The ‘big book’ of women rabbis tells a grand story



Rabbi Denise Eger, center, reading Torah during her installation as CCAR president, March 16, 2015. (David A.M. Wilensky)

Rabbi Denise Eger, center, reading Torah during her installation as CCAR president, March 16, 2015. Eger contributed an essay, “Creating Opportunities for the ‘Other’: The Ordination of Women as a Turning Point for LGBT Jews,” in a new book on women rabbis. (David A.M. Wilensky)

(New Jersey Jewish Standard via JTA) — It’s a really big book.

The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate” is 776 pages, plus LVI pages of frontmatter (translated from Roman numerals and publisher’s jargon, that’s 56 pages of introductory material before page 1) and eight blank ones at the end. It’s a paperback, and the paper is thin, but still it’s massive.

When you think about it, though, it makes sense. Were it to have been printed even 30 years ago, this book about women rabbis would have been a pamphlet. But since then, women have transformed the liberal rabbinate, even as the world around them has changed. It takes at least 776 pages, plus LVI of frontmatter (but no index), to tell that story.

The book is published by the CCAR Press, which is part of the Reform movement, but its contributors look at the progress of women rabbis in all the movements. Rabba Sara Hurwitz of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, New York, who is modern Orthodox, contributed an essay, and so did a few Conservative and many Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis, mainly but not exclusively women. And not all were rabbis — JTA staffer Julie Wiener contributed an essay, too.

Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first modern American woman to be ordained, wrote the foreword, and her story recurs — as model, inspiration and, in some ways, a cautionary tale of the perils of being a pioneer — throughout the book.

Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, who heads Rabbis Without Borders for Clal, is one of the Conservative rabbis who wrote for “The Sacred Calling.” Her chapter focuses on her movement’s decision to ordain women, which followed Priesand’s 1972 ordination and the Reconstructionist Rabbi Sandy Sasso’s in 1974 by more than a decade. Amy Eilberg, the first American woman to be a Conservative rabbi, was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1985.

Sirbu thinks the concept of “the rabbi as symbolic exemplar” is a subject under discussion right now, at least in part because women’s leadership often uses a different model.

“The idea of being an exemplar traditionally is that you are set apart, but many women do leadership through relationship building, which is diametrically opposed to the theory of symbolic exemplar,” she said.

“That’s also a generational change. We have seen a real shift in that both women and men are moving away from that model, and we see it in synagogue architecture as well. The bimah used to be very high up and in the front; that is no longer the case. Now it is often in the center.”

The book is timely because of what’s going on in the world outside the rabbinate, Sirbu said.

“Women’s leadership is being discussed a lot right now, given Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency,” she said. “There are many different styles of leadership, that depend on many factors, not just gender, but it is clear to me in the work that I do that female leadership tends to be viewed differently and often is enacted somewhat differently.”

Sirbu has encountered that difference.

“I direct Rabbis Without Borders myself,” she said. “I put the whole thing together, from soup to nuts — bring in speakers, construct the curriculum, find the space, build relationships. Sometimes I do direct teaching in front of the group, but a lot of what I do is directing group activities. My style is not to be a frontal teacher, but I often bring in great, charismatic rabbis who are frontal speakers.

“Every year, I will have some male participant come up to me and say, ‘Rebecca, this is great, but why don’t you lead more? I want to hear your voice more.’ And I go, ‘Huh?’ I am mystified by that, even though I know it’s a compliment.

“And women say to me, ‘You are such a leader! You know how to put a group together, how to organize, how to get the timing right.’

“I have been doing this almost eight years now, and every year I get this comment, and every year it blows my mind.

“We are socialized to understand what leadership is. Some people understand only charismatic leadership, and others understand that there are a lot of different facets that go into making a leader. I don’t think that a man would get the same comments. Participants would be more aware that when a man does what I do, he’s leading. People expect a female rabbi to be more adept at the relationship and pastoral pieces. There are charismatic female leaders. There are men who are phenomenal at the relationship stuff.

The cover of "The Sacred Calling." (Courtesy of CCAR Press)

The cover of “The Sacred Calling.” (Courtesy of CCAR Press)

“I think we bring a lot of preconceived ideas into this realm,” Sirbu concluded.

Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr, a Reform rabbi who lives in eastern Pennsylvania, is one of the book’s editors.

“There were some topics and voices we knew we wanted in the book,” she said. “We also wanted a cross section of the generations of women rabbis. The experiences of someone in the first wave of women, when she was the only woman on campus, was a very different experience than those of us whose classes were 50 percent women and who had women professors.

“It’s funny — we often are asked how many women were in our class, as if that was the only thing we were aware of, but part of it also was who was at the helm of the institution? It was about sitting in five years of classes and never having a female professor.”

The lens through which text was read was entirely male, and therefore limited. Now there are more lenses to focus on the same text, and therefore more insights from those new vantage points to be garnered.

At first, even the most basic logistics caused problems. When women first were admitted, rabbinical schools had few bathrooms for them.

