46 Years of Women Rabbis: A Messy Miracle

The father in the delivery room has a complicated perspective. I know. I have been there twice.

Most of us know little about how our own bodies work – less still, about the physiology of the opposite sex. At childbirth classes, fathers are prepared to help with breathing; and we know that pain is involved. Most men, though, are entirely unprepared to witness all that blood and, for lack of a better term, the messiness of the whole process.

And then, we don’t talk about it, at least not if we’re wise.

Instead, we focus on the miracle. Yes, childbirth is a miracle – not supernatural, but natural; God-given all the same. Two moments in my life have no compare: Seeing each of my sons for the very first time as he emerged from his mother’s body and into the world.

We celebrate the miracle of childbirth but sublimate the messiness. And well we should – at least if we’re talking about childbirth from the father’s viewpoint.

But what if we’re talking about male rabbis’ perspective on the experience of women in the rabbinate? Strikingly similar, at least until recently.

Oh yes, we witnessed the miracles – in some ways, we caused, aided, and enabled it.

Yes, we knew that placement opportunities were not equal, at least in the first several decades.

Yes, we knew about pay disparities, or we should have known.

Many of us, though, did not see the othering, the sexual harassment and even assault. We did not see, perhaps not wanting to see, like the “Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”[i]

But we did brag about the miracle. Like so many 1950s dads, handing out cigars in hospital waiting rooms. We celebrated that “we” were first.

We rose for standing ovations. For Sally, who was first. For Janet, who was first. For Denise, who was first. And for so many others of “our” firsts.

But we did not speak of the messiness. Upon reflection, we rose to applause – not so much for Sally, for Janet, or for Denise – but for ourselves. After all, “we” were the first to welcome women into “our” rabbinic ranks.

Parashat Tzav is full of messy details about our ancestors’ sacrifices. “The blood, the fat, and the protuberance of the liver” are hard to escape.

Among those sacrifices, introduced last week in Vayikra but given purpose only in Tzav is the shlamim, or “wholeness offering.” Unlike most korbanot (sacrifices), the shlamim is unconnected to sin. Still, it’s messy.

Tamara Cohn Eskenazi teaches in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary that the shlamim was brought on festivals and to express gratitude. Its bounty is shared.[ii] Even with this celebratory korban, though, Torah is frank about “the blood, the fat, and the protuberance of the liver.” We only read about the communal celebration after slogging through the description of gory ritual.

Our teacher Naamah Kelman reminds us of Vayikra Rabah’s suggestion that the shlamim is the only sacrifice that will be offered in messianic days.[iii] Sin will end. Cause for celebration will not.

We do not live in messianic days. Sin endures. And sometimes, b’ratzon u’vishgagah, willingly or unwittingly, we are its perpetrators.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis gathers this week with many goals, not least of which is to examine the entrails to view blood and the dung that have accompanied the miracle we have seen emerge over forty-six years of women in the rabbinate.

When asked about where men’s voices belong in the “#metoo” moment, our teacher Elana Stein Hain has affirmed that every voice should be heard, while suggesting that maybe we need to “take turns.” Now is women’s turn, at least to go first.[iv]

For starters, without ignoring the important role men in Reform leadership played, we must acknowledge that women are the ones who experience the labor pains. Women have given birth to the miracle that is forty-six years of women rabbis in our Conference.

This week, let us speak frankly of the blood, the fat, and the protuberance of the liver; and let us listen attentively.

Then, may this week’s frank acknowledgements inch us closer to that day when the only korban required of us will be the shlamim, to express our boundless, and finally unfettered, gratitude.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.


[i] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11a.
[ii] Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea Weiss, editors, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008, p. 609. Cited by Naamah Kelman, “An Offering of Thanksgiving,”
[iii] Naamah Kelman, “An Offering of Thanksgiving,”
[iv] “Judaism, #metoo, and Ethical Leadership, Perspectives from the Created Equal Project,” webinar, Shalom Hartman Institute, January 24, 2018.

2 replies on “46 Years of Women Rabbis: A Messy Miracle”

no, you did not recognize all the firsts as I am never even a blimp on the radar- one of the reasons that drove me away, although I came back. As the first woman ordained in N.Y. and second overall (like Avis) I have had an awful experience with Jewish organizations and yet wonderful experiences as a corporate-500 Manager, or Executive Director of 2 foundations and Director of a Master’s program in not-for-profit organization management. I hate to say this, but Jewish organizations of all types are way behind in their thinking and policies regarding women.

Barry, very well stated–I should say, “felt” too since clearly your commentary is a meeting of mind and soul and body! Rightfully, you guide us back into the “physical ” fray of one of this portion’s essences. Drawing on classic and contemporary commentary too, you carry forward a meta message of gratitude and equality.
Thank you too for bringing to mind the superb teaching of our dear colleague Norman HIrsh who inspired us..with his essay,..”Gratitude, the quiet courage,” Journal of Reform Judaism, 1987. Continue with your own fine leadership,… with blessings for a healthy and redemptive Pesach.
Shabbat Shalom

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