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Celebrating Thirty Years of Women as Rabbis

WHEN I DECIDED that I would be a rabbi, I was sixteen years old. It was 1963 and there were no women rabbis then. In many ways, it was a simple decision. I was in love with Judaism and wanted to teach and serve the community, just as my rabbi did. In other ways, it was a difficult choice. For many years, I told no one of my secret ambition to enter the rabbinate except the rabbi of my congregation, who was my beloved teacher and mentor. Who knows, I told myself, maybe this too will pass. I would find another passion, another career goal.

Throughout college, I tried. I looked to English, to the academic study of religion, but these did not satisfy me. Finally, when I was about to graduate from college, I applied to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia.

I joined the second entering class of the seminary in 1969. [For a memoir of the first RRC class, see Rabbi David Brusin’s “A Dream for Our Time,” RT, Vol. 6 No. 2 — Ed.] There were still no women rabbis, although I was aware that Sally Preisand, who would be ordained by the Reform movement in 1972, was studying at Hebrew Union College. I knew nothing of feminism, a movement in its birthing that had almost nothing to say about religion. I did not consider that my being a woman would make any difference in my studies or my rabbinate.

It did not take me long to learn otherwise.

What struck me most was the absence of text, the lack of female voices, thoughts and stories. I read of men’s struggles with God, but not women’s. The texts either excluded me or did not understand who I was as a woman.

Just as I felt ill at ease in the emerging feminist culture, which did not address my Jewish soul, I felt marginalized in the Jewish community that I was seeking to serve, because it did not embrace my woman’s soul. No one was answering my questions — in fact, no one was asking them.

A few months into my first year, I received a letter from a woman who had never met me but had read that I was studying to “I don’t know what gives you the hutzpah to want to become a rabbi. In my letters I usually wish people success, but in your case I won’t. I hope you don’t make it, for your sake and for Judaism’s sake.”

These were not the only discouraging words I heard. Just before I was to be ordained, I was asked to speak about women and Judaism at a large synagogue in my community. After my presentation, the rabbi, instead of offering the traditional, “Thank you for coming,” said, “When you grow up, you’ll change your mind.” (I didn’t, but he did, eventually voting for the ordination of women in the Conservative movement.)

I have since been blessed with a husband of thirty-three years and two wonderful children — a son who recently married and is in medical school and a daughter who is in graduate school studying psychology. The three years that I served a congregation in New York and the twenty-six years I have worked with my husband in our congregation in Indianapolis have been good years. The decision I made when I was sixteen was the right one.

I came to realize, over time, that my goal was not just to fit in but to bring who I was to the rabbinate. My being a woman was not the only point, but neither was it besides the point. A woman minister in Indianapolis once told me that, at the beginning of her career, she tried to be neither male nor female, just a good minister. “Then I heard God say, I call you because you are a woman. You bring the pain and healing of your life.” She was right. For more than three decades, women rabbis have brought the pain and healing of their lives and, in the process, renewed the Jewish community.

Is women's spirituality different? I had long journeyed with Abraham, Moses and Elijah up to Mt. Moriah, Sinai, Nebo and Carmel. There were steep climbs and dizzy descents. But mountains and ladders with angels coming up and down did not find a resting place in my woman’s soul. I decided to listen to the voices of women — and their silences. I wondered what a pilgrimage to Sarah's tent and Miriam’s well might feel like.

I had always imagined myself with Jacob — having sent all his wives, children, servants and cattle across the river — struggling with God and receiving a blessing. That is where I believed the religious life was, with Jacob, rid of all life’s distractions. But what of Rachel and Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah, on the other side of the river, in the midst of life’s myriad responsibilities and distractions? That’s where I lived most of the time, so I decided to reside a while with the women on that side of the river. There, amid the clamor of daily routine and encounters with others, I found a life of the spirit that had long been silent. I found the theology of the thorn bush: transcendence in small gestures, revelations at the kitchen table. What I believed were distractions were, in fact, places where the spirit abides.

Jewish women, seeking to find their way within Judaism, have been wrestling with God and tradition on their side of the river. They have not let go until the tradition has blessed them. In the process, they have renewed Jewish ritual, prayer, theology and history. We have all been beneficiaries. For the truth is, whatever limited women, diminished us all.

Because women have traditionally been denied a place in the public square, they have often experienced the sacred as it moves through interior and interpersonal space. Having been excluded from the religious center, women have developed spirituality and leadership styles especially marked by inclusivity, sensitivity to those on the periphery, and a belief that difference doesn’t mean superiority or inferiority.

Women have a propensity for simultaneous attentiveness. They can watch a baby, answer the phone, keep the soup from boiling over and edit a sermon, all at the same time. Today, we call that “multi-tasking.” It’s a mark of women’s spirituality and a skill that women bring to their leadership.

I remember being a young mother watching a program of Mr. Rogers with my toddlers. Fred Rogers built a tower of blocks and said, “This is the way boys build.” Then he took the same blocks and made a circle and said, “This is the way girls build.” That is exactly how women rabbis have helped to change the way we build Jewish communities, by constructing networks, not hierarchies, bringing together diverse voices and building consensus. Studies have shown that women leaders are less concerned with rank, listen more and interrupt less than men. Their reaction to stress is not flight or fight but tend and befriend.

The spirituality of the well is, after all, different from that of the mountain. We ascend the mountain and feel powerful. From the top, the vision is of superiority. We draw water from the well and feel grateful. The vision is of the shared good.

Women have made themselves a seat at tradition’s table and poured their souls into Torah, prayer and ritual. They have blown women’s breath through the hallowed vessels of sacred texts and ritual forms and renewed them.

Some years ago, a woman came to my office. Her first child had been stillborn — eighteen years before. She was still grieving. She was angry with Judaism because it gave her no prayer, no ritual, no comfort. I told her things had changed. I offered her a new prayer and ritual for her loss. She returned home, went to the unmarked grave of her stillborn child and, for the first time in eighteen years, said kaddish.

It has been the unwritten narratives of women’s lives that have shaped the contours of a religious ritual renewal. Women’s questions have helped to sanctify these unmarked passages of time, the spaces left empty by the generations. From birth to death, from menarche to menopause, new landscapes are being sculpted from the soil of tradition.

In rabbinical school, when a fellow student’s wife had a baby girl, I asked, “What should we do?” When the answer came, “Nothing much,” I helped to create a covenantal ritual for girls. Today — thirty years later — it is tradition.

I remember the questions we asked: In a tradition that dictates ritual from awakening until preparing for sleep, can there be symbolic acts and holy words to sanctify the moment of learning of pregnancy? In a faith that celebrates escape from danger with a prayer, can there be a prayer for the healing of a battered woman? In a tradition that counts hundreds of blessings, can there be one upon the birth of a daughter? For a community that counsels an intricate ritual of mourning, can there be a ceremony to carry a family through the sorrow of miscarriage and stillbirth? Now the answers to each of these questions is yes. Yes, there can be and there is!

Women have helped not only to create new ritual, but to reshape its enactment. Ritual is not something acted out upon us but something we enact. One member of my congregation said, after being asked to speak at the birth ceremony of her child, “Thank you for giving me a voice. Last time I feel grateful. The vision is of the shared good.
Last time I was silent.”

Most striking have been the ways in which women have added their voices not only to life-cycle ritual but to holy day celebrations. For fifteen years, I have conducted a women’s seder in Indianapolis. Women have come to see themselves as active participants in the seder: to hear how women played a role in redemption, to go back to see themselves as having made the journey out of Egypt, and this time to leave footprints. They have brought Miriam’s cup and the stories of Shifrah and Puah to their own seder tables. They are no longer only silent servers; now they have speaking parts. Women have also helped us read Jewish history in ways that pay attention to power that is exercised informally, without public acknowledgment.

Our responsibility, according to Mordecai Kaplan, Reconstructionism’s founder, is to “look upon ourselves not merely as descendants but as ancestors of posterity, responsible for preserving and creating symbols and rituals for future generations.” Women have done just that and enriched Jewish life.

As women have transformed the ritual landscape, so they have begun to be narrators of sacred stories. In reading Torah, women no longer accept their absence from text but stand as full members of the community of Israel and reestablish their relationship to Torah.

Women have become interpreters of Torah, writing commentary, creating midrash. In the process, they have given voices, names and stories to women who had none.

Amos Oz, the renowned Israeli writer, taught,“Fundamentalists live their lives with an exclamation point. I prefer to live my life with a question mark.” That is how women have been reading Biblical texts, with question marks.

Just as women asked questions about ritual, so they asked new questions about Torah text. Whose story is told? Who is excluded? Who is other? Who is Lot’s wife, the wife of Noah, the daughter of Pharaoh? Through new commentary and midrash, we are finding answers. We now know Lot’s wife as a woman named Idit, who turns not out of disobedience to God but out of compassion for her daughters, who are following her. The pillar of salt is her tears. We now know the loving arms of Pharaoh’s daughter, Bityah, daughter of God, who saves Moses from the Nile. We know women’s names, hear their voices and stories, and we better understand ourselves and Torah.

Women have also begun to bring their experience to understanding God and to prayer. The rabbis gave new names to God, one of which is “HaMakom,” the Place. We call God out of our place, and the place where we stand is holy. Each calling, each name, is a partial apprehension of the spirit of divinity. As the divine moves through the interior world of women, God has become known by names other than Father and King. Women call God Mother, Friend, Womb of Life, Healer. And as the names for God change, so does the way a woman views herself as a valuable partner with the Divine — and so does our understanding of God.

Through women, we have come to know God not as one who has power over us, but as one who empowers us. What is important is not what God can do to us or for us but what we can do because of God.

This understanding of God has found its way into prayer. The only woman’s prayer recorded in the Bible is Hannah’s prayer for her son, a prayer of the heart. It is silent. Women’s prayers of the heart are no longer all silent. They are finding their ways not only into alternative readings or collections but into the siddur, a book that we kiss when it falls.

By adding their voices, women rabbis and other Jewish women teachers and leaders have helped to renew and enlarge the Jewish tradition. To the comment — “Well, it doesn’t all look like tradition” — I offer the following story: When someone saw Picasso’s drawing of Gertrude Stein, he said, “That doesn’t look like Gertrude Stein.” Picasso responded: “It will.”

We create ceremonies, we tell stories, we create and enliven rituals in the tradition of Sarah and Abraham, who celebrated Isaac’s weaning; in the tradition of our ancestors, who taught a new generation not to sit in darkness but to light Sabbath candles; in the tradition of the rabbis, who told the Hanukah story for generations. In their name, in the name of all those who went before them, and in the name of all those generations yet to come, we light candles, we preserve and we create. We marvel at how much remains the same in our cycles of time, what ancient words still move us, — and how different we are, what silences must still be broken. What really matters is not just that we are descendants, but that we are ancestors who bequeath our spiritual quest to the next generation.

We accept this awe-filled responsibility with a deep sense of humility. After all, who are we, tied as we are to our own time and place, to fashion the sacred words and create the holy drama to carry us through the passages of our years? We accept this responsibility with a strong sense of duty. After all, who are we, bearers of the image of God, not to pour our souls into the crucible of time, to affix our name to the holy narrative of our people?

To the woman who thought I had chutzpa to become a rabbi, I say, “Well, maybe so.” But thank God for the many women who have since made that decision for Judaism’s sake.

Type: RT Article

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