Sharing stories, inspiring change
Last week, Rabbi Scott Perlo wrote a provocative article in the Washington Post in which he addressed the continuing discomfort that many Jews—even liberal, gender-equity-supporting ones—feel about female rabbis. He suggests that this puzzling phenomenon may be due to the central place nostalgia holds in many people’s feelings about Judaism. It comes as no surprise that this nostalgic vision does not include female rabbis.
Perlo points out that these days, at least half of rabbinical students in the seminaries of the liberal denominations are women. On one hand, this could point toward a solution. Eventually, as women become even more of a regular presence on the bima, and as the older congregants who grew up in a world without female rabbis pass away, the prejudice against female clergy will become a thing of the past. Already, we hear stories of little boys who laugh at the suggestion they could become rabbis, declaring, “That’s for girls!” We may have arrived at the tipping point, or very nearly.
At the same time, there’s a backlash underway, in which this shift in clergy demographics is lamented as the “feminization” of the rabbinate. Not infrequently in my work with Jewish educators, I hear that they do not need the resources of the Jewish Women’s Archive because “we have a woman rabbi.” In some cases, the rabbi herself has said that she feels she can’t use JWA material because she doesn’t want to do anything that might inhibit the participation of boys and men in the synagogue.
So it was particularly gratifying to read Perlo’s suggestion for the best way to make real and lasting change in the gender expectations people have of their leaders: tell more stories about women. If much of Jewish education is transmitted through stories about great teachers and leaders, then we must make sure to draw upon stories of inspiring Jewish women, which are increasingly available thanks to JWA and other scholars and writers. Perlo writes:
“Many have hoped that the presence of women in religious leadership would be enough to ensure their acceptance. But it hasn’t worked out that way, because we haven’t paid enough attention to religion’s mechanics. Religion runs on stories—stories of how certain individuals brought a little more godliness into the world. When it becomes normal for congregants to hear stories of great female religious teachers given as universal examples, without batting an eye, then we will have accomplished something.”
We at JWA are working hard to make that the “new normal.” One of our favorite taglines, in fact, is “Sharing Stories, Inspiring Change.” We need as many partners as possible to share—and add to—the rich and powerful stories found everywhere on jwa.org so that, together, we can make lasting and meaningful social change.