Sometimes the rabbi wears lipstick

A heavy new volume explores and celebrates the journey of female clergy.

The women of the Wall prayer group in April. They’ve struggled for decades for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The women of the Wall prayer group in April. They’ve struggled for decades for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Today and consistently throughout Jewish history, half the world’s Jews are women.
Modern non-cave dwellers will have observed huge changes in the roles and behavior of women and men over the past four decades. As the song tells us, you can’t have one without the other and of course we need each other in order to continue.
Women and men have torn down gender boundaries over the past decades, so it should come as no surprise that women are joining the clergy in droves today. There are female rabbis today because of women (and men) who were driven by great devotion and the desire to lead, teach, share and enrich others with and through Judaism. That calling would not be fulfilled without battles and overcoming many hurdles.
The journey toward female ordination and greater equality has been documented and now is presented in a rather large volume, The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Although the organization is affiliated with the Reform movement, historic advances in ordination among the Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist movements are included.
Orthodox Judaism is only lightly touched upon, which is a shame because great strides have been made, particularly in the past decade. Anyone even marginally familiar with the Orthodox world, can imagine the complications any proposed change must overcome. Minimal inclusion of the most insular, exclusive and highly guarded stream of Judaism is understood, but the advancement of women in Orthodoxy deserves further attention. Juxtaposed with the broadly inclusive Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist streams, Orthodoxy seems anemic from this glance – despite its strides forward.
The history of the march towards female rabbinic ordination is presented in a compilation of essays written by activists, rabbis and observers.
The star of the publication is Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman ordained as a rabbi – in June 1972 in Cincinnati, Ohio. In the foreword, Priesand shares her story and gratitude to the trailblazers who supported and actuated her rabbinical dream, referencing Bruria and “chasidic women rebbes” such as Eidel and the Maid of Ludmir and later, Regina Jonas, who effectively served as a rabbi in Germany until she was murdered in Auschwitz. In the second half of the book, the “Personal Reflections,” the reader learns of innovations and developments that have spurred Judaism upgrades into modernity. These stories reveal accomplishments, revelations, discoveries and dreams of the affected and the effectors. The better writing is in this section.
A rabbinical student, the daughter of a rabbi mother and a rabbi father, the first married rabbinic team since Rabbi Meir and Bruria, talks about her childhood and upbringing, and how it led her to her current path.
Rabbi Susan Silverman gives the reader a view from inside the Women of the Wall and subsequently the police station where she is questioned: “Do you know your prayer is offensive to others?”
Impact from social movements and on social movements is elucidated throughout, including on LGBT rights, feminism’s effect on male and female rabbis, and the more intensive struggles of women rabbis in Israel.
Rituals are renewed, sometimes rediscovered and reinvented to better serve communities and individuals. Interestingly, the role of the mikve (ritual bath), which in the not-too-distant past had been considered rather primitive, is reinvoked for its connection with healing, recovery and rebirth, precisely the core cause célèbre of the holy dunk. Now that tragedy and pain are being outed, the “new” rabbis are creating rituals to help victims overcome and heal from rape, loss, bereavement, miscarriage, infertility and more.
The feminist effect on ritual is extended from a young woman’s first menstrual cycle to celebrating fertility and potential, the weaning of a child, and later menopause – effectively celebrating our bodies and our physical holiness. The effect is felt throughout the Jewish world today, as the birth of a baby girl is commonly honored much like a baby boy is celebrated, sans the snipping ceremony.
The section “Essays on Image” is thought-provoking in a different way. Imagine for a moment a rabbi as a role model choosing the right color lipstick as an alternative to young girls following a fashion model or reality TV star. This may well be a far-fetched notion for many, as we are accustomed to uniforms, particularly among religious representatives, but there is considerable positive potential.
This book is important and interesting, but it is often a choppy, clumsy read and would have benefited from a heavier editorial hand.