“I can’t imagine arriving on a campus where there is not a women’s bathroom on every floor,” Schorr said.

At first, the only women’s bathrooms at the schools were on the ground floors, which were open to the public.

For years, the Reform movement had been giving different ordination certificates to women and to men, Schorr said. It was Rabbi Mary Zamore, now the executive director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, whose husband noticed that the wording on the smicha certificate — the document that makes public its recipient’s status as an ordained rabbi — was different for men and women. (The men’s version says, in Hebrew, that he is “Our Teacher the Rabbi.” The women’s version says that she is “Rabbi and Teacher.”)

In 2012, 15 years after she earned smicha, she brought the disparity to the attention of the Reform movement’s leaders.

“Now it’s standardized, but it has taken all these years,” Schorr said.

“Part of the problem is that there wasn’t any intentional misogyny, but when you are dealing with people and committees, things move slowly,” she continued. “And because there is history behind the original wording, and because that wording has been handed down for all those years, my guess is that there has been deliberate conversation to hammer out what it is we really want the smicha to say. In making the women’s like the men’s, there was an opportunity to do things a little differently.”

Although the Reform movement was the first to ordain women as rabbis in North America, and although “The Sacred Calling” is a Reform movement publication, “there is no way that this book could have been complete if we did not include voices and stories from the other movements,” Schorr said.

“There is a fascinating look at the very few similarities and many differences between the moves to ordain women in the Reform and Conservative movements,” she said. That chapter, “JTS, HUC, and Women Rabbis — Redux” is by Rabbi Gary Phillip Zola.

“The Conservative movement tends to be about 15 years behind the Reform movement,” Schorr said. “Sometimes that’s a negative thing. Sometimes it’s not.

“In the case of ordaining women, the decision went backward. Sally Priesand starting taking classes at HUC, and at a certain point she said, ‘Why can’t I be ordained?’ and there was no good answer. And then Dr. Glueck of blessed memory” — that’s Dr. Nelson Glueck, who then was president of HUC — “said OK. Yeah. He did that without really going through any of the official channels or committees or anything that would have bogged it down. And then, in the aftermath, the committees and subcommittees and ad hoc committees were formed to figure it out.

“The Women of Reform Judaism had been advocating for this change for decades,” Schorr continued. “It wasn’t something that hadn’t been coming down the pike. If someone had had really good vision, they would have assumed that it would happen — it was the 1970s, and women’s lib, and it makes perfect sense that it happened when it happened — but it wasn’t heralded with much fanfare. She started classes, and, OK, she was ordained.

“And then they had to figure out how women rabbis could be hired,” as there was no plan to help them overcome congregations’ resistance to them.

“In the Conservative movement, it was a much more contentious fight,” Schorr said. “Even once the decision was made, it was not entirely accepted across the board. There were stories about synagogues that hired women to be on the bimah but always had another service where they weren’t counted. Or stories about women who could do the wedding ceremony but couldn’t sign the ketubah.

“Still, the Conservative movement approached it much more methodically. If they were going to agree to ordain women, they asked themselves, when we accept her, we have to think forward six years to whether she will be hirable. That didn’t really happen at HUC.”

And, Schorr added, “We had to have Rabba Sara Hurwitz and the maharats,” the modern Orthodox women ordained as clergy although not as rabbis at Yeshivat Maharat, the women’s yeshiva started by Rabbi Avi Weiss. “We wanted the book to reflect the entire Jewish spectrum, not just liberal Jews.”

To that end, the book begins with “a fascinating look at some Hasidic women.” The chapter, by Rabbi Renee Edelman, is “Chasidic Women Rebbes from 1749 to 1900.” “It includes the daughter of the Baal Shem Tov,” the founder of Hasidim, she said. “These women were learned and functioned as de facto rabbis. And what really made me sit up is that they were having the same struggles I have.

“It’s the calling to serve the Jewish community, and to serve God, but at the same time society is telling me or has conditioned me or expects me to be a wife and a mother. So how do I juggle it? In the 1700s, the 1800s, the 1900s, they were talking about juggling the same darn things. How do we juggle our innate desire to parent and to partner with the desire to be God’s instrument?

“These aren’t conversations that men have traditionally had in the same way, although they are starting to have them.”

Like Sirbu, Schorr believes that the presence of women rabbis, along with changing cultural expectations about the balance between work and life, “will benefit everyone.”

“There never had been conversation about family balance. Before, the mentality for male rabbis was that if you were a good, successful rabbi, you were working all the time,” Schorr said. “You had your wife, who was taking care of the home front. I can’t tell you how many male colleagues have gloated, with pride, that they had never taken a vacation day in their lives.

“That’s so unhealthy. Research has done much to substantiate the notion that we burn out. Shabbat is a wonderful time to recharge for the Jew in the pew — but not for the pulpit rabbi.”

Yes, the book is long, Schorr acknowledged.

“I recommend that people look at the section introductions. They’re a good solid overview,” she said.

Find what most interests you and jump in. In another decade or so, there will be many more chapters to add to the updated version.


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