Being one of the first British female rabbis

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, one of the first female rabbis in Britain, describes her journey from

When I was ordained in July 1989, the Leo Baeck College graduating class of five ordinands included two women: the ninth and tenth female rabbis in Britain. The first female rabbi, Jacqueline Tabick, had been ordained in 1975. Meanwhile, in the United States, Sally Priesand, had become the first female rabbi in 1972.

But even before the new era of gender equality began to dawn in the 1970s, back in December 1935, the first woman rabbi of all time was ordained in Germany – Rabbi Regina Jonas. Perhaps if she hadn’t been deported to Terezin in November 1942, and sent to her death in Auschwitz in October 1944 – perhaps, that is, if the Holocaust had not happened – there may have been other female rabbis, even before ‘second wave’ feminism arrived on the scene.

There is a connection between being a woman rabbi and the Holocaust simply because the Holocaust forms the backdrop to Jewish life during the past sixty-plus years, even in countries not subjected to Nazi occupation including Britain and the United States. As a London School of Economics Sociology graduate (1977) and a Women’s Studies writer and editor, I decided I wanted to become a rabbi in order to do two things: contribute to the feminist transformation of Judaism and play my part in helping to maintain and develop post-Holocaust Jewish life.

Today women rabbis represent almost half of the Progressive Rabbinate in Britain – as of now there are thirty women rabbis in Britain – and our presence has already led to important changes, including the adoption of inclusive language liturgy. However, Progressive Judaism represents less than 30% of British Jewry, estimated at around 300,000 people according to the Jewish Policy Research Survey 2006. Yes, the Jewish community is that small.

So, what is it like to be part of this tiny, relatively new breed of female rabbis? Like all the ancient religions, Judaism has been formulated by men. Women rabbis are still a very new phenomenon for most progressive congregations – over half of which have not yet been led by female rabbi – and a significant minority of which, judging by examples of recent appointments, would still choose a male over a female.

My own experience has changed over time and varies from place to place. When I first visited synagogues as a student, avoiding inappropriate male behaviours was a big issue. And those were the congregations that were prepared to welcome women rabbis. But while that problem has decreased, I still meet with patriarchal attitudes and practices as I go about my work – especially in the wider Jewish community. When I started at Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue in December 2000, I was the congregation’s first woman rabbi, and felt under close scrutiny for some time. More than seven years on, I experience no issues whatsoever around my gender. But then, who knows what I might encounter if I decided to apply for another pulpit. The fact is the goals I set myself when I went into the Rabbinate remain at the top of my agenda.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, who was ordained in 1989, was one of the first ten female rabbis ordained in Britain. She has served the Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue congregation since December 2000.
GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt