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Small word change is big deal for women rabbis

Members of the 2016 rabbinical class of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion read their class prayer at an ordination ceremony at the Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati, May 21, 2016.
Members of the 2016 rabbinical class of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion read their class prayer at an ordination ceremony at the Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati, May 21, 2016.

JTA — Since 1972, when the Reform movement ordained its first female rabbi, New Jersey’s Sally Priesand, more than 700 others have joined her ranks in that denomination alone. But a surprise awaited them, though few seemed to notice: The language on their ordination certificates was markedly different from that of their male colleagues.

Men were referred to by the Reform movement’s traditional “moreinu harav,” or “our teacher the rabbi.”

Women’s ordination certificates have said “rav u’morah,” or “rabbi and teacher.”

The difference may seem subtle, but for women rabbis and their supporters, it was a symbolic reminder that despite the gains they made in the movement, there remained barriers to complete equality.

The language “is important because we want everything to be 100 percent equal for men and women rabbis, even things that aren’t so obvious,” said Rabbi Mary Zamore of Westfield, NJ, who serves as executive director of the Reform movement’s Women’s Rabbinic Network

Now, four years after Zamore took the issue to Rabbi David Ellenson, at the time president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, a task force headed by HUC provost Rabbi Michael Marmur has decided to change the language and offer the same designation for men and women.

At the Reform movement’s campuses in New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem, 26 new rabbis — 12 men and 14 women — are being ordained this year, Marmur said. For the first time, the women are being given the option of choosing the same title and language as men. Rather than continue with rav u’morah, female rabbis will have a choice between “rabboteinu harav” and “rabboteinu harabba” — rav and rabba being words commonly used to distinguish between male and female rabbis in Israel.

It took the task force more than three years to consult with experts and make the decision to change the language.

“We believe that these proposals correct a disparity without perpetrating revolutionary change on the ordination formula,” Marmur wrote in a memo he circulated to the HUC community last November.

‘It came as a shock’

The change was welcomed by a pioneer in the Reform movement who didn’t realize the disparity until Zamore brought it to her attention in 2012.

“It came as a shock to me,” said Priesand, the first female rabbi ordained in America. “When I was ordained I was told I would be getting an empty tube because they had forgotten to change the language to the feminine” on the ordination scroll. “I just accepted that. When I finally got it I thought the title, which they had changed to ‘rav u’morah,’ was what all my classmates got, too,” said Priesand, who was the only woman among 35 male classmates that year. After 25 years serving Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, NJ, she became rabbi emerita in 2006. She lives in Ocean Township, NJ. 

“There was a discomfort [at HUC] with giving her the same title” as the men, Zamore said. “Our teacher, the rabbi” is “auspicious and used since the first ordination at HUC, so it’s in the line of tradition. It speaks of the community. That’s the whole idea of a chain of tradition and ordaining, that the community is standing behind you saying, ‘We believe in your authority.’”

In contrast, she said, “Rav u’morah is a nice statement of ordination. It’s just bland, pareve. The fact that it is different is problematic.”

Zamore wrote a letter to Ellenson in 2012 asking if he was aware of the discrepancy. In a new anthology, The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, she describes it as “smacking of gender inequality.”

What’s more, “it represents the inequalities that still persist after 44 years” of women’s ordination in the Reform movement, said Zamore, like a pay gap — female rabbis make between 80 and 90 cents for every dollar male Reform rabbis earn for comparable work, according to a study by the Central Conference of American Rabbis — and a continuing struggle for “appropriate family and maternity leave.”

Workplace inflexibility also makes it difficult for women to raise families while working, said Zamore.

In other rabbinical schools that ordain women, the language granting ordination is the same for men and women but for the tweaking required to make the Hebrew, a gendered language, appropriate to the recipient. These include the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and American Jewish University in Los Angeles, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Hebrew College, an independent rabbinical school outside of Boston that opened in 2003. 

One of the newly ordained Reform rabbis at HUC has elected to use the term “rabba” out of a sense of solidarity with the Orthodox women being ordained by Yeshivat Maharat, Zamore said.

Maharat this year ordained three women, bringing to 14 the total number of women it has ordained since 2013. The New York-based yeshiva, controversial in the Orthodox world for training women as clergy members, has been the subject of a debate over nomenclature since its founding. Sara Hurwitz, the first woman ordained by founder Rabbi Avi Weiss, was given the title “rabba” in 2009. After significant communal pushback, Weiss changed the title to “maharat,” an acronym of Hebrew words meaning spiritual, legal, and Torah leader.

Today Yeshivat Maharat graduates choose among several titles, including maharat, rabba, and “morateinu,” meaning “our teacher.”

Another NJ religious leader, 2015 Yeshivat Maharat ordainee Lila Kagedan, who is now serving Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph, elected to take the title “rabbi,” making her the first Orthodox woman to do so.

Priesand suggested that each generation of rabbis must further the struggle for acceptance. When she was ordained, Priesand said, “the important thing is that I knew I had been given the title ‘rav,’ and that was probably all I really cared about.”

She continues to draw inspiration from the biblical tale of the daughters of Tzelafchad, who successfully challenged the laws prohibiting women from inheriting shares of their father’s inheritance.

“I learned a long time ago to fully appreciate the story…,” Priesand said. “The moral of that story is that change comes about only when those who are being discriminated against demand it. So I very much admire Mary Zamore for making certain this was made right.”

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