“He has told you, O man, what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk humbly with your God”
This verse reverberated in my head recently as I prepared for a recent rabbinic retreat. Each rabbi was asked to fill out a questionnaire meant to assess our character strength, such as bravery, creativity, love of learning, logic and so on. In theory, there were no ‘right’ answers; every trait has its place in making the world go round. But surely there are some traits, that should come together for certain professions, should there not? Surely a teacher must love learning, a judge fairness, a healer compassion and so on.
As we read in the Bible, humility is a positive when it comes to walking with God. And walking with God is at the core of my understanding of the role of the rabbi. Humility is essential to keep rabbis from confusing the work we do in the service of God with being as great as God.
But at the same time, I’m not just a rabbi, I’m a woman rabbi.
And when it comes to women, humility gets complicated.
Humility is freedom from pride or arrogance. It comes from the Latin word humilis, which literally means low, and also suggests modesty or a lower sense of self-importance. But what passes as pride or arrogance is often judged more harshly in women than men. And when women do not push through the modesty thrust upon the by societal expectations of womanhood, they are unlikely to get noticed. In other words, for women being humble can get in the way of doing God’s work, or any work for that matter.
Take for example Dorothy Vaughn, played by Octavia Spencer in the movie Hidden Figures. Vaughn was one of a group of female African-American mathematicians who worked as human calculators at NASA in the 1960s. In the movie, left without a supervisor, Vaughn took on organizing the group and distributing assignments. Given the double burden of racism and sexism, humility would have been the end of the line. Instead, knowing her worth, she approached a white female supervisor and clearly stated her capacity to become a supervisor. When that failed, she persisted, daringly pioneering and training other black women in computer programming. Under her leadership and innovative visioning new realities became possible. Humility would have been a hindrance; only a healthy ego and sense of reasonable entitlement by Vaughn made any of this possible.