Why Are People Still Uncomfortable With Female Rabbis and Pastors?

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.)


Jennie: There's a rebellious quality to this picture: These women are claiming their right to do whatever men do in order to connect to God. The Orthodox response would be that women have other ways of connecting to God, and that those aren't any less powerful. You can see why people would be suspicious of that argument, though.

Eleanor: Yup. that's something I hear a lot: Is female leadership about RIGHTS, or is it about how people can best serve in a religious community? Some people see it as a rights issue—that women on principle shouldn't be excluded—while some people see it as a question of how each gender can best serve the church.

Jennie: Christianity also has its roots in Jewish scriptures, which make a lot of references to "women and slaves" in the same breath. You'll see a lot of really gorgeous explanations of all this today—Hasidic rabbis explaining that women are actually much closer to God than men are, and therefore don't need to take on those leadership roles or rituals. But all of that kind of feels a bit dubious when you go to the original texts and see all that "women and slaves" talk.

Eleanor: I've heard that explanation for why so much of the instruction in scripture is directed at men rather than women—that men need more specific guidance on how to live well than women do.

Jennie: It's a nice idea, and of course much more politically correct than the "slaves" logic. But I think it gets tricky when women feel like they're being suppressed, told to sit down and be quiet because the men need to be allowed to do their thing, perform their rituals, etc., without distractions.

The extreme version of that, in Judaism, is in Orthodox synagogues where women sit in the balcony and the men can't even see them. I actually most often go to a synagogue like that on High Holidays—it's the closest synagogue to our house, and my husband and I like a lot of things about the service. But I've never felt comfortable with the seating arrangement.

Eleanor: Another thing from the article that I found interesting: Do you think that this aversion to female rabbis (or pastors) will change over time? The article didn't seem to think so: "The assumption that this aversion will pass with time ignores those religions that have lost ground on gender parity."

Jennie: I wonder. It's already been a while. There are some professions, like orchestra conductors or airline pilots, that are still overwhelmingly male, so it's less surprising if people are momentarily taken aback by the sight of a woman in that role. But there are lots and lots of female rabbis these days.

I do think that people who grow up with female rabbis—or cantors—tend to feel quite comfortable with women in those roles. So a lot of it may just come down to experience.

It may not be enough to see women rabbis in the popular culture, or at a friend's kid's bar mitzvah. People may have to actually spend quality time with those religious leaders before they feel totally at home with the whole thing.

Eleanor: Yes...that reminds me a lot of the article we ran here on TheAtlantic.com about how men are more comfortable with women in the workplace if their wives also work. People are more comfortable with women in power if they are close with powerful women.

Jennie: Right. And in the business world, too, I think there's starting to be more of an accepted female archetype—if you know what I mean. The idea of a Marissa Mayer or a Sheryl Sandberg doesn't seem so strange to most people anymore. Those women don't seem like they're trying to be men. It may take a while before there's that kind of accepted female archetype for a rabbi, though—and I'm not even sure what it would look like.

Eleanor: Hmm, yes, that is a great question: What's the female religious equivalent of Sheryl Sandberg? What would that look like?

Jennie: When I try to picture it, I think of a woman who stands up there in front of a congregation with an amazing presence about her—a sense of profound calm and command. She could be vivacious, or more laid back—it's not so much about personality. But I think of her as having a certain gravitas that isn't at all macho. I realize, as I type this, that that sounds kind of vague. I have no idea what a woman rabbi should or shouldn't wear, for instance. But I do think there's a way to radiate spiritual leadership that doesn't at all have to be associated with male-ness—and I'm sure a lot of people would be quick to say that their female rabbis do have that quality.

And I feel like men would respond well to that quality. There is an archetype of the "wise woman," even if it isn't a particularly Jewish or Christian archetype. But I do think it's somewhere in our culture.

A lot of people would argue that none of this should be about gender at all—it should be about having an exalted, enlightened human being up there leading a congregation. That's a nice ideal. But it may take a while before women religious leaders can truly get up in front of a congregation without being seen as trying to fill a man's shoes. (Or wearing a man's kippah and tallit.)

Presented by

Eleanor Barkhorn and Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

Eleanor Barkhorn edits The Atlantic's Sexes channel. Jennie Rothenberg Gritz edits the National channel.

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