A Reluctant Pioneer
This June marks a milestone in the history of Jewish feminism: the retirement of Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first American woman rabbi. In the feature about her in the New York Times last Saturday, she repeated something she’s said often during her career: “I became a rabbi not to champion women’s rights. I didn’t think about being a pioneer or any of those things.” But of course, she was a pioneer – persevering in her goal to become a rabbi even when Hebrew Union College tried to discourage her (see the letters she received in response to her application to HUC here). Even though she did not make women’s rights a central part of her agenda as a rabbi, the fact of her existence and acceptance by the community opened the door for women in the rabbinate.
Priesand’s story raises some interesting questions about pioneers and social change. How much does intention matter when it comes to making change? Are people who set out to be revolutionaries more or less likely to succeed? When should we celebrate the reluctant pioneers and when should we chide them (as some Jewish feminists have chided Priesand over the years) for not fully embracing the opportunities of their role? I’m someone who usually believes that it’s important for all women leaders to embrace feminism as an agenda and who is impatient with those who don’t, but Priesand’s story suggests that change happens even when the agenda is unacknowledged (or even unconscious).
And how important are role models? I wonder how it even occurred to Priesand that she could become a rabbi – a dream she developed as a teenager – given that she had never encountered a woman rabbi. She credits her parents with raising her to believe that she could do anything. This is a clear case of the positive results of entitlement – usually (and perhaps unfairly) considered a negative trait.
I hope the next generation can learn from Priesand’s pioneering more than from her reluctance, and will be bold enough to move beyond access to achieving equality in the rabbinate (and in all of Jewish communal life): pay equity, equal access to senior positions, acknowledgement of rabbis’ family responsibilities and priorities, respect for different models of leadership, etc. It’s the end of an era, perhaps, but not the end of the road.