My black pulpit robe has served me well in my rabbinate. It has seen me through two pregnancies and three congregations (actually six congregations if you include student biweeklies). It is older than my children. It has traveled many miles and was once lost for 6 weeks in the unclaimed luggage room at Newark Airport. Although it has been restitched countless times, the pocket lining continues to shred, allowing tissues and lozenges to make their way through the holes and become unreachably bunched up inside the bottom seam. I fear my old friend has become irreparably worn out.
When I took my first pulpit job in 1980, the new decade heralded the trend of discarding the rabbinic robe. It was too Protestant, too archaic and too removed for our more intimate time. I tentatively shared this information with the chair of the Rabbinic Search Committee in Dallas. In his memorable Texas drawl, he said, “I can handle hiring a female rabbi but I can’t handle hiring a female rabbi who doesn’t wear a robe.” That was the end of that discussion, and frankly, that was fine with me.
Wearing a robe meant not having to think about what to wear on the pulpit. That fact alone would have offered salvation to any woman living in Dallas at the time. During my five years there, I felt perpetually and inevitably underdressed. Dallas in the 80’s was the city of the accessory. My congregants shopped at Neiman Marcus (Stanley Marcus’ mother had been a devoted member of the congregation) before the store moved outside the borders of Texas. Even the saleswomen were temple members, making shopping that much more of a complicated procedure.
So the robe thankfully removed me from the congregational social competition. But more than that, it allowed the congregation to see me as a rabbi, not as a woman rabbi. The robe unified the three rabbis (two older men and I) as we stood on the pulpit. Congregants could imbue us with whatever emotional and spiritual transferences their individual psyches required. Yes, they could still see my shoes (you could write a book about how people comment on the shoes worn by female rabbis and cantors) but they were too polite in that southern way to comment to me directly. One time, a distant aunt visited Dallas and came to Shabbat services. In the receiving line, she gave me a long look and observed, “Your cousin wears a robe, too, but his is white with gold trim.” That was how I found out that my cousin had moved to the Himalayas and become a serious Buddhist.
The robe issue might seem insignificant given the challenges we face in our profession, but it is symbolic of other gender-related issues in the rabbinate. Those of us who were ordained in the early days of women in the rabbinate had high hopes that our charting the way would relieve our younger female colleagues from having to fight the same battles. We have become increasingly aware that, when it comes to the rabbinate, issues of gender run deeper than we had first thought. Eliminating the rabbinic robe might have resolved some very real theological issues but has also created new ones.
During these last few years of patching my black pulpit robe, I vowed that I would not buy a new one. If I got to that point, I knew I would have to revisit the choice of whether to wear a robe at all. And so my robe will retire from the pulpit along with me this June 30. It will be just a pulpit retirement for me, not a full retirement. But for my robe, it will mean the end of a long and satisfying career.
Rabbi Ellen Lewis (www.rabbiellenlewis.com) has a particular interest in the integration of religious and psychoanalytical concepts and has worked at developing models of clinical supervision for rabbis, cantors, and other religious professionals. In her private practice, she works with rabbis and cantors in therapy and supervision. After her ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980, she served congregations in Dallas, Texas, and Summit, New Jersey, where she was named Rabbi Honorata. Since 1994, she has been the Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey in Washington, NJ (www.jcnwj.org).
Rabbi Lewis is also a certified and licensed modern psychoanalyst in private practice in Bernardsville, New Jersey and in New York City. She received her analytical training in New York at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies (www.cmps.edu) and at present serves on the faculty of the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis (www.acapnj.org). She is a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (www.aapc.org). She can be reached via email at email@example.com or in her NJ office 908 766 7586.
One reply on “In Praise of the Rabbinic Robe”
I’ve only owned two black robes and one white during my entire career (spanning almost 44 yrs.). The first black one was an ordination gift from my student pulpit. Except for 10 yrs. in CA (1972-82), I wore it on the bimah until a yr. or 2 before I retired. The white was purchased for me during my assistantship. I wore it on the High Holy Days and Yamim Tovim for my entire career. I had to buy a second black robe during my career. Later, I had doctoral bars added when I earned my D.Min. Ellen, you brought back memories.