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Gender and the Rabbinate: Difficult Issues

In the final session of the recent two-day CCAR conference on “Gender: Difficult Issues,” there were no epiphanies.  Instead, we acknowledged that while gender is more fluid than we had once thought, it also can seem more intransigent.  As we talked, we concluded that looking at these difficult issues requires a multi-layered approach to gender.

In the early days of women in the rabbinate, most of us thought that once the novelty wore off, people would relate to male and female rabbis in similar ways. Now we know that they do and yet they don’t.  A story will illustrate. I think of the time I ran into our colleague Rabbi Howie Jaffe in the local supermarket. Two congregants of his passed by and commented on what a terrific guy he was (and he is!), helping out his wife by shopping for her in the middle of the workday.  I remember saying to him, “You know, if you were a  female rabbi, they would have walked past and said to each other, ‘You see? You hire a woman and she’s at the store instead of being at the Temple.’”

This idle comment reflects the deepest layer of gender attitudes and perhaps the one that offers us the greatest challenges.  It reflects the fantasies that exist in the unconscious primitive mind.  In this part of the brain, the Mother Rabbi as the source of unconditional love is enshrined in a way that the Father Rabbi is not.  The Father Rabbi may elicit a desire to feel protected and guided, but when you cry – and sometimes before you cry – it is the Mother you turn to for comfort and sustenance.  The only problem is that no one ever has the perfect mother.  Some are lucky and have a mother who is “good enough” (the idea that the mother only needs to be “good enough” to raise a healthy child is a concept offered by the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott).  Real mothers come too late or too early and offer too much or not enough.  So real children necessarily feel deprived and, by extension, so do adult congregants who unknowingly respond to those emotional triggers.  The Father Rabbi in the supermarket might make you feel safe and cared for, while the Mother Rabbi sparks your old feelings of deprivation by putting her family’s needs ahead of yours.

These responses to rabbinic gender aren’t as neat as I make it appear in this story. People can develop a mother transference to a male rabbi or a father transference to a female rabbi. But for this moment in time, it gives us a way of thinking about how our gender affects our rabbinates, what our gender arouses in the people we serve, and what gender inspires in us.  Because these attitudes about gender are unconscious, they aren’t available to us and people aren’t aware they are acting on fantasy. To them, in that moment, it feels real.

Knowing that gender triggers these deep fantasies can help us grasp the practical implications and guide us in our responses. One implication has to do with rabbinic comings and goings. People who are sensitive to deprivation often react strongly to rabbinic absence, whether a long absence when the rabbi goes on vacation or a shorter absence when the rabbi goes to her child’s soccer game instead of going to the bar mitzvah luncheon.  While it is important for rabbis to spend time with our families and to have time to ourselves, we need to think carefully about how we present those needs to our congregations and constituents. It would be nice to think that they want us to lead whole balanced lives and that they are thrilled when we spend time recharging, but even members who have the general appreciation that rabbis have personal needs are likely to feel specifically deprived if their personal event is sacrificed for rabbinic personal happiness.  If you say, “I can’t officiate at your baby naming on that day because my son has a soccer game,” you are more likely to trigger deprivation and anger than if you say, “I wish I could officiate on that day but I am not available.  How about the following Sunday?”

Another implication – this for more discussion another time – has to do with contract negotiation.  Negotiating with a congregant who (unconsciously) yearns for your unconditional love will be highly charged.  Contracts are by definition conditional.  For some members, negotiating with you is like having to pay mother for her love.  And there are also the feelings (often also unconscious) that we bring to these interactions.  Are we wishing for unconditional love ourselves when we negotiate?  Or are we so afraid of wounding our congregants that we hesitate about getting our own needs met, leaving us the ones feeling deprived?

“Gender: Difficult Issues” was an apt title for our two-day conversation.  It was only the beginning of an ongoing conversation we need to have with ourselves, each other, and our leadership.

Rabbi Ellen Lewis ( 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 (  

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 ( and at present serves on the faculty of the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis (  She is a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors ( She can be reached via email at or in her NJ office 908 766 7586.



One reply on “Gender and the Rabbinate: Difficult Issues”

Ellen, there is so much here that I have now read this multiple times. New insight on a congregant who is giving me a particularly difficult time at the moment . . ! Many many thansk!

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