Why Are People Still Uncomfortable With Female Rabbis and Pastors?

A conversation about the role of women in religious communities

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.)


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.)