The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate

CCAR Press  2016


Coming in at a hefty 700+ pages and highlighting more than 68 contributors, Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate is as much the tale of the past 100 years of Jewish history as it is a love letter to the individuals and organizations that empowered women to reach unprecedented heights of religious leadership. While the 40th anniversary of Rabbi Sally Preisand’s ordination from Hebrew Union College acts as the text’s fulcrum, the collection of essays and personal reflections creates an inspiring constellation of ideas about the direction and development of Jewish leadership around the world.

The contributors include voices from the full spectrum of Jewish denominational life, although, unsurprisingly, the voices of the Reform movement are most prevalent. This diversity adds to the celebratory tone of the book, as does the inclusion of voices from around the world. In particular, Rabbi Shiryon Kinneret, the first women to serve as a congregational rabbi in Israel, provides a magnificent portrait of her rabbinic work as it reflects the challenges of Israeli life. The timeline featured at the beginning of the book lists the names and dates of ordination for women rabbis serving in eleven countries, representing more than half a dozen racial and ethnic backgrounds. This timeline, along with the extensive suggested “further reading” list, beautifully showcases the accessibility of the book. It would be easy to be overwhelmed by the scholarly breadth and international scope of the experiences the book includes. However, these tools, as well as the generally straight-forward language, and excellent categorical organization of the essays, helps make this book remarkably reader-friendly. The editors have succeeded mightily in crafting a powerful resource for discussing leadership, gender, and diversity in Jewish schools and organizations. Hopefully, Jewish communities can anticipate seeing selections from this work appearing regularly in Jewish teen and adult education classes for years to come.

Throughout the book, the movements and individuals who challenged women’s ordination (and those who continue to do so), are acknowledged by a number of writers, but the book as a whole focuses much more on the goals achieved and obstacles overcome, rather than rehashing older debates. There is a greater emphasis on the cultural shifts, most especially the feminist and other rights movements, that shape the experiences of all rabbis. Rabbi Laura Geller directly references the connection with Betty Friedan’s words and work, and Rabbi Oshrat Morag spotlights the way in which the ordination of women as rabbis has brought the work of women writers and thinkers towards a more central place in Jewish discourse. Many contributors speak to the challenges women faced in career advancement, equal pay, and overcoming expectations about their roles as parents and “nurturers”, but two essays stand out for their direct confrontation of how women’s ordination affected rabbinic and religious leadership. In the first, Rabbi Marla J. Feldman describes the incredible accomplishments of Reform women in the pre-Preisand era, and asks the stunning question “why do most of us (women rabbis) see as our spiritual matriarchs, women who served pulpits[…] rather than the laywomen who laid the groundwork for us to succeed?” While acknowledging that becoming a leader of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods is not the same as becoming a rabbi, Feldman reminds readers that all forms of female religious leadership should be acknowledged, and that the failure to do so undermines the ability of both professional and lay leaders to reach their potential. Similarly, Dr. Debra Reed Blank offers a breath-taking overview of the intersection between the ordination of women as rabbis and the coinciding explosion of creative ritual. She highlights that the ordination of women was not only the conferring of a title on a small subset of Jewish women, but a movement that changed how individuals and communities practiced Judaism. Women’s leadership, now granted the title “Rabbi” and the authority that accompanied it, could reach beyond the public domains of Jewish organizational life into people’s homes and souls. It did so swiftly and powerfully.

Rabbi Elizabeth W. Goldstein writes that “Women have added a new face to Torah, and since Torah traditionally has had seventy faces[…] women in the rabbinate have opened seventy new windows for the souls of the Jewish community to commune with the Eternal One.” This remark nearly perfectly encapsulates why this book needed to be written, and is equally deserving of being widely read. It is not only for those who are personally invested in understanding how the ordination of women has changed, literally, the face of the international rabbinate. For anyone who is searching for models of strong religious leadership, and understanding the power and vitality this brings to a community’s spiritual life, this book is for you.

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