Who’s Your Rabba?

Raised as a Reform Jew by an ardent feminist, it was drilled into me that I could grow up to be anything I wanted. An astronaut, a doctor, the President — whatever (though I’m sure an underemployed freelance writer slacker mom wasn’t what my highly accomplished mother had in mind.)

Schooled as I was in the sections of the Equal Rights Amendment, I didn’t study a lot of Torah; Reform Jews in the 70s read Marlo Thomas’ Free to Be You And Me to their daughters instead of the Pirkei Avot. I didn’t yet know the marked differences in the assimilated American lifestyle of my family and the daily rituals observance performed by Orthodox Jews or the separation between men and women in all facets of home, prayer and work.

I met my first female rabbi back in 80s (She was young! She played guitar! She didn’t have hair growing out of her ears!) and I figured any Jewish woman could become a rabbi as long as she stayed in Hebrew school and liked to wear robes, but that’s not true for the stern patriarchy of the Orthodox: While women are revered, most of the men in charge don’t believe women should study Torah, let alone teach it. I never really considered becoming a rabbi (it’s a calling, and the phone’s never rung) but I like to think if my family had been more religious, as contentious as I am, it would have been my first career choice.

While women have been ordained in the Reform and Conservative Movements for decades (the photo is of the first ordained female rabbi, Regina Jonas), Orthodox women have continued to be rejected by the religious governing body. However, some have pushed firmly through the objections of the fathers and studied at yeshiva with the aim of serving as spiritual leaders in their communities. The Jewish Feminist Orthodox Alliance, led by the completely awesome Blu Greenberg, maintains this issue as its focus. Greenberg is the first Orthodox woman to reconcile tradition and feminism, sits on the boards of Hadassah and Lilith magazine and probably knows more about Jewish law than any guy rabbi I’ve ever known.

Last week, JOFA was shot down again, this time over the term “rabba.” Perhaps JOFA’s supporters thought this new, feminine form of “rabbi” would soften minds; it’s a title already used to delineate women ordained in the “more flexible” faiths. But the president of the Rabbi Council of America insists that to “confer ordination on women is a breach of … our tradition, and it is unacceptable.”

Greenberg is undeterred, spinning the RCA’s ruling into something positive: “On the one hand, I do feel the disappointment [of] women who have worked for a title and a certain certification … but I also feel, in the context of this entire enterprise, it’s going to work in their favor. Ultimately we have to keep our eye down the road, as well as on today.”

Keep on’, Blu and the rest of y’all — with your clear knowledge of halacha and determination, you’ll wear ’em down eventually.

However, as much as I support JOFA, my feminist ear actually does not love the gender-specifying quality of “rabba.” It’s been years since the debate over gender neutral job titles has evolved into socially accepted, politically correct language that describes the job without pointing out gender — we don’t say “waiter” and “waitress” anymore; it’s “server.” Don’t you call the person who brings you a can of Coke on a plane a “stewardess” — it’s been “flight attendant” forever. “Rabba” sounds cutesy, a pet name, and I think these educated, pious, women have worked too hard for respect and equality to have to feminize their title.

But I’m not Orthodox, and I don’t know jack about what it’s like to be told I can’t be something because I’m a woman.

4 thoughts on “Who’s Your Rabba?

  1. Very interesting. Not sure how I feel about Rabba. If the Rabbi is a man or a woman I think I prefer that is what they call themsleves. Whatever happens, what I love about Judaism is discussions like these.

  2. While I do prefer rabbi for women who are indeed rabbis, the reasoning behind using rabba was because people couldn’t accept the fact that women were becoming rabbis – I think the usage of rabba is meant as something to be used at a halfway stage, and then eventually will be gotten rid of and female rabbis will be called by their rightful title of rabbi.

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