Illustration of woman holding a Torah scroll


Whose Judaism?

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Jordie Gerson

In matters of faith, more often than not, the Jewish community can claim precedence: We did this first, we were there first, it was our idea, it was our book, it was our ritual. So it’s not often that you’ll find a Jew ceding that Christians have beat us to something. But I’ll start by claiming just that: Harvard Divinity School began to accept women in 1955, but it was another 13 years before the first woman, Sally Priesand, would be admitted to a rabbinical school in the United States.

It is with no small amount of pride and pleasure that I tell you that it was my movement, the Reform Movement, and the school I now attend, Hebrew Union College, that was responsible for Rabbi Priesand’s eventual ordination. It is with equal pride that I add that the Reform Movement has paved the way for women in the rabbinate, and women in synagogue life, redefining traditional public and private roles for more than a quarter of a century. We have made great strides since 1972—in that time more than 441 women rabbis have graduated from Hebrew Union, making up 16 percent of all graduates. More dramatically, my entering class, spread over three campuses in the United States, is 80 percent women, a historic number for the college, and one that most Jews, even Reform Jews, find hard to believe.

Yet despite all of this, it is with equal doses of embarrassment and frustration that I must tell you that the 13 years between HDS’s and HUC’s acceptance of women said a great deal about the Jewish community in 1968, and says just as much today. It’s not just that we were behind the curve in 1968—we are still behind. It is not just that we were slow to decide that Jewish women should finally have the same positions of power and authority that men do, but that we are still, in a sense, deciding how we feel about women rabbis, and women in positions of power in the Jewish community. And though HUC may be ready for us—and is still paving the way in its hiring and admissions policies—it is not as clear that our congregants, to say nothing of the state of Israel, are.

The sacred center of the Jewish world is male. I spent last year in Jerusalem, fulfilling an HUC requirement. The first shabbat after I arrived in the city, a group of my classmates decided to walk to the Western Wall, the axis mundi of the Jewish world, our most sacred space. I joined them, and we began the walk up to the Old City, and then down into the courtyard. It had been a decade since I had visited, and when we passed through the security checkpoints and into the courtyard where the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall touch, my stomach turned and then sank. What I saw at the Kotel, the holiest place in Judaism, the place where Jews, for thousands of years, have offered prayers and sacrifices, sanctified and made holy our deepest fears and dearest aspirations—what I saw there made me want to weep.

In 1992, the last time I visited the Kotel, a mechitza ran through the precise middle of the Western Wall’s courtyard. A mechitza is a separation barrier made out of cloth, fencing, or planks. It separates men from women in a prayer space, and places women on the other side of where the Torah is kept. The Torah, our most sacred text, is, in my tradition, not merely revelation and not only scripture. In Judaism, as in Christianity and Islam, the Torah is a source of power, and authority. The Torah, at the Kotel, was kept on the men’s side of the mechitza, as it is in so many Orthodox communities. This did not surprise me. What surprised me was that the men’s side of the mechitza took up nearly 80 percent of the courtyard. It had moved since 1992. Which is to say, women, who make up slightly more than half of today’s Jewish community, both here and in Israel, are given 20 percent of its most holy space, and no Torah. No power, no authority, no space. We had been, literally and figuratively, pushed out of the most sacred space in our tradition.

I stood at the Kotel on my very first Sabbath in Jerusalem as a rabbinical student, and all I felt was fury.

I stood at the Kotel on my very first sabbath in Jerusalem as a rabbinical student, and all I felt was fury. I looked at the wall, the wall my great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents and even my grandparents could hardly imagine seeing, or touching, and all I wanted to do was cry. I stood there that evening, dressed chastely in a long skirt and wrapped in a shawl—so as not to offend the Orthodox men who lay claim to the Kotel—and I wondered, quite seriously, if we have actually left the ghettoes, or if we have been so marginalized and so exiled for so long that now we cannot help but do the same to one another.

It was a full year before I approached the Kotel again—and then it was at midnight, when the courtyard was empty, and it was with a group of my female classmates, and it was our last shabbat in Jerusalem. Together, as a group of eight women, we left our shabbat dinner and walked through the empty streets of the Old City at midnight, singing to each other as we walked to the courtyard. We sang psalms, we sang folksongs, we sang loudly, in harmony with women’s voices that are still considered, in some Jewish communities, lascivious. We sang as we walked through the narrow white stone streets of the Old City, sang our women’s voices up to the windows of the old Orthodox rabbis who didn’t want us there, and we did it with our hair uncovered, and our shoulders bared.

By the time we got to the Kotel, I had almost forgotten that it was not really mine. I had forgotten, and so I approached the wall and leaned against it, so that it held the weight of my body. I pressed my forehead against the stones, my hands, and I thought, for just a moment, that I had come home.

But then I came back to America.

I had anticipated that being a woman training to be a rabbi would be easier here. In some ways, I was right. In others, I was only hopeful. Back here in America, even as a mere rabbi-in-training, I have become, whether I like it or not, a symbol of the Jewish community. I am a public figure and so things that I have long considered private—what I wear and how I look—are now a matter of public concern. Perhaps, if I looked like a symbol of the Jewish community, none of these things would matter. Perhaps, if I had a bald head and a beard, no one would care. But I don’t.

My new role carries with it the baggage of our patriarchal history, and the weight of that baggage. My mere presence—even in a progressive context—makes many young Jews uncomfortable. They simply can’t or won’t equate the word “rabbi” with my body, or my gender. After evening Yom Kippur services last fall, on the holiest night of the year, Kol Nidre, one of my congregants approached me afterward to tell me what a lovely service it had been, how moved he had been. And then he hit on me.

I grew up on a healthy diet of Ms. magazine and Free to Be You and Me. I grew up with feminist parents, and a mother who told me I could do anything I wanted with my life. She told me that someday, if I wanted, I could be a woman in a position of power and authority. And I believed her. But there are congregations, and congregants, I know now, who will never be comfortable with placing so much power in the hands of someone so feminine, so female.

My class, as I mentioned earlier, is 80 percent female. The leadership of the Reform Movement is troubled by this, and the potential outcomes of the “feminization” of the rabbinate are frequently discussed. I’ve heard the opinion expressed by Jewish leaders in influential positions that “too many women” in leadership positions will dissuade Jewish men from becoming involved in the Jewish community, and that the female attraction to religious leadership is dangerous for the community. Some of these same leaders have explicitly stated that the predominance of women in leadership roles means that men will no longer want to be involved in Jewish life—for so long a male province—and that, if that happens, men, who, they say, “control all the money in the Jewish community” will stop giving money to Jewish organizations, which will not survive.

If their predictions are true, then there is no future for the Jewish community—and our long imperiled tradition will at last succumb, not to anti-Semitism but to Jewish women.

And yet I believe that this is not the case. I believe that our best hope for survival is in our inclusion rather than our exclusion. I believe that my presence, and the presence of my female classmates, is reinvigorating and, yes, changing the Jewish community, for the better. Judaism, despite its deeply rooted sexism, has always been passed matrilineally, through the blood of mothers, through the bodies of women. Feminist theologians have long joked that this is like passing on the trait for colorblindness: Judaism is passed through the mother, who can never get it herself. I want to believe that this is also changing, and that the Judaism which has so long been denied us can now be ours. I want to believe that women like Rabbi Sally Finestone are paving the way each day, changing the progressive Jewish world, in ways small and large.

I hope that our presence in synagogue boardrooms, in sanctuaries, and in Jewish schools and organizations, will translate into institutions that are more family-friendly, more singles-friendly, more gay- and lesbian-friendly, less impersonal, and less concerned with the size of congregations and the bottom line. I hope that with enough time and work female bodies in pulpits will change the traditional image of rabbis and that traditional Jewish attitudes toward women’s bodies (as objects, rather than subjects, as property, rather than personhood) will be transformed. I hope that I, and all female rabbis, will someday feel comfortable with the confluence of our sexuality and spirituality.

And I hope that someday, the mechitzot in our communities will come down, and we will find ourselves face-to-face with one another, as women, as men, and as Jews.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May this be God’s will, and may it be ours as well.

Jordana Gerson,  a student at Hebrew Union College in New York City, received a master of theological studies degree from Harvard Divinity School in 2004. This article is adapted from a presentation  she gave at HDS in February for a forum on women in ministry.

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