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.
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.