I got the voice mail sometime in the afternoon. I hadn’t met the woman who left it —I had started at this Los Angeles synagogue only the month before. The voice was elderly.
“I just want to say how pleased I am that we have a nice, young, male rabbi.”
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.
“It was impossible for that woman to wrap her head around the idea that, standing next to you, I could be the rabbi,” Brous told me recently.
She confirmed what I’ve also noticed about these comments: They come from “lawyers, doctors, teachers — and women — and yet when they see women in the rabbinate, it still feels uncomfortable.”
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.
Moreover, when religion is pure nostalgia, it becomes a caricature. If the rabbi, pastor or priest is little more than a reminder of the past, a kind of comfort zone, then his or her message becomes irrelevant. When the time comes to heed God’s call — to stand against an injustice, to care for the neglected around us, or to reconsider our individual or collective paths — people simply won’t be listening.
Gender equality in religious leadership is attainable; we’re not that far away. And luckily, some people are fighting to hasten it. One of the best examples comes from Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, a nonprofit group, which asks male leaders to pledge not to sit on all-male panels at conferences. It’s an attempt to halt a cycle: Men are asked to speak at conferences because they’re well-known and acknowledged authorities, but they became known and acknowledged by speaking at previous engagements. The pledge is a step toward ensuring that brilliant women are placed into the upward trajectories they have earned.
There is another possible solution: Clergy and serious practitioners often pass on religious teaching in the form of stories about teachers or religious figures they admire. These stories clothe meaning, instruction and values in flesh and blood — and show how religious principles live in real people.
Until recently, these stories were about men. But in our time, the stories of inspired and righteous women are plentiful. So it seems to me that people of faith, as students of these great women, should pass along their stories and teachings as much as possible.
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.
Scott Perlo is the associate director of Jewish programming at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington.
Scott Perlo, a Conservative rabbi, is the associate director of Jewish programming at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington.