I wasn’t surprised by the call. I’ve lost count of how many times, during my five years as a rabbi, the liberal Jews I’ve served in Los Angeles and Washington have hinted at their preference for my gender over my female counterparts.
Most of these comments are from people who support gender equality — except when they go to pray. And the comments aren’t only from older generations: Even professionals in their 20s and 30s sometimes tell me that they can’t handle female religious leaders.
I remember the mother who wanted to switch from another synagogue so that her daughter’s bat mitzvah would not be performed by a woman. I remember the professional, 30-something woman who confessed that she didn’t like her local rabbi, largely because that rabbi was female. I especially remember the glass-ceiling-shattering Jewish comedian who told me that female rabbis are “terrible.” When I called her on it, all she said was, “Do they have to wear such bad shoes?”
When asked their reasons, this quietly uneasy population usually says that the idea of a female rabbi “just doesn’t feel right” or that, because they were raised with male clergy, that “just feels more comfortable.”
That’s about as far as I get. There’s no better conversation-stopper than “It feels better this way.”
The role of women in American religious leadership has radically shifted for the better in the past few decades. In liberal American Judaism — all denominations outside of Orthodoxy — at least half of rabbinical students are women.
I’ve worked only for female rabbis since the latter half of rabbinical school; and at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Northwest Washington, I report to two women: Executive Director Esther Foer and Rabbi Shira Stutman, the director of Jewish programming. Women were so integrated into my rabbinic training that I didn’t notice the difference.
So why would exposure to female religious leaders jar people otherwise predisposed toward gender equality? And why are these objections explained away as a matter of comfort rather than principle?
To try to find answers, I first turned to my mentor, friend and former boss, Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, a spiritual community in Los Angeles with a strong social-justice bent. Many of us young rabbis think of her as our generation’s great teacher. She and I had shared an experience that demonstrated exactly how gender roles often work in religion.
In 2005, a day or two after the high holy days, I showed up for work to find Brous with a scowl on her face. One of our attendees had approached her after the service with a dubious kind of praise: “Sharon, you were wonderful during the holidays,” later adding, “but the rabbi was absolutely fantastic.”
The woman meant me. It was an odd compliment, as I had not said a single word to the community that year. I was too inexperienced; I was just an intern and not ordained at the time. But we both knew why that woman had thought I was clergy.