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The Sacred Calling: Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling of Traditionalism

“Ultimately, I think that anyone of any level of Jewish literacy can find something in The Sacred Calling that will inspire them to see the possibilities offered by the Reform world to join this fight, and to take this fight out into the world at large.”

 

The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, newly published by CCAR Press, examines the ways in which the reality of women in the rabbinate has impacted upon all aspects of Jewish life. Andrue Kahn, rising 4th year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York and author of The Sacred Calling Study Guide, talks about the impact that both women rabbis and the book itself have made in his own life.

Q: Describe your first encounter with a woman rabbi.

A: Growing up, I don’t think I ever encountered a woman rabbi. Certainly not at my synagogue, which was a very small synagogue in Tacoma, Washington. There were women on the bimah, and cantorial soloists, and women from the congregation that would share music or words, but there was never a female rabbi. I don’t remember encountering one until I was an adult.

One woman rabbi that, since adulthood, has impacted my life is Rabbi Lisa Rubin. When I met her, I was already thinking about becoming a rabbi, but I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go to rabbinical school, or get a PhD in Jewish studies or something to that effect, and she really pushed me to apply to HUC-JIR. She married me and my wife and we remain in contact with her. She really embodies the kind of rabbinate that I want, and she’s an incredible mentor and woman.

Q: How has the presence of women rabbis influenced our Jewish communities? Do you see changes in Jewish life attributed to women entering the rabbinate?

A: I think that there was a lot of stagnation in the Jewish world for a while because people, and especially people in leadership positions, had become comfortable in their roles. I think the experience of being a woman in America pushes women to work harder, think harder, and, unfortunately, to prove themselves in a world that is still mostly dominated by men.  And women, having to fight to break into this world dominated by men, broke boundaries and stirred up new innovation that the people who were in seats of power (who were all men) wouldn’t have done. And having to break through that glass ceiling of traditionalism made it inherent that they become more creative, and more comfortable with breaking boundaries.

Q: You wrote the study guide for The Sacred Calling. How is the book structured?

A: The structure of The Sacred Calling is really great in that it starts out looking at the history of women in Judaism in general. It examines women who attempted to and often succeeded in taking leadership roles in Jewish history, and then goes on to look at the process of allowing women to become rabbis from within the Reform Movement. Eventually, it examines the process from within the Conservative and Reconstructionist Movements. From different women’s points of view, we read the stories of the initial struggles of the past, as well of women who are still struggling with inequality in the rabbinate (in both pay and leadership positions).

Q: What surprised you about the book? Did you learn something you didn’t know before?

A: Reading about the influence of Reform rabbis on ritual was really, really interesting and surprising, in that I had never thought about the fact that women who would break through the boundary of becoming a clergy member would, of course, also have to fight to have their needs met in Jewish ritual and liturgy. Because of this fight, breaking boundaries would create this great blossoming in our nation that we’re still benefiting from. Just the idea of having to reinvent everything to suit underrepresented voices allowed for innovations in different kinds of rituals.

Q: What do you believe is the importance of the book?

A: For me personally, the importance of The Sacred Calling is that I, as a man, take so much for granted, and therefore assume that the struggles presented in the book aren’t as present as they clearly are. Women still struggle against a male-dominated society. And it might happen a little less obviously, but there are still issues specifically faced by women that men don’t often get to hear about in the detail that we find in this book. I also think that it could be very powerful for women in the rabbinate and outside the rabbinate to read the stories, and to know that there are people facing these issues. This book is full of stories of women who have had these kinds of experiences, from ancient times to today (when we are still fighting against issues with family leave, equal pay, and even just daily sexism).

The Sacred Calling Study Guide

Andrue Kahn, a rising 4th year rabbinical student, is doing a student residency at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle, and in the coming year he will be the organizing rabbinic intern at East End Temple in Manhattan.

Excerpted from the filming of the official trailer for The Sacred Calling. Watch the official trailer now.

Categories
gender equality

Definitions of Feminism

By all accounts, I was the least likely person to edit a book about women rabbis. Until recently, I recoiled at the very thought of being considered a feminist. “I am an equalist,” I would argue whenever anyone suggested otherwise. To me, being a feminist required an automatically-renewing subscription to Ms. Magazine (and/or Lilith for those of the Mosaic persuasion), a library filled with Erica Jong, Betty Friedan, Simone De Beauvior, and Naomi Wolf, and a predisposition to sense misogyny lurking beneath every statement uttered by a man. When I was invited to join the Women’s Rabbinic Network (WRN), I declined. I had found the gatherings too strident for my taste. (Plus I was certain they would kick me out for my non-feminist sensibilities.)

I grew up in a shul that embraced egalitarianism even before that became a watchword of the Reform movement. In 1983, just ahead of being called to Torah as a bat mitzvah, I asked my parents about wearing a tallit, which was not the custom at the time. Not because it wasn’t permitted – but because no one had ever given it much thought. Once the issue was raised, it became minhag. Our shul’s liturgy included the matriarchs, and women were granted the same access to Torah, learning, and every other aspect of communal Jewish life as the men. Our rabbi happened to be male and our cantor happened to be female and at no time did it occur to me or my classmates that gender had anything to do with their positions. To say the gender issues was not on my radar would be an accurate assessment.Sacred Calling cover

During my second year at HUC, a prominent woman rabbi came to speak to our Practical Rabbinic class. She was among the first generation of women rabbis and, having grown up in the Conservative Movement, had experienced a great deal of gender bias both personally and professionally. She talked about the institutional misogyny that existed in Judaism and how women were kept out of the story by patriarchal leadership dating back to Talmudic times. When I explained that my experience had been very different, she told me that I was suffering from so much trauma that I had clearly blocked out my own pain and sense of disenfranchisement. I wondered if forgotten marginalization still counted and the answer, from the aforementioned rabbi, was a resounding yes.

As many women rabbinical students before and after me, I was routinely asked to speak to synagogues and at other venues about what it was like to be a female rabbinic student. Each invitation rankled. I did not want to qualify my experience based solely on my gender; I wanted to talk about being a rabbinical student. Stam. And so I would begin each talk with “Since I’ve only ever been a woman, my rabbinical school experience is both all about being a women and nothing about being a women. And I can only pray that the day may come when we no longer need to have this conversation.”

More than twenty years have passed since I began rabbinical school. Sadly, that day has still not come. Over the years, people have said things to me that they would NEVER say to one of my male colleagues. Women rabbis make less than our male counterparts. And other types of institutional gender bias does still exist.

In immersing myself in The Sacred Calling over these past few years prior to publication, my own definition of feminism has been radically altered. I carry with me the myriad stories about the women who struggled to find their place in the chain of our Rabbinic tradition, the many positive changes that have occurred in contemporary liberal Judaism as a result, and the necessary work required to bring about full equality for all those who have a place within our sacred community. While my childhood did not, as it turns out, cause any trauma, I can no longer reject the Truth of other people’s experiences. We are, and have always been, a part of the narrative. The Sacred Calling is one way to ensure that our stories are heard; I invite you to read it and share it with your community.

By the way, I am now a card-carrying member of the WRN, and eagerly anticipate each new issue of Lilith.

Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is the editor of The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate.