A conversation about the role of women in religious communities
Last week, Scott Perlo, a conservative Jewish rabbi, published a column in the Washington Post about the fact that many of his congregants—even young, otherwise liberal ones—don't like the idea of a female rabbi:
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."
Atlantic editors Jennie Rothenberg Gritz (who is Jewish) and Eleanor Barkhorn (who is Christian) have spent a lot of time talking about women and religion offline. Here, we discuss our experiences with female religious leaders—and whether the discomfort Perlo describes will ever change:
Jennie: We've had a lot of interesting talks about women and religion. What did you think of the Washington Post column I sent your way?
Eleanor: Well, it really rang true to me. I go to a church with a pretty liberal congregation, with a lot of very strong women who are members...but both of our pastors are men.
Jennie: Did you grow up with mostly male religious leaders?
Eleanor: I always had male HEAD pastors...but there were women in pastoral roles: children's ministers, ministers of music, associate ministers.
Jennie: Christianity is so diverse—there seems to be a huge range in women's roles between denominations. The Jewish universe is much smaller, though of course there's a world of difference between Orthodox and Reform synagogues. What I found interesting about that Washington Post column, though, is that it touches on something sort of surprising: Even a lot of women in the more liberal Jewish denominations really feel like a rabbi should be a man.
Eleanor: Yes. I thought that was the most interesting part, too. It's no surprise that older, conservative people would expect a man as a rabbi.
Jennie: I may be wrong about this, but I feel like some of the more liberal—and more evangelical—Christian denominations have almost entirely broken away from the old stereotype of the male priest. Whereas I think a lot of Reform and Conservative Jews still have this picture in their mind's eyes of a male rabbi up in front of a congregation, with certain clothes and a certain sensibility.
Eleanor: Why do you think that is?
Jennie: Good question. I think a lot of Jews—even Reform ones—still go to synagogue in order to connect with something ancient, or at least traditional. They've rejected a lot of the laws they feel are restrictive or outdated. But when they sit down to pray, they still may expect a certain aesthetic. They want to hear certain ancient Hebrew words and feel a certain connection to their ancestors. And for some of those people, seeing a woman in front of the congregation may get in the way of that feeling a bit.
I should emphasize here that plenty of Reform and Conservative Jews feel perfectly comfortable with female rabbis. I'm just musing about the ones who don't, the ones described in that Washington Post column.
Eleanor: Yup, understood.
I think for a lot of Christians, the desire for a male pastor is less about connection to tradition and more about a general anxiety about masculinity.
Jennie: That's really interesting!
Eleanor: There's fear that if the head pastor isn't a man, then men won't come to church. There's an idea that men are turned off by female leadership, but women are not similarly turned off by male leadership. And so to foster male participation in church in general, it's important to have male leaders.
Jennie: I can see that. There isn't really an archetype in either Christianity or Judaism of a "priestess"—a strong, authoritative, but very female leader. So I think the women who take on those roles sometimes seem to people like they're trying to be men—like they're lesser versions of the male archetypes. Almost, like I said to you earlier in the kitchen, like they're cross-dressing—playing a part in a play that's written for a male actor.
Eleanor: Yes, I definitely hear that. Even the clothes that female pastors wear in Christianity often look like identical versions of the male pastors' clothes, and it does have a strange visual effect.
Jennie: I was going to ask you about how female pastors dress. That's definitely the case with a lot of female rabbis. They wear a kippah and tallit (prayer shawl), items that are really strongly identified with men. In fact, throughout history, women haven't worn those things. As I understand it, they're not forbidden from wearing them. But they're not commanded to wear them. So they haven't done it, and it seems kind of arbitrary and strange to some people when they do put them on.
I actually dug up this photo after I spoke to you—it's by a French Jewish photographer named Frederic Brenner who has taken photos of Jews all over the world. This one shows a group of female rabbinic students in New York doing something very traditionally masculine: binding tefillin. (Those are the leather straps with boxes that are wrapped around the head and arms.)