Women Rabbis: A Novel Idea (1)

By Zucker, David J. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer-Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Women Rabbis: A Novel Idea (1)


Zucker, David J., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


WOMEN HAVE BEEN ORDAINED AS RABBIS IN THE United States since 1972. At first, women rabbis were considered a novel idea. Today, they are widely found in Jewish institutional life. (2) Through their congregational- and organizational-centered leadership, their scholarship, and their unique approach as women, they are influencing Judaism in significant ways.

Although at times their effect is noted in books and articles in the general and the Jewish press, (3) little attention is paid to their portrayal in fiction. This article explores the extant examples of fictional "women-rabbi-centered" works. (4) It considers the depiction of women rabbis and frames it in the context of an analysis of women rabbis developed by Rabbi Janet Marder, the first woman to serve as president of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis, from 2003-2005. (5)

Although women rabbis appeared earlier, Rabbi Lynda Klein broke through the fictional rabbinic glass ceiling in 1983 (Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser's A Place of Light). In time, other women joined this select sisterhood. In 1987, Rabbi Sara Weintraub made her appearance (Alex J. Goldman's The Rabbi is a Lady). That same year, Rabbi Myra Wahl debuted (Joseph Telushkin's The Unorthodox Murder of Rabbi Wahl). In the 1990s, Rabbi Deborah Luria (Erich Segal, Acts of Faith, 1992) was followed by Rabbi Gabrielle Lewyn (Roger Herst, Woman of the Cloth, 1998). (6) The 21st century introduced Rabbi Michelle Hertz (Anita Diamant, Good Harbor, 2001), Rabbi Ruth Gold (Athol Dickson, They Shall See God, 2002), Rabbi Deborah Green (Jonathan Rosen, Joy Comes in the Morning, 2004), and Rabbi Rebecca Nachman (Julius Lester, The Autobiography of God, 2004). In the 1990s, there also were a couple of short stories that featured women rabbis as important figures. The first was Rabbi Marion Bloomgarten (Eileen Pollack, "The Rabbi in the Attic," The Rabbi in the Attic and Other Stories, 1991), followed by Rabbi Sarah Pollack ("Here and Now," Glenn and Jeanne Gillette and David J. Zucker, 1996). (7)

"Women rabbis have changed the face of Judaism," explains Laura Geller, the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel, Beverly Hills, Calif., through their presence and through their influence. (8) Indeed, they have changed the rabbinate itself. (9)

As Jonathan Sarna, a historian at Brandeis University, notes, the "emergence of women rabbis in Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism both symbolized and advanced feminism's impact on ... American Jewish life." Women, he explains, "now led worship services and read from the Torah on a par with men." In addition, "gender-sensitive" prayer books were introduced in many synagogues, and life-cycle ceremonies were reformulated to accommodate egalitarian concerns. The "turning points of a woman's life ... now became subjects for prayers and rituals; and so, likewise, did such traumas as rape, miscarriage, abortion and infertility ..., stirring controversy but also bringing new excitement and involvement on the part of women to diverse aspects of Jewish religious life." (10)

The literature suggests that women bring a more natural, nurturing presence to the rabbinate, and they are credited with being more approachable than their male colleagues. Women rabbis also offer new definitions of success. Women and men approach the rabbinate with different aspirations and objectives, Marder says. High among the goals of many women rabbis is to achieve a sense of balance, intimacy and empowerment in their professional lives. (11)

Balance, in this context, refers to greater equality between the demands of their professional lives and their personal ones. Intimacy refers to a greater ease in developing a sense of community and closer relationships with congregants. Empowerment refers to an emphasis on greater "shared responsibilities, privileges and power" among members of the congregation and a conscious desire to reject more traditional, hierarchical structures. …

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