In the midst of much activity in Israel in the ongoing push to ensure that women are not silenced or made invisible in newspaper media or public advertising, the celebration of a Reform woman rabbi winning a Supreme Court case to receive public funding, and the ongoing travails of the Women of the Wall seeking the right to pray in peace at the Kotel – the Western Wall in Jerusalem – there is much to write about these days about women and Judaism. And there is plenty to say about female leadership in Jewish community, both lay and professional.
Launched less than a month ago, Kol Isha: Reform Women Rabbis Speak Out, is a new blog that provides a new vehicle for Women Rabbis to reflect on their own experiences as female clergy, and reflect on these larger issues that affect women’s’ experience in the wider Jewish world.
Kol Isha is Hebrew for ‘Voice of a Woman’. It is a contested concept in traditional Jewish law, whereby a man cannot hear the voice of a woman, but even in traditional circles there is much debate as to the specific times and contexts to which this precept applies. Is it at all times, just in prayer, only for certain categories of prayer, or just when singing, for example. Among progressive Jews, equality of genders has overridden this precept, as it has in many contemporary societies.
Why just Reform Women Rabbis? The blog was launched as a project of the Women’s Rabbinic Network – an auxiliary of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the official body representing Reform Rabbis in the USA.
The first blog was posted on June 3rd – the precise date of the ordination of the first woman Rabbi in the USA, Sally Priesand. Sally guest posted the first blog. There are about 30 women Rabbis now providing daily postings, many of whom are blogging for the first time. Just as with this blog, we Rabbis who blog have found that this medium provides an effective way of getting beyond the borders of our own local communities, sharing our voices and reflections on Jewish wisdom, culture, spirituality, and life with an audience that is literally global. I know from the stats on my personal blog, Raise it Up, that I have readers from South Africa, Israel, Russia, Argentina, Great Britain, Spain, as well as from all over the USA. I also know from comments and private email correspondence that I have both Jewish and non-Jewish readers. I’ve met people who have attended programs that I’ve run in the community who have told me that they came to their first Jewish event with me after many years of no explicit Jewish connection, after having read my blog for several months. And I’ve had individuals reach out to me with pastoral needs online, in response to something that I wrote that they found on my blog.
So, what are our women Rabbis writing about? Well, go and take a look for yourself. But among the topics covered in these past couple of weeks, there are reflections on body image, relating to our teenage girls, balancing work and family life, pregnancy and miscarriage, supporting a sick child, leaving congregational positions, being a chaplain to the prison population, and several reflections on 40 years of women in the Rabbinate.
While most women who are Rabbis will tell you that, in the work they do in their communities, they are ‘Rabbis’ and not ‘Women Rabbis’, there is no question that women have transformed the face of the rabbinate in more than just its appearance. Just looking at the topics above, this is clear. In being true to the essence of who we are, we cannot leave any one piece of our identities behind, and our gender informs how we live in this world, what we see and experience, and how we relate to others.
Forty years on, we celebrate the place of women in the Rabbinate, we reflect on the journey and where we still hope to go, and we share our experiences and insights.
The Western Wall beckoned at the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Kislev, 5760.
I was studying at the Conservative Yeshiva for a month and residing at the Ratisbonne, a French Catholic monastery in the heart of downtown Jerusalem. My neighbor for the month was a sixty year old nun from South Africa named Trudy.
Although I had lived in Israel and visited there many times, I had never ventured into the Holy Sepulchre where the Tomb of Jesus resided. Trudy, who had been in Israel nine months, had never experienced the Western Wall, known in Israel as the Kotel. We made a deal on that rainy early morning in December that we would share each other’s holy places.
Trudy and I awoke before dawn and started the 30-minute walk to the Old City. We wanted to be present for the Rosh Chodesh morning prayers that are being sustained by the Women of the Wall, an organization of religiously and socially diverse women who come together once a month on the New Moon at the Western Wall. We reached the Kotel and immediately gazed at the gathering of women on the separated women’s section of the Western Wall. In lullaby hush tones we heard the singing and chanting of some sixty women. We drew closer to this monthly prayer circle. We lingered with them in a bittersweet prayer cocoon for twenty minutes. Like pregnant women getting ready to give birth, they packed their prayer books and the Sefer Torah (the Scroll that held the Five Books of Moses) in anticipation of their journey towards motherhood.
Since the religious municipality that governs the Wall prohibits women from chanting directly from the Sefer Torah’s scroll, the women journey half a mile to a more secluded and less public space known as Robinson’s arch.
The ancient space offered a stone carved table for our precious Sefer Torah. Several women unwrapped the scroll from a large blue duffel bag, and like a newborn baby, they placed her gently and lovingly on this changing table.
The rain turned sun reigned on us; the chatter turned silence shone inside. Trudy and I watched and waited for the next prayer chapter.
As the women prepared the sacred scroll for the reading, they asked if anyone would like to come up and receive an aliya, an honor.
I scanned the women’s faces, absorbed the question and hesitated before I answered. “Yes, I would like an aliya.”
The woman standing next to me was wearing a special “Women of the Wall” tallit embroidered with the names of the four matriarchs on each corner.
“May I borrow your tallit for my aliya?” I asked this stranger pleading as I spoke.
“Yes, but of course,” came her quick unequivocal reply.
The tallit made my aliya complete. This slow holy motion moment remains in my memory.
I returned to my place next to Trudy and removed the tallit from my shoulders. I thanked this beautiful lady for her generosity.
“What a wonderful way to inaugurate my new tallit with your blessings. This is my first time wearing it. Thank you.”
“You are the blessing,” I said.
Sometimes what we need someone else has to give.