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Books Ethics gender equality Mussar Torah

Diversity Not for Its Own Sake: Lessons from One Book

Rabbi Barry H. Block just published his new book, The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life with CCAR Press. His mussar-based anthology offers commentary and analysis of each of the 54 weekly parashot, juxtaposed with one of the mussar middot, and is available for purchase now. An excerpt from The Mussar Torah Commentary is available on Ravblog.

Below, Rabbi Block shares his personal reflections on diversity and the impact that a chorus of unique voices and perspectives has had on this compelling new collection of Jewish perspectives on Torah and mussar.

Distinguished rabbinic colleagues who wrote cover blurbs for my new book, The Mussar Torah Commentary, reference the diversity of the book’s contributors in their kind words about the volume. When I saw one mention of diversity, I was pleased. After all, I had referenced the importance of the contributors’ diversity in the book’s introduction. When I saw that so many of these “cover blurb” writers mentioned diversity that they had to be edited to limit repetition, I decided they might be on to something deeper than I had previously considered.

When I first proposed The Mussar Torah Commentary, submitting my own offering on Parashat Vayeishev, I asked Rabbi Hara Person, Publisher of CCAR Press and now our CCAR Chief Executive, whether I should write the entire book or invite a different author to write on each parashah. She explained CCAR Press’s preference for the latter: As the publishing arm of our Reform rabbinical association, CCAR Press often seeks to include multiple authors in any given volume, amplifying the voices of many CCAR members—and often, contributors from beyond the Reform rabbinate.

From previous conversations with Hara, I knew that the goal of achieving gender diversity among contributors was often a challenging task, not from lack of invitations but because in her experience men are more likely to accept an invitation to contribute than women (I will leave the analysis of this to others to elaborate on elsewhere). I was mindful of this reality when inviting contributors for The Mussar Torah Commentary. If my desired end result would be a book written by as many women as men, and it was, I knew I would need to invite more women than men to contribute. Fully 60% of my initial invitations were to women.

Still, I wasn’t as aware then as I am now of why that diversity, as well as other aspects of the diversity of the book’s contributors, would be important.

Shortly after the first meeting of the book’s Editorial Advisory Committee, Rabbi Pam Wax reached out to me to discuss the way that women have been marginalized in the world of Mussar. I was already aware that our book could be the first in the Mussar world to be written by more women than men. I also knew that women who are far more knowledgeable Mussar students than I, notably including Pam, have not consistently gained deserved recognition as skilled Mussar teachers.

Each member of the diverse Editorial Advisory Committee suggested colleagues who might write for the book. Several of Pam’s suggestions were affiliated with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS). When I wrote to Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, then Executive Director of IJS, to invite her contribution, she informed me that her approach to tikkun middot (soul repair) tends to be based in Chasidic texts, rather than those that emanate from the traditional world of Mussar. She asked if that approach would be welcome in The Mussar Torah Commentary. I assured Lisa that I was eager for the volume to include diverse approaches. Ultimately, I asked her to write an introductory essay, explaining her approach, which is reflected in several commentaries in the book.

On Erev Shabbat Chayei Sarah, I held the actual book in my hands for the first time. Yes, I had the full manuscript in electronic form for a while already, and I had read each commentary multiple times during the editing process. Still, only with the book in hand am I able to see the “forest” that those cover blurb writers saw, rather than the “trees” on which I was focused earlier.

I suspect that only a woman, and probably only one a generation younger than I, could have written the modern midrash that makes Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz’s contribution on Parashat Chayei Sarah so compelling. Only a longtime military chaplain could’ve written about moral injury in the way that Rabbi Bonnie Koppel does in her offering for Parashat Ki Tavo. Pieces by HUC-JIR faculty and administrators—Rabbi David Adelson, DMin; Rabbi Lisa Grant, PhD; and Rabbi Jan Katzew, PhD—reflect their roles as teachers of future rabbis and other Jewish professionals, whether implicitly or explicitly. I purposefully invited cantors, Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot and Cantor Chanin Becker, to write about Parashat B’shalach and Parashat Haazinu, each of which has a shir, i.e., a poem or a song, at its center. I was not disappointed: Their cantorial voices sing in their commentaries. The fact that Rabbi Brett Isserow has recently retired is resonant in his commentary on Parashat Va-y’chi.

Younger and older, male and female, straight contributors and members of the LGBTQ community; Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox; working in congregations and in a variety of other settings; actively employed, retired, and on disability: The diverse authors of The Mussar Torah Commentary have proven that Hara was right, as usual. A book whose voices are many and varied will hold within its covers a wide range of compelling perspectives, offering readers a more complete view of Torah and the world.

The lessons of diversity offered by The Mussar Torah Commentary are not merely about one book, or even all anthologies. As we construct our world—our organizations, our circles of friends, our government, and more—our lives will be richer when we encourage people with a variety of life circumstances and experiences to lead and teach us.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A Houston native and graduate of Amherst College, Rabbi Block was ordained by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in 1991after studying at its Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York campuses, and he received his DD, honoris causa, in 2016. Block currently serves as faculty dean at URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp, a role he held for twenty-one years at URJ Greene Family Camp. Block is the editor of the newly released book The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.

Categories
gender equality

See Something, Say Something: Having the Courage to Name It

As a rabbi, who also happens to be a woman, I am living through an unprecedented time, recognizing that I have the honor of standing on the shoulders of giants, those clergy who have paved the way for me to gain access to the rabbinate relatively easily. They fought some of the hardest won battles, proving that women are equally as capable of being great rabbis. There was never any question that I would have the opportunity to serve as a rabbi to a community, and instead, I have the privilege of worrying about the variety of struggles that we, as women rabbis face, particularly when it comes to the implicit biases surrounding gender.

I was particularly reminded of this recently, when I sat with some of our lay leaders discussing a potential business opportunity – a relatively new preschool had approached us about renting some of our classroom space. As we entered into the conversation, the topic of the school’s viability arose and almost immediately began to focus on the gender of the two founders, both of whom happen to be young moms. I sat there watching the conversation volley back and forth, noticing a common repetitive trope, “Are these young moms really capable of creating a successful school?” It became clear, as the conversation continued, that this was not so much of a question as it was a negative mark against the founders of this business endeavor, as if to say that young women were not capable of running a business, but others may be.

As a woman, I often find myself questioning whether it is the right moment to speak up, carrying around with me centuries-old baggage of both explicit and implicit biases. I wonder if others might think that I am upset because I am a woman, or because I am young, or perhaps because I am a younger woman rabbi. In the middle of our conversation, I finally burst out, “Can we please stop referring to these two individuals as young women?!”  After a moment of stunned silence, the people around our table resumed the conversation, now referring to these two individuals as the entrepreneurs or school founders. Underneath my exasperation was the understanding that the conversation had, unintentionally, turned to capability based on gender, rather than any measurable data. They saw the implicit bias that had crept up in the heat of the moment, immediately altering the way in which they referred to the school’s founders.

During my time in rabbinical school and in the rabbinate, I have had countless encounters in which a gender bias is clearly present – comments on looking younger than my age, being called a “chick” while leading text study, or remarks about the way in which I style my hair; each time I have to weigh whether it is worth it to call out the bias or let it pass. With each comment, I ask myself whether my calling out the bias will result in a change of opinion or behavior. If I believe that my calling out the bias will result in a change, then I point it out, as I did with our lay leaders.

I know that it is not always easy, nor effortless, to figure out the best way to highlight the implicit biases that still exist within our communities. But it is only with our constant conversation and the courage to point out the implicit bias that we will pave the way for the next generation of rabbis and leaders.    


Rabbi Jessica Wainer serves Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston, VA.  

Categories
News

Why Requesting the “Male” Rabbi Just Isn’t Acceptable Anymore (if it ever was)

The email arrived Thursday morning – a couple set to be married on Sunday was in desperate need of an officiant. Their rabbi had a medical emergency and could no longer perform the ceremony.  A friend had forwarded the query – could anybody help?

It seemed clear from the wording that any rabbi – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox would work.   Never one to not do my best and knowing a couple of rabbis in the town where the ceremony was to be held, I reached out to see if they were available.  It was only upon speaking to one of them that I learned a key element of the request had been missing. The request was for a male rabbi.  As it turned out, the couple or their family had made inquiries and it had been made clear – they were in search of a male rabbi who could perform the ceremony.

I was a little more than ticked off.  I was mad. Pretty mad. A female rabbi was insufficient, even when a family was in a pinch because their original choice had a medical emergency,

There wasn’t much I could do with my anger.  I informed my friend and the other rabbis who received the original request as to what had happened.  I think I wanted company in my anger.

That led to a fascinating exchange with a close friend who is, like me, a female rabbi. The conversation made me realize that although this example may seem like a little deal to some, it actually has lasting implications for the equity of female clergy in our movement and in our country. 

When a couple, or in some cases, their parents, ask for a male rabbi to perform a wedding ceremony, the result is that clergy as women become invisible, and are viewed as less than.  Even though the intention may not be present, the impact is no different.  This is so much more than hurting an individual woman’s feeling.  This is about an injury to women as a class of people, women as rabbis, or women as cantors.  In the business world, we call this sexual discrimination.  In the congregational world, some call it “individual religious freedom.”

I would add that I also have no tolerance for the family who asks for the female rabbi to do the bat mitzvah, or the funeral.  There is no special magic either gender, or non-binary individuals, receive  during that moment of ordination at the Ark.  We are who we are, equally capable in our abilities to preside at liminal, sacred moments of our people no matter the biology or gender identification we carry.

Allow me for a moment to inject some discomfort here – particularly for the reader who may still not be convinced.  I would like you to replace the binary of male/female and replace it with white/black or straight/gay.  Imagine someone calling up and asking that the white rabbi do the ceremony, and not the Jew of Color rabbi.  Imaging someone calling up and saying, ‘I don’t want the gay rabbi to do our son’s wedding.’  The answer seems obvious, doesn’t it? 

Sometimes our jobs as clergy is to listen to our people, and sometimes our job as clergy is to be truth-tellers, even when it might be hard for them to hear.   The next time you, or your colleague, or your congregation receives a request for the male rabbi, please consider saying some version of the following:  “I would really love to help you, but fulfilling that request would require me to go against my values of gender equity and seeing people in their wholeness as a human being, and not simply by their biology. I hope we can help you in the future.”

And the beautiful nechemta (comforting ending ) to the story with which I began – the couple were successfully married on Sunday, by an able and accomplished female rabbi, fairly pregnant with her first child.  I don’t know what the reaction was to that visual. My hope and prayer is that in that moment, a taste of redemption could be felt by all those in the room. 

Rabbi Esther L. Lederman is the Director of Congregational Innovation at the URJ and sits on the CCAR Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate.

Categories
gender equality

I Am a Woman, and I Have Gender Bias

Far too often, members of congregational search committees say they don’t need to worry about gender bias because they have women on the committee. Yet most of us, including women, carry implicit gender bias.   It is implicit because it remains unexpressed. The more we are aware of our biases, the more we can address the challenge. When they remain hidden, there is very little we can do to tackle them.

Back in 2008, when then Republican presidential candidate John McCain nominated Governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate, I was very critical of the choice, and not because she had limited government experience. I simply didn’t believe that a mother of five children, especially when the youngest was living with a disability, could handle the job. I eventually shifted my thinking, thanks to numerous conversations with friends. I realized I would have never argued that a father of five couldn’t manage a high-level political job. It was the first time I was aware I carried gender bias, one that negatively impacted my view of what jobs mothers could do. My gender bias had been implicit until it became explicit, thanks to dialogue, conversations, and a openness to challenge my thinking.

There may have been several reasons why I held such a bias in the first place. At the time, I carried some ambivalence to becoming a mother, worried that being a mother would hold back my career ambitions. I didn’t understand how in many ways, working mothers are eminently qualified for their jobs because they are mothers. In addition, there is a cultural norm that it is ok to negatively judge other women when they make choices you wouldn’t for yourself. Of this, I am guilty.

Why do we as a Movement need to care about implicit gender bias?

The mission of the Union for Reform Judaism is to build a world of justice, wholeness, and compassion. We will not be successful at achieving this without an awareness of how our gender biases affect our ability to build that world.

