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.

CCAR Convention

Gender Issues are Mens’ Issues

As we are about to reconvene in dinners focused on an aspect of gender identity at the CCAR in Chicago, I remember my obligation to write a small piece about why a group of men got together to talk about gender issues at the CCAR last year, in 2013.

As we aim to bring real egalitarianism to our synagogues, Reform Judaism, and our countries, it has become abundantly clear that when men and women progress through the same jobs, equality in treatment, pay, and benefits works to everyone’s advantage. We must enlist men to see that gender issues affect everyone, including men.

Here are three issues that come to mind immediately that impact women and men as rabbis:

  • When a woman gets paid less in a job than a man who may then succeed her in that job, we have lowered the pay standards for both men and women.
  • When standards are different for men and women because of benefits that may come from partners, organizations’ standards for offering benefits may drop as well.
  • Expectations and treatment of partners differ based on gender.
  • Many of these issues were raised in the last month by President Obama and are also discussed in an article from Slate last year.

These issues are complicated. That doesn’t remove from us the obligation of working to proceed in a more-fair-for-all direction, especially as we encourage egalitarian parenting too.

These issues already exist in our movement. Some have been discussed on RavKav. I believe very strongly that we need to begin to create a system of principles on these issues from which we can negotiate reasonable and fair outcomes in our constituent organizations.

The CCAR is responsible for leading the way on social issues for all of our rabbis. Men must recognize that gender issues are our issues, so that we can truly bring equality to all.

Thanks for reading, if you have so far, I look forward to figuring out ways to participate in moving forward on these issues.

Happy Spring to all,


Rabbi Jonathan Freirich serves as associate rabbi at Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC.

News Rabbis

Our Sisters, May We Become Thousands of Myriads: The First Ordination of Yeshivat Maharat

Ordination of Yeshivat Maharat.  Photo by Anne Cohen
Ordination of Yeshivat Maharat.
Photo by Anne Cohen

It was a beautiful Sunday and a perfect day for an ordination. The hall was crowded, and everyone joyfully hugged and wished each other a mazel tov. There was a ritual, some spirited singing and clapping, giving of documents, speeches, and of course, food. Just like every other ordination I’ve been to.

But this one was special. On this day, at this event, Rachel Kohl Finegold, Ruth Balinsky Friedman, and Abby Brown Scheier, the three women who were graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, were ordained. Three women who are Orthodox. Three women who will be working in Orthodox synagogues and communities are each called now “Manhiga hilchatit ruchanit v’Toranit” or Maharat.  They were ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss, senior rabbi at Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Daniel Sperber, halachic posek and professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University, and Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, their Rosh Yeshiva.  As they were ordained, the women were each  “found worthy and granted authority to teach and determine halachic rulings for the Jewish people, and has been ordained as a spiritual leader and a decisor of Jewish law.” With these words, the three women were authorized to render halachic judgements for the community.  Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the Yeshiva’s dean and Rabbi Weiss’ first ordinee, who blazed the path to this day, called up each woman by name, and blessed each one under a banner embellished with the blessing “At hayi l’alfei r’vava”- “Our Sister, may you become thousands of myriads.”

Each ordination was followed by standing ovations, cheering, clapping. As each woman spoke, with the joy and light of Torah streaming from her soul, all present were carried into the reality and power of the moment. Blu Greenberg presciently spoke of this possibility. And we were there, to see, to witness and to celebrate.

As a Reform rabbi, I found myself wondering about my fascination with this moment, about the reason for my own tears, about the sense of witnessing history in the making. Accompanied by David (Rabbi David Ellenson), and with our trailblazer Rabbi Sally Priesand sitting just a few seats away, I could not help but reflect on how our world and our community have changed.  I found myself wishing that I had been present for Sally’s ordination, even though at the time I was a 16 year old girl who knew nothing about the historic events unfolding in Cincinnati in 1972.  But even though I have been present to witness the remarkable emergence of women’s rabbinic leadership in the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Renewal movements, even though my work brings me into daily contact with the reality of the lives of women Reform rabbis, even though women rabbis may not be seen as something new or innovative in the liberal Jewish community, I still felt the profound historical power of the day.  I felt deeply that I was witnessing something that for so long and for so many had only been a distant and unattainable dream. Rabba Sara Hurwitz herself said it, “Halom halamti-I dreamed a dream.” Many have dreamed this dream and most of those dreams have not been fulfilled. Many wish they could have become a mahara”t.

Yet, on Sunday, I witnessed women, Orthodox women, taking their rightful place as religious, halachic and spiritual leaders in the Orthodox community. On this day, many dreams came true.

After the ceremony a friend mentioned that she thought the day would soon come when this ceremony wouldn’t be seen as so significant or so filled with history. I had to disagree. I still marvel at the reality of 686 women ordained as rabbis at HUC-JIR in the past 41 years. I don’t ever want to forget how amazing it is, how radical a reconceptualization of Judaism and of leadership it required.  But I do think that one day, we will know that this is normal; that women in religious leadership, no matter what movement they may belong to, are an essential and vital expression of our community’s values.  I don’t ever want to forget the struggles of individuals who blazed the trails in order for me to become a rabbi. But I do want to insure that women rabbis are an integral, integrated and recognized part of the landscape of Jewish leadership, that they claim their rights and responsibilities as legal and religious leaders, that they and their communities see their work as sacred work, that their presence in the religious sphere will have an immeasurable impact on current and future generations. No, I don’t ever want to forget how revolutionary the ordination of women as rabbis and mahara’ts is.  But I do want them to be completely normalized, accepted and celebrated.

I celebrate the rabbis and lay leadership who brought the dreams of this yeshiva and the possibility of women’s ordination into reality, who contributed their halachic and financial resources to create this innovative seminary.  I rejoice in the ordination of Rachel, Ruth, and Abby, and in the fact that all three of them have positions within their communities, and two of them will be working as part of a clergy team in Orthodox synagogues.

It was an ordination like so many others I’ve been to.  And it was an ordination like none I’ve ever seen.  It was the ordination of women rabbis, something so regular and normal. And it was the ordination of Orthodox women as Maharats, remarkable and innovative.  I remember how revolutionary, radical and controversial our ordinations were at the time. I remember how hard my predecessors worked to pave the road for me, and I know how hard my contemporaries and I worked to pave the road for our younger colleagues.  There is still much to do, but we have also accomplished so much. But I take none of it for granted. It has all been a dream.

But it’s real.

And that’s why I celebrate.

Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson is the Director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.

General CCAR News Rabbis Reform Judaism

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.