Show Hide image

What is it like to be a woman in Judaism?

A female rabbi argues that Jewish women should not be denied an equal portion of participation.

Recently I met a student at a university Jewish society who described eloquently how it felt for her to have had an Orthodox bat mitzvah, the Jewish adulthood initiation ceremony. It was held on a Sunday. Boys, however, celebrate their bar mitzvah on a Saturday, our Sabbath. She read in English rather than Hebrew. She certainly did not read from a Torah scroll – part of the Hebrew Bible.

The celebration that followed took place in the same banqueting hall where her two brothers had held theirs but, as she described with a mixture of derision and sadness, they had partitioned the hall for her party, using only a third of the space. It felt to me as if she was describing only a third of the joy.

The “only a third” moment echoes many Jewish women’s experience of being denied an equal portion of participation and represen­tation in the leadership of our organisations. But something might be changing. Perhaps the banqueting hall of women’s involvement may be expanding, the partitions shifting as the issue of Jewish women’s participation hits the communal agenda. The Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership was launched this year to examine the leadership gender imbalance. As the members put it, “The genie is out of the bottle.”

Status symbols

Regrettably, the aspiration of having even a third seems optimistic – a 2011 snapshot of British Jews shows that despite high levels of education and achievement in the secular world, Jewish women occupy only a quarter of leadership positions, disproportionately low compared to the wider population. However, the genie is working her way through the community. Well-publicised cases of gender se­gregation are causing concern among middle-of-the-road Orthodox people. They realise that the changing status of women is emblematic of the direction in which their stream of Judaism may be running.

The main newspaper of British Jewry, the Jewish Chronicle, pays frequent attention to the matter: earlier this month it published a letter on the subject under the heading “Women still sidelined by United Synagogue” – the United Synagogue being the main institution for Orthodox British Jews. The female correspondent highlighted how dismal it was that women are precluded from being trustees of the United Synagogue and from standing for chair of the board of an Orthodox house of worship. “This archaic rule alienates and disenfranchises women in our community,” she wrote. “Why should educated, capable, articulate women be able to work hard behind the scenes at a synagogue, but not be seen to be leading?”

This is not a narrow tribal, denominational concern; it is both ideological and practical. We are too small a grouping to exclude the talent of more than half our potential leaders.

The main, well-documented barriers preventing change and a fully inclusive model of leadership from emerging include the paradox of what one woman calls the “tough stance”: powerful women are seen as aggressive when successful but weak when they fail. It certainly undermines women. There is an expectation that Jewish women will put their family first but they receive insufficient and ineffective support to enable them to balance the needs of the community with those of the family.

There is also the belief (and reality) that there is an “old boys’ network” approach to recruitment into lay positions, in effect excluding many women from consideration. Many observers note a perception that many Jewish communal organisations are simply not committed to change or to gender equality. This leads to an exodus of talent; Jewish women are not choosing to focus their energies on developing the community.

However, a far more sinister polarisation is threatening the very foundations of our community: a pernicious increase in gender segregation in the public sphere and the silencing of women’s voices among certain fundamentalist circles in Israel and in the Jewish diaspora. The debacle in Israel of not only gender-segregated buses but also gender-segregated health clinics has increased. This is accompanied by a far more disturbing phenomenon, emanating from the claim that women distract men from prayer and that our voices in song – or even talking – can lead to sexual misconduct, of attempts to silence women’s voices.

Take the lead

This silencing is seeping into public zones, including banning women from singing at some mainstream public ceremonies, and even from presenting at religious academic conferences.

Some Orthodox women are speaking out against the exclusion, seeing it as a misuse of religious law. Others are calling on Orthodox rabbis to enable maximum participation of women, but there are pitifully few who actively encourage their female congregants to take leadership roles.

In contrast, I know that I am blessed as a woman, and as a mother-of-three, to hold the leadership position of rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism. In this, I join other female colleagues in leadership roles, such as the chair of the movement, the convenor of our religious court, the principal of our rabbinical training college and the senior rabbi of one of our flagship synagogues. I luxuriate in this freedom to speak out in public, to influence and to lead.

This is the expansion of the banqueting hall and it bolsters the community that celebrates living within it. The hall needs to be one in which Jewish men and Jewish women mingle, where they value each other’s contributions and where our different skills combine to strengthen and improve both the Jewish and the wider community. 

Movement for Reform Judaism:

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?