We will not build a world of wholeness if we implicitly believe that mothers are not able to do the same work that fathers can, especially as senior rabbis of congregations.

We will not build a world of justice if those same gender biases affect our ability to pay mothers and women in general at an equal level that we pay fathers and men.

Compassion is defined as the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. We will not build a world of compassion if we are not conscious of the degree to which being a woman, or being a mother, is seen as a disadvantage in the congregation, and doing what we can to change that. This requires rethinking what we consider the qualities we want in a leader, as well as the prior experiences we expect. We often discount the experiences of parenting, for example, as a job qualification, or look for qualities, like gravitas, that we don’t associate with women.

There is no way to avoid having implicit biases. We all have them. Our aim is to become aware of them and call ourselves out as we recognize them. I recently had to call myself out again.

It was Friday evening. My friend Josh, a rabbi in our congregation, and I found ourselves chatting while the kids ran around. Josh and his wife have three young children, and he was sharing how his wife Nani was away on a work trip for a few days. I asked, “Did your mom come down to help?”

As soon as it was out of my mouth, I realized I was guilty. Guilty of an assumption that feeds into the beast that is gender bias. I needed to name it, more for myself than for my friend. “Josh,” I said, “I feel terrible. If Nani were standing right here, and she had told me that you were away on a work trip for a few days, I never would have asked her if your mom had come down to help. I would just have assumed she could handle it, because she is the mom.”

I made an assumption that a father is less well-qualified to take care of his children, especially because he had a job as a congregational rabbi. This job requires evening work, and Shabbat responsibilities. How would he handle that if his spouse was not around to help? What was even stranger is that I had been in those exact same shoes myself, as a working mother with bimah responsibilities only a few years before!

How does this implicit assumption hurt women in our congregations, in particular the future rabbis and cantors we may hire to lead? If we assume a father is less well-qualified to take care of his children, what leaps of imagination do we have to do when faced with a mother who wants to become the next senior rabbi? Do we bring in our own biases of how children should be raised?

Project Implicit, out of Harvard University, has access to free implicit bias tests around a variety of themes. Consider taking it, or asking your board to consider it. The first step in addressing implicit gender bias is simply becoming aware.

Rabbi Esther L. Lederman is the Director of Congregational Innovation at the Union for Reform Judaism and sits on the CCAR Taskforce on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate.

Categories
gender equality News Social Justice

King David, Bill Clinton, and Progressives’ Culpability for Sexual Misconduct

This summer, I listened to Professor Orit Avnery at the Shalom Hartman Institute, describing King David’s wrongdoing with Bat-Sheva. Not only adultery or even the King’s skullduggery in consigning his loyal soldier, Bat-Sheva’s husband Uriah, to death in a misbegotten battle. David is also guilty of sexual misconduct: He leverages his power to fulfill his sexual desires with a subject, meaning that the David-Bat-Sheva liaison cannot be described as fully consensual.

While the Bible casts the centuries of disaster that follow as divine punishment, we may view those catastrophes as natural results of David’s misdeeds. We are not surprised that David’s older sons, born to him and his wife, resent his favoritism toward Solomon, born of the adulterous liaison. Moreover, the king’s disloyalty to his troops might logically lead to low morale in the ranks – and, ultimately, military defeat.[i]

Listening to Avnery, and considering King David, I could not help but think of Bill Clinton.

Twenty years ago, we learned that the married President of the United States had an apparently-consensual sexual liaison with a 22-year old woman working as a White House intern. President Clinton’s supporters, myself included, however scandalized by his marital infidelity, spent much more energy resisting his impeachment than examining the corrosive impact his behavior would wreak our society.

