Clothing is on my mind. Not because I’m a superficial person, but because fabric art has been featured in the last five weekly Torah readings. Uniquely dyed wools – sky-blue, royal purple, and earthworm red – house God’s presence in the mishkan (sanctuary). Fine designers bring to life the High Priest’s sophisticated “layered look,” complete with jeweled accessories. All priests must wear linen underwear, lest they die.
Clothing worn during holy service must be chosen consciously: that is the principle. Why? Torah itself does not explain, but interpreters do. Spiritual facilitators should physically feel God’s being. Priests need physical protection from God’s powerful presence. Leaders should be adorned with articles made in the community. Priests don a persona not their own as they step into a role. Attractive visuals enhance religious ritual.
When I, a female congregational rabbi, dress for holy service, I keep these ideas in mind.
Spiritual facilitators should physically feel God’s being. Hat, yes. Donning a hat is part of my daily spiritual practice. I synchronize my action with the traditional morning blessing, “oter Yisrael b’’ifarah”: Thank you God; you crown your people with splendor. My hat reminds me that I intend to remain a “God-person,” i.e., spiritually aware, all day. And that “splendor,” i.e. health and inspiration, are special gifts. If I receive them today, I will put them to good use.
Priests need physical protection from God’s powerful presence. Modesty, yes. No cleavage. No short skirts. No bare shoulders. As a clergy person, I accompany people through sensitive transitions, tinged with God’s luminous or terrible presence. My companionship can evoke powerful memories, emotions, reflections. Sometimes it feels as though God arises and envelops our interaction; those times, though beautiful, are exhausting. Juggling complicated associations with romance or sex would be even more exhausting. So I try, in behavior and dress, not to evoke them.
Leaders should be adorned by articles made by members of the community. Talit, yes. I wear a beautiful one made by a woman artist who attends our synagogue. Following a popular traditional design, my talit has stripes and a special collar with Hebrew words. But the stripes are embroidered flowers and the collar is decorated with coloured beads. The inspirational Hebrew words connect priestly service with women’s work: v’chibes begadav hacohen (“the priest shall launder his clothing,” Numbers 19:7).
Priests don a persona not their own as they step into a religious role. Yes, and no. I cannot fully adopt an alien persona. So, tefillin, no. I do not regularly wear tefillin on weekday mornings, though I know from experience how powerful the practice can be. Honestly, it’s a bit of a personal protest for me. Some people insist that in order to be a rabbi, a woman must fulfill a man’s traditional time-bound mitzvot, including laying tefillin. This makes no sense to me; it suggests that, to be authentic, I have to behave like a man. Why can’t I just be scrupulous about fulfilling the traditional women’s mitzvot?
Attractive visuals enhance religious ritual. “How you dress is a reflection of your personal brand,” said Troy Alexander in The New York Times. Yes, personal style. Mine is feminine, west coast, eclectic, artsy, purple, comfortable, weather-adjusted, and carefully selected for my size and shape. Each day, I consciously assemble disparate elements into a coordinated outfit. Life is ambiguous and filled with unexpected surprises. Dressing myself with creative order helps ground me as I start the day. Reliable yet flexible structure is a gift I bring to religious ritual.
Beginning female clergy worry when congregants judge their clothing. Over the years, however, I have adopted a different approach. Congregants can talk about my clothing all they want; I do not take it to heart. They also talk about my sermons, my classes, my children, and how many cats I’m rescuing this week. They talk because they are interested in the synagogue and its people. I trust them not to cross the line into lashon hara (destructive gossip); if a genuine issue arises, I expect them to speak directly with me. We might even end up talking Torah!
People often ask me why I decided to become a rabbi. Some would say in a condescending tone, “You want to be a rabbi? What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish girl?” In response, I would smile and say, “A very good job, thank you.” But it would not be lost on me that those who expressed this question did not think that women should be rabbis. Though I entered rabbinical school almost a decade after the Conservative Movement started ordaining women, and almost two decades after the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements had done the same, a woman becoming a rabbi was still an oddity.
My path seemed strange to almost everyone I encountered. There were no rabbis in my family, so I was not building on a family tradition, and I did not grow up going to Jewish camps or day schools. I did however have a rich Jewish home life, and discovered Jewish feminism in college. Jewish feminism hooked me. Yes, I know, this sounds strange to many. But I voraciously read about the Jewish women’s movement and emerging feminist theologies in writings by Judith Plaskow, Blu Greenberg, Rachel Adler, and Paula Hyman. Their way of looking at the traditionally patriarchal Jewish tradition through a feminist lens captivated me. My mind whirled with images of a female God, of women’s seders, and stories based on female biblical characters. This was my way into Judaism. I saw that Judaism was not a closed tradition ruled by men is long beards, but rather was something living and growing before my eyes. The idea that I could add my voice to creating new rituals, writing new stories, and opening up Jewish wisdom to others excited me. And so, I found myself applying to rabbinical school much to everyone’s surprise.
What I encountered when I entered the professional Jewish world was not quite what I expected. I naively thought that the major battles had been won. Women could be rabbis right? That meant that the Jewish world was open to women in leadership roles, that women would get jobs, be paid equal salaries, and not suffer sexual harassment and stereotyping right? Right?
Take a look at the survey published last week by the Jewish Daily Forward. The article’s title says it all, “Gender Equality Elusive in Salary Survey.” In the Jewish professional world, Jewish non-profits, women earn 62.5 cents to every dollar a man earns, and women make up just 12% of the top leadership positions. An article in The New York Jewish Week last spring chronicled the difficulty women rabbis are having finding jobs. Surveys of women rabbis also find that they are paid less then male rabbis in the same positions and that a stained glass ceiling exists. Only one woman in the Conservative Movement is serving a congregation with more than 500 families. (The larger the congregation, the larger the salary of the rabbi, generally speaking.)
Contrast this to an article in the New York Times this week with the tile, “ They Call it the Reverse Gender Gap” which states that: “For starters, young women today — and not just in the United States — are moving quickly to close the pay gap, or in some cases have closed it already. ….Women are ahead of men in education (last year, 55 percent of U.S. college graduates were female). And a study shows that in most U.S. cities, single, childless women under 30 are making an average of 8 percent more money than their male counterparts, with Atlanta and Miami in the lead at 20 percent.”
There is more work to be done in the Jewish community. I am still inspired by the first wave of Jewish women who fought for women to be counted equally in a minyan, who argued that women could be synagogue presidents, read from the Torah, and be rabbis. This week, as one of the women who inspired me down my path, Dr. Paula Hyman, who was the was one of the founders of Ezrat Nahim a Jewish consciousness-raising group that advocated for women’s equality in American Jewish life, and who went on to be the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale, died from cancer. her death is a wake up call. Though women have accomplished a great amount in the past thirty years, there is more work to be done!
Many borders still exist in the Jewish community. In the next thirty years I hope to see them come down. Women who choose to enter the rabbinate, or become leaders in Jewish non profits should have the same opportunities as men, and should be paid the same salaries. According to The New York Times, the rest of America is already there. The Jewish community should be too. I want other women to be excited about what they see happening in both secular and religious Jewish life and want to join it, just as I did. They should not encounter low salaries, organizations run mainly by men while women make up 90% of the other positions, and lack of parental leave.
My path into Judaism and the rabbinate may have been strange. But I fully believe that there are many paths someone can take. We need to keep those paths open and welcoming. We are all created in the image of God. It is time we treated each other that way.
Dedicated to the memory of Dr. Paula Hyman