Brous takes the long view. “For thousands of years the assumption was that women were not equipped to serve in this role, and now we see it differently,” she said. “It takes time to reshape people’s understanding of the tradition and of the world.”
This answer — that the acceptance of female religious leaders is a matter of shifting expectations over time — is what I received from most of my colleagues, Jewish or not.
But this answer is not enough. As long as a significant number of congregants are uncomfortable with female clergy, religious communities will hire men to retain a broader appeal, reinforcing gender inequality in the pulpit. And the assumption that this aversion will pass with time ignores those religions that have lost ground on gender parity.
For example, the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal Christian denomination, has recognized female ministers since its inception in 1914. But things changed when evangelicals started accepting the upstart denomination. Many evangelical denominations are patriarchal, and this influenced the Assemblies of God leaders, who became less accepting of female ministers.
“The denomination lost territory on the women’s issue,” says Deborah Gill, an Assemblies of God minister and professor. “Statistics show it just recently turned around.”
Why, once a glass ceiling has been shattered, are people so eager to repair it? In matters of faith, the problem is our attachment to nostalgia.
In liberal religion, people rarely see tradition as the embodiment of God’s word; rather, religion is valued for its sentimental, emotional content — the way it feels to sit in a pew or the familiarity of prayer melodies from childhood. In this sense, religious observance feels like being wrapped in an older, safer world, one in which life felt less complicated and more certain. And in that nostalgic world, clergy are men.
Svetlana Boym, the author of “The Future of Nostalgia,” writes that “nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress.”
When people are stuck in such a nostalgic world, time’s swift tide — which has brought shifting gender roles and widespread acceptance of diverse sexual orientations — unbalances them. Even if these people support society’s progress on gender equality, they may miss the clarity of defined gender roles. And many look to religion as a refuge where time is frozen and older, understood rules apply. As a consequence, we end up asking religion to stay a step behind the changing world.
I’m not trying to rob anyone of the warmth of her childhood memories. Nor can I say that I somehow get what it’s like to be a female rabbi.
But I do want to point out the harm nostalgia causes. It doesn’t matter whether someone objects to female clergy out of principle or out of sentiment, the effect is the same: Female religious leaders are marginalized, perpetuating religious patriarchy.