We were wrong when we determined that Clinton’s presidential leadership on women’s issues was more important and impactful than his personal conduct toward women. Sexual relations between a 45-year-old President and a 22-year-old intern constitute sexual misconduct resulting from an extreme power disequilibrium. Like David with Bat-Sheva, the power disequilibrium raises a question of whether Clinton’s relations with Lewinsky could truly be consensual. Failing to call out the President’s wrongdoing, we not only facilitated the vilification of a young woman, and worse for Clinton’s other victims, we conspired with President Clinton to silence discussion of powerful men’s sexual misbehavior for nearly two decades. Only after Hillary Clinton was defeated in her own presidential election by a man who shamelessly bragged about sexual misconduct, American progressives finally opened our eyes to the widespread degradation of women and girls – and sometimes, boys and men – by powerful men who victimize those under their control. President Clinton’s sexual misconduct and our averted attention enabled two decades of widespread sexual abuse. The perpetrators, we now know, are just as likely to support progressive priorities for women’s rights in the public sphere as to oppose them. Had we insisted that President Clinton face the consequences of his actions, America might have held Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Mario Batali, Louis C.K., and their likes accountable far earlier, sparing untold numbers of victims. And we might never have allowed for an atmosphere in which a man who bragged of grotesque sexual violence could nevertheless be elected President of the United States.

Russ Douthat is a conservative columnist and devoted Catholic. Not long ago, he wrote, “The Catholic Church needs leaders who can purge corruption even among their own theological allies.”[ii] What Douthat says about theological allies goes for political and ideological partners as well. We who did not hold President Clinton to account are vulnerable to a charge of hypocrisy when we seek the ouster on similar grounds of a president whose policies we abhor. And vice versa.

We have reason for hope. When Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers were credibly accused of sexual misconduct, both were forced out of office by colleagues on their own side of the political aisle.

Now, we must acknowledge what we have known since David ruled in Jerusalem some 3000 years ago: A leader’s private sins can bring grave consequences to a nation. Many of us have been silent co-conspirators in the past. Others are today. Let us all shed our ideologies when we evaluate the costs of a leader’s private sins. We must hold all the powerful people in our society accountable – not only in politics and religion, but also in industry, media, entertainment, sports, education, and all places of employment. Then, perhaps, we will be credible partners in bringing an end to sexual misconduct, wherever it occurs.

[i] 2 Samuel 11-12, as taught by Orit Avnery, Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, July 4, 2018.
[ii] Russ Douthat, “What Did Pope Francis Know?,” The New York Times, August 28, 2018, accessed on September 2, 2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/28/opinion/pope-francis-catholic-church-resign.html?rref=%2Fbyline%Fross-douthat&action=click&contentCollection=undefined&region=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection.

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

Categories
gender equality High Holy Days

A #MeToo/#GamAni Confession for the High Holy Days

As we enter the High Holy Days, we reflect on our individual failings, but our liturgy also instructs us to confess communally, recognizing the role each person has in shaping their community. In that spirit, I offer this addition to our prayers of repentance to allow us to reflect on the plague of misogyny, which continues to shape women’s experience of the world. Gender harassment has many expressions, including sexual assault, sexual harassment, micro-aggression, wage inequity, and the unequal representation of women in leadership positions throughout all corners of our society. While this confession emphasizes sexual harassment, true equality will not come until we address all expressions of gender harassment. Confessing our communal wrongs is only one step in the tikkun, the repair needed, but it is an important first step.

 

A #MeToo/#GamAni Confession

 

 

Al cheit shechatanu

For the sin we have committed before You . . .

by not believing the victims

by being silent while women were bullied, harassed or undermined

by claiming to be ready to listen when we were not

by claiming equality exists for all

by not supporting victims

by not providing sexual harassment prevention training

by accepting the sexist comments made every day

by blaming the victims

by claiming our workplaces, synagogues, and organizations were safe

by contributing to an environment that allowed harassment

by explaining away harassment

by believing the victims but not acting to make change

by worrying about our community’s reputation instead of the victims’ needs

by not reflecting on the past and present behavior within our community

by denying that gender harassment has many faces

by allowing victims to suffer retribution

by not noticing when women simply walked away from our community or institution

by making the reporting of harassment difficult and hard to engage

by promising change and not fulfilling this promise

 

 

Al cheit shechatanu

For the sin we have committed before You, we ask forgiveness.

Rabbi Mary L. Zamore serves as the Executive Director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. Rabbi Zamore is also the the editor of  The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethics, now available from CCAR Press.

