report on women in the community — which came to the same conclusion — she observed that today, too many women are saying “the whole religious thing is not for me. They feel excluded, marginalised”.

When the rabba did the research for her first book in 2016, she found women still echoing what had been said in the Preston Report, and the feeling that nothing had changed.

The alienation of women, Rabba Taylor-Guthartz said, “is tragic on so many levels” and has led to “an almost invisible brain drain”. And she noted that the lockdowns of the past year have led to a noticeable growth in women’s participation in online services. “That’s the question that some research is asking now: if women aren’t given any ritual opportunities in shul, and are made to feel like spectators, maybe they will migrate to places which give them more spiritual satisfaction”, she said.

Her abrupt exit from LSJS was “such a shame”, she said.

“I loved teaching at LSJS, and I had lots of students there that I was very, very fond of, people who I have taught for 10 or more years and who came back again and again”.

Nevertheless, the newly-titled Rabba Taylor-Guthartz said she was “very grateful” to the college.

She said: “They did nourish me. I did the Susi Bradfield course (for Jewish women educators) there, they paid the fees for my Ph.D — I am really very grateful to them. It’s just a shame. But now I really want to focus on what comes next, because that’s the exciting bit.”

Reacting to the messages of support for her ordination, the rabba said: “It was actually very humbling. I did not expect as many as those who signed the advert. And I was flabbergasted by some of the names”.

Rabba Taylor-Guthartz’s first book was about the religious lives of Orthodox Jewish women. “Limmud (the annual Jewish education festival) came up a lot in my research, so now I am doing a history of Limmud for my second book. I’m a research fellow at Manchester University, and I’ll be working at the Centre for Jewish Studies at Manchester. It’s so exciting”.

Two years ago, she set up her “Pop-Up Midrash”, aimed at teaching young people classical Jewish texts, her particular speciality. “I made it cross-communal because I know that younger people don’t have patience for denominational boundaries. So I thought, that’s something I can do, it’s a gap I can fill”.

Since then, Rabba Taylor-Guthartz has used the Pop-Up Midrash for a series of innovative education events, ranging from “Ruth and Soup” in which soup was the accompaniment to the study of the Biblical text, to sessions with female scribe Aviella Barclay. She plans to continue, and last year began to work on a project on marking the High Holy Days at home when the pandemic made it impossible to people to attend synagogue.

Both her experience of her three years of study at Yeshivat Maharat and anecdotal discussion has led Rabba Taylor-Guthartz to two main conclusions.

The first is that the Anglo-Jewish community has “under-invested in young people’s education, primarily language skills,” she said.

“I teach a lot of batmitzvah girls. When the girl’s parents tell me proudly, ‘she can read Hebrew’, I usually discover that means she can read most of the alphabet, some of the vowels, and has no comprehension of what she’s reading.

“In the States, if you say of a girl ‘she can read Hebrew’, it means she can read a book in Hebrew. So the level of Jewish education is pretty low. And we know this because when British kids go to yeshiva or to sem (seminary) in Israel, they often end up in the remedial class, to allow them to catch up with their American peers”.

The situation, she said, has led to her major desire “to try to improve the availability of learning textual skills so that people don’t have to run off to Israel or America. At the moment we’re playing catch-up. For people who aren’t part of the Charedi world, there’s nowhere to learn.”

Rabba Taylor-Guthartz’s second conclusion was that British Jews are “going through a period of change”, particularly women.

With a great hoot of laughter, she admitted that she was not a member of any congregation in the UK. “I’m still a member of my Jerusalem shul, Yedidya,” she said. She lived in Israel for 17 years and met her journalist husband, Norm Guthartz, while doing copy-reading stints at the Jerusalem Post. A Cambridge graduate in archaeology, she worked for the Israeli Antiquities Authority and was one of four archaeological translators in the country.

To date, Rabba Taylor-Guthartz is one of five women in the UK who have graduated, or are studying at, Yeshivat Maharat. Two others, Ramie Smith and Eryn London, have smicha; Miriam Lorie has completed her first year, and another unnamed woman is beginning the course.

“I want to expand and be a resource for people”, she said, adding that there are many women who would much rather speak to a woman on a point of Jewish law than approach a male rabbi.

With her trademark grin, Rabba Taylor-Guthartz said she takes her inspiration from Heineken: “I want to reach the parts of the community others can’t reach”.

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