The Sacred Call­ing: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate

  • Review
By – September 14, 2016

Com­ing in at a hefty 700+ pages and high­light­ing more than 68 con­trib­u­tors, Four Decades of Women in the Rab­binate is as much the tale of the past 100 years of Jew­ish his­to­ry as it is a love let­ter to the indi­vid­u­als and orga­ni­za­tions that empow­ered women to reach unprece­dent­ed heights of reli­gious lead­er­ship. While the 40th anniver­sary of Rab­bi Sal­ly Preisand’s ordi­na­tion from Hebrew Union Col­lege acts as the text’s ful­crum, the col­lec­tion of essays and per­son­al reflec­tions cre­ates an inspir­ing con­stel­la­tion of ideas about the direc­tion and devel­op­ment of Jew­ish lead­er­ship around the world.

The con­trib­u­tors include voic­es from the full spec­trum of Jew­ish denom­i­na­tion­al life, although, unsur­pris­ing­ly, the voic­es of the Reform move­ment are most preva­lent. This diver­si­ty adds to the cel­e­bra­to­ry tone of the book, as does the inclu­sion of voic­es from around the world. In par­tic­u­lar, Rab­bi Shiry­on Kin­neret, the first women to serve as a con­gre­ga­tion­al rab­bi in Israel, pro­vides a mag­nif­i­cent por­trait of her rab­binic work as it reflects the chal­lenges of Israeli life. The time­line fea­tured at the begin­ning of the book lists the names and dates of ordi­na­tion for women rab­bis serv­ing in eleven coun­tries, rep­re­sent­ing more than half a dozen racial and eth­nic back­grounds. This time­line, along with the exten­sive sug­gest­ed fur­ther read­ing” list, beau­ti­ful­ly show­cas­es the acces­si­bil­i­ty of the book. It would be easy to be over­whelmed by the schol­ar­ly breadth and inter­na­tion­al scope of the expe­ri­ences the book includes. How­ev­er, these tools, as well as the gen­er­al­ly straight-for­ward lan­guage, and excel­lent cat­e­gor­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion of the essays, helps make this book remark­ably read­er-friend­ly. The edi­tors have suc­ceed­ed might­i­ly in craft­ing a pow­er­ful resource for dis­cussing lead­er­ship, gen­der, and diver­si­ty in Jew­ish schools and orga­ni­za­tions. Hope­ful­ly, Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties can antic­i­pate see­ing selec­tions from this work appear­ing reg­u­lar­ly in Jew­ish teen and adult edu­ca­tion class­es for years to come.

Through­out the book, the move­ments and indi­vid­u­als who chal­lenged women’s ordi­na­tion (and those who con­tin­ue to do so), are acknowl­edged by a num­ber of writ­ers, but the book as a whole focus­es much more on the goals achieved and obsta­cles over­come, rather than rehash­ing old­er debates. There is a greater empha­sis on the cul­tur­al shifts, most espe­cial­ly the fem­i­nist and oth­er rights move­ments, that shape the expe­ri­ences of all rab­bis. Rab­bi Lau­ra Geller direct­ly ref­er­ences the con­nec­tion with Bet­ty Friedan’s words and work, and Rab­bi Oshrat Mor­ag spot­lights the way in which the ordi­na­tion of women as rab­bis has brought the work of women writ­ers and thinkers towards a more cen­tral place in Jew­ish dis­course. Many con­trib­u­tors speak to the chal­lenges women faced in career advance­ment, equal pay, and over­com­ing expec­ta­tions about their roles as par­ents and nur­tur­ers”, but two essays stand out for their direct con­fronta­tion of how women’s ordi­na­tion affect­ed rab­binic and reli­gious lead­er­ship. In the first, Rab­bi Mar­la J. Feld­man describes the incred­i­ble accom­plish­ments of Reform women in the pre-Preisand era, and asks the stun­ning ques­tion why do most of us (women rab­bis) see as our spir­i­tu­al matri­archs, women who served pul­pits[…] rather than the lay­women who laid the ground­work for us to suc­ceed?” While acknowl­edg­ing that becom­ing a leader of the Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Tem­ple Sis­ter­hoods is not the same as becom­ing a rab­bi, Feld­man reminds read­ers that all forms of female reli­gious lead­er­ship should be acknowl­edged, and that the fail­ure to do so under­mines the abil­i­ty of both pro­fes­sion­al and lay lead­ers to reach their poten­tial. Sim­i­lar­ly, Dr. Debra Reed Blank offers a breath-tak­ing overview of the inter­sec­tion between the ordi­na­tion of women as rab­bis and the coin­cid­ing explo­sion of cre­ative rit­u­al. She high­lights that the ordi­na­tion of women was not only the con­fer­ring of a title on a small sub­set of Jew­ish women, but a move­ment that changed how indi­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties prac­ticed Judaism. Women’s lead­er­ship, now grant­ed the title Rab­bi” and the author­i­ty that accom­pa­nied it, could reach beyond the pub­lic domains of Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tion­al life into people’s homes and souls. It did so swift­ly and powerfully.

Rab­bi Eliz­a­beth W. Gold­stein writes that Women have added a new face to Torah, and since Torah tra­di­tion­al­ly has had sev­en­ty faces[…] women in the rab­binate have opened sev­en­ty new win­dows for the souls of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty to com­mune with the Eter­nal One.” This remark near­ly per­fect­ly encap­su­lates why this book need­ed to be writ­ten, and is equal­ly deserv­ing of being wide­ly read. It is not only for those who are per­son­al­ly invest­ed in under­stand­ing how the ordi­na­tion of women has changed, lit­er­al­ly, the face of the inter­na­tion­al rab­binate. For any­one who is search­ing for mod­els of strong reli­gious lead­er­ship, and under­stand­ing the pow­er and vital­i­ty this brings to a community’s spir­i­tu­al life, this book is for you.

Deb­by Miller is a long-time board mem­ber of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, serv­ing on its Fic­tion com­mit­tee, and lat­er found­ing the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for Book Clubs. She is cur­rent­ly a Vice Pres­i­dent of the orga­ni­za­tion. Deb­by is based in Greens­boro, NC and has been involved in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty through Nation­al Coun­cil of Jew­ish Women (NCJW), AIPAC, B’nai Shalom and the Fed­er­a­tion. She was pres­i­dent of the local Women’s Divi­sion and cam­paign chair, and also got involved in the Nation­al Women’s Divi­sion. One of her pri­ma­ry phil­an­thropic endeav­ors is her work with JDC, where she has been a mem­ber of the board since 1994

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