 

Categories
Books

A Sacred Calling Program Reminded Me: “A Liberal Body of Men” Still Has Much to Learn

Here at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, we kicked off a four-part Sacred Calling series this past Shabbat. In many ways, our congregation is isolated from “Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate,” The Sacred Calling’s subtitle. B’nai Israel has never been led by a woman rabbi. (To be fair, the congregation has only had three rabbinic searches since 1972, one of them rather early in the era of women rabbis and another for an interim rabbi.) As I read about the programs that colleagues held when The Sacred Calling first came out, with panels including the anthology’s editors and Sally Priesand, I knew that expense and distance would prohibit such an occasion in Little Rock.

We got creative. Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, a Sacred Calling author, is a dear friend of our congregation, and especially of our President and her wife, who generously offered to bring her here to keynote our program. Another Sacred Calling author, Rabbi Jeff Kurtz-Lendner, lives within driving distance, as does Rabbi Katie Bauman, the woman rabbi who grew up in this synagogue and maintains strong ties here. A program was born.

I did not know to anticipate that our Temple archivist, Jim Pfiefer, would deepen the program with an exhibit in our Temple lobby. The display suggests that our congregation may not be as remote from those “Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate” as I thought. I did know that my predecessor, Rabbi Gene Levy, was ordained with Rabbi Priesand. I did not know that Rabbi Angela Graboys had served in nearby Hot Springs, Arkansas; or that Rabbi Laura Lieber hails from Fayetteville, Arkansas. And I’m touched by the lovely display case about Rabbi Bauman.

Included in the display are the words of Rabbi Louis Witt, z”l, who served this congregation from 1907 to 1919. Two years after leaving Little Rock, Rabbi Witt pled with the CCAR to support the ordination of women. In 1921, which proved to be more than a half-century before the first woman would be ordained in North America, Rabbi Witt was already exasperated: “Five years ago, I had to argue in favor of women’s rights when that question came up in the Arkansas legislature, but I did not feel that there would be need to argue that way in a liberal body of men like this [i.e., the CCAR].”

On Friday night, prior to Rabbi Elwell’s keynote, I reflected on how Rabbi Witt might react to the present realities for women in the rabbinate. My liturgical prompt was Mi Chamocha. The Children of Israel doubtless celebrated their freedom when they escaped Egyptian bondage after the tenth plague. Scarcely a week later, they found their liberation incomplete: They were trapped between Pharaoh’s armies and the foreboding Sea. Then, once secure on the other shore, they sang in celebration. And yet, even then, freedom was not complete. Enemies internal and external would continue to plague them. And us. And still, we sing in gratitude.

We are, and we ought to be, grateful – for the ordination of women over the last 45 years, the realization of the only goal that Rabbi Witt knew to dream. For the successes that many of our female colleagues have achieved since 1972. For award-winning (and deserving) achievements such as The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and The Sacred Calling.

Now, though, we also know, as we should’ve known all along, that liberation is not complete:

  • Women rabbis, like their peers in other professions, continue to face a wage gap, compared to males of similar seniority, congregation or community organization size, and experience.
  • Women rabbis report sexual harassment at the hands of both colleagues and community members.
  • Equitable family leave, including but not limited to maternity leave, is not a reality for many.
  • The voices of women rabbis aren’t always taken as seriously or heard as loudly as those of male colleagues.

My list is incomplete for a variety of reasons, not least because I’m not a woman.

I am grateful that our Conference, professionally led in this arena by Rabbi Hara Person, has established a Task Force to examine the experience of women in the rabbinate; and that our Women’s Rabbinic Network and the Women of Reform Judaism are diligently exploring the wage gap and family leave issues.

At our upcoming convention in Orange County, I look forward to hearing from Task Force Chairs, Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus and Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, as well as WRN leaders, about their progress and challenges. Like the colleagues Rabbi Witt addressed, I am among “a liberal body of men” who have much to learn. Unlike Rabbi Witt, I will be learning from and alongside female colleagues.

And that’s a blessing. Like the Children of Israel singing Mi Chamocha before us, we have much to celebrate, even as we acknowledge that liberation is not complete.

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

Categories
Books gender equality LGBT Social Justice

On the Shoulders of Revolutionaries: Queering Jewish Texts and Reform Ritual

As a child, I could see myself becoming a rabbi. And now, as a queer rabbinic student, I can envision myself echoing the call of women rabbis who demanded to see themselves in tradition.

Queer readings of Jewish texts are liberating – they explode traditional categories of classification and rigid ways of thinking.  Rather than pushing readers toward clear cut understandings of biblical figures, aggadic material, and Jewish law, queer analyses of texts open up and shed light on multiple truths and ways of being in relationship to Jewish ritual and values. I believe that one feature of any sacred text is its ability to capture and say something about the human condition. Understanding a text through a queer lens has the power to not only locate universal human truths, but also to amplify these sacred elements, allowing us to see themes and characters as constantly changing. In opening texts to new meanings, we as people then have the permission and power to understand ourselves as constantly changing, traversing borders, and breaking down barriers. Queer theory also pushes us to challenge the binary nature of labels like, “sacred and profane,” acknowledging that the line between such categories is constantly shifting and permeable. When the boundary between sacred and profane is understood in this way, the brokenness and injustices of our world can become sites of sacred work, partnership, and healing.

While there are many scholars, clergy people, and Jewish organizations engaged in the project of queering Jewish space and text, I would argue that the power and full force of this work has not yet been incorporated into many Reform congregations. How would a “queering” of Jewish space look in mainstream Reform Judaism? Perhaps it would challenge our, often, hierarchical leadership structures, open up the possibility for new rituals in our congregational life, or push us to embrace and name every aspect of the human experience, like anxiety, joy, anger, and frustration in our worship. What would it mean for our congregations if gender was experienced not as a set of defined behaviors, but a fluid and ever changing category? Would there still be a brotherhood poker night? Or a sisterhood fashion show? When we free ourselves and our children from expectations of behavior based on constructed categories like gender, we open ourselves up to new understandings of proximity, social change, and justice – we understand that boundaries and borders set between people only grow wider and stronger when we refuse to cross them.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of celebrating the release of The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate at HUC-JIR in New York City. As part of this celebration, Rabbi David Adelson, Dean of the New York campus, moderated a panel discussion between three women whose rabbinates represent the influence of women on the American Jewish landscape. Addressing the packed chapel, Rabbis Sally J. Priesand, Rebecca Einstein Schorr, and Leah Berkowitz spoke about their experiences confronting and breaking open barriers as female clergy members. The powerful testimony of each rabbi made clear both the tremendous strides the reform movement has taken toward gender equality since Sally Priesand’s ordination in 1972, and the groundbreaking work female rabbis continue to do in teaching us new ways of being in the world.

As a female, third-year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR, I am a direct beneficiary of this work. Listening to these women share pieces of their respective rabbinic journeys, I could not help but feel tremendous gratitude for my ability to walk along their well-trodden paths. Growing up, watching Rabbi Leah Cohen, the rabbi of my home congregation, in action every Shabbat, it was never hard for me to imagine myself on the bimah or to see myself entering the rabbinate. When I applied to HUC-JIR, I didn’t see my application as an act of daring or courage, but rather the fulfillment of my childhood dream. But there is more to this story. Women rabbis have not just opened the door for young girls to see themselves in positions of Jewish leadership; they have also fundamentally infused the role and identity of the rabbi with endless possibility. As a child, I could see myself becoming a rabbi. And now, as a queer rabbinic student, I can envision myself echoing the call of women rabbis who demanded to see themselves in tradition. In creating and opening up new models of religious leadership, women rabbis have sewn the seeds for other forms of non-traditional engagement with Jewish texts and ritual, the harvest of which is in full-bloom.

Like Moses, Miriam, Jacob, the levitical priest, Judah the Prince, and countless other figures and innovators of our tradition – we have the power to cross boundaries, re-imagine ourselves, and to demand relevance and blessing from our tradition – to queer notions of identity and meaning in this world.

Hilly Haber is a third-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in NYC. Originally from New York, Hilly has a Masters of Theological Study from Harvard Divinity School and has worked in temples from Boston to Boulder.  Hilly is a rabbinic intern at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

 

 

 

 

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.

Categories
Books gender equality

Complete Equality Comes to the Reform Ordination

I recently had the pleasure of sitting with a group of women days before their ordination as Reform rabbis. On that magical cusp between school and new career, they were filled with pride and anticipation. Five years of hard work were coming to an end and the next chapters of their lives were rapidly unfurling. They spoke excitedly of their new positions in congregations and organizations; they showed off pictures of new homes and offices.

As we sat in celebration and reflection, I asked them about the experience of customizing their s’michah documents, the certificate received at the ordination ceremony. For the first time in forty-four years, the women ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) 1) will receive certificates to document their ordination that are completely equal to the ones bestowed on their male classmates and 2) will have the choice of their Hebrew title. While this event will slip by largely unsung, it is historic and significant.

In 1972, the momentous ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman ordained by a seminary, was celebrated throughout the world. As many fêted this significant step forward for Jewish feminism, it was not noted that Rabbi Priesand received a slightly different s’michah document than her male classmates. Archival evidence, as well as the fact that some of her seminary professors refused to sign her certificate, point to the fact that the new language created for her singular s’michah was born out of great discomfort with a woman being ordained rabbi.

The ordination documents of male and female Reform rabbis have an English and Hebrew side. They are not direct translations of each other. On that historic day, Rabbi Priesand was handed an empty tube, as the faculty took so long to debate the content of her certificate’s Hebrew side. Weeks later when she did receive it, the world was too busy watching her be a rabbi to notice that the title written in Hebrew was significantly different than every other Reform rabbi ordained since 1883. In the English version, all graduates are referred to as rabbi, but in Hebrew Rabbi Priesand was named רב ומורה rav u’morah, while her male classmates were ordained מורנו הרב moreinu harav. The former is a nice title aptly describing what rabbis do, but it lacks majesty and history. The title is pareve, bland. The latter is an historic title used since the 14th century. Its possessive plural, our teacher the rabbi, lends the validation of the community; its provenance gives a nod to the continuity of tradition. This is precisely why, I believe, the Cincinnati HUC-JIR faculty of 1972 avoided extending the title to Rabbi Priesand.

Sometimes inequity is perpetuated because discrepancies blend into our communities, becoming convention. Usually, they are not continued out of malice, but of habit. And so, for forty-three years, Reform women rabbis received ordination certificates containing a tacit slight to the equality of women rabbis. From this year forward, the language has been amended to create complete equality. The new s’michah document is something for the Reform movement to applaud. HUC-JIR adds this step forward to the tremendous transformation of their faculty over the last 20 years to include world class scholars who are women. Now with the process of creating fully egalitarian s’michah language, HUC-JIR is also giving women rabbis the choice of Hebrew title. The new rabbis can pick between using רב rav, the traditional Hebrew word for male rabbi, or רַבָּה rabbah, the emerging word for woman rabbi. Invisibly connecting the Diaspora to Israel, the choice given to the North American ordinees is based on the longstanding approach used by HUC-JIR’s Israeli rabbinical program.Sacred Calling

The soon-to-be rabbis described their reasons for picking their titles. Some explained that they wanted to be referred to as רב rav in order to be completely equal to their male counterparts. They felt it functioned in the manner the word actor does in English. Yet, one woman passionately argued for her choice of רַבָּה rabbah, explaining that with the continued opposition to the nascent group of Orthodox women rabbis, she wanted to stand in solidarity with these colleagues who are beginning to use the title רַבָּה rabbah. It was extraordinary witnessing my new colleagues’ passionate exchange. Perhaps, the choice of Hebrew title will be taken for granted in a few years, but for now there is great excitement over the selection.

As we continued to celebrate the up-coming ordination, the conversation shifted to concerns. While recognizing how much has been accomplished in forty-four years, my new colleagues also spoke of great frustrations, including not knowing if they will be paid equally throughout their careers, if they will need to fight for appropriate family leave, and if they will have opportunities for career advancement unfettered by gender bias. A reflection s’michah document remained unequal because a decision steeped in gender bias became habit. I hope we will continue to step back and read the small print carefully in all matters that impact women in order to eradicate injustice in the rabbinate and our greater society.

Rabbi Mary Zamore is the Executive Director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, the international organization of Reform women rabbis. She contributed “What’s in a Word? Inequality in the Reform S’michah” to the recently released The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, CCAR Press.  Rabbi Zamore was recently quoted on this subject in an article by JTA.