Jemma Silvert
Jemma Silvert

A ceiling no longer made of glass

Dr Lindey Taylor-Guthartz (Image: Twitter via Jewish News)
Dr Lindey Taylor-Guthartz (Image: Twitter via Jewish News)

The glass ceiling is gone.

I always thought that when I heard those words, it would be a celebration. An exaltation. An unparalleled, uninhibited, party-in-the-street exoneration. People would come out from the darkness of their homes, emerge into the light, and dance. We would come together, our very beings consumed by the momentous joy, the sense of possibility and liberation. We would watch in awe as fragments of glass gently rained down around us, bending the light into hundreds of tiny, fleeting rainbows, each brimming with promises of a new and untold future. Imagine being there, at that moment. Imagine telling future generations, ‘I was there. I was there when the glass ceiling was shattered.’

In some ways, it does feel like that. Attending the Yeshivat Maharat semicha (ordination) ceremony, even on Zoom, I had a ridiculous smile plastered across my face. The joy was infectious. My screen was filled with hundreds of tiny squares, each brimming with people dancing, celebrating, bursting with pride. There were families and individuals alike, boldly holding up signs and haphazardly unmuting themselves to congratulate the graduating cohort, unable to contain their joy in the wait for their virtually raised hand to be acknowledged. There were women seeing themselves represented in their leadership, in their clergy; there were girls for the first time seeing the extent of what is possible laid out before them.

I know many incredible rabbis – most of whom I’ve been privileged to learn from and with, some of whom I’m honoured to call friends – but Rabba Dr Lindsey Taylor Guthartz is the first person I’ve known before, during, and after the achievement of her rabbinic title. She’s the first person I have known as a teacher before her semicha, who will also be staying in the UK now that she has her title. Rabba Lindsey is a truly incredible educator – she’s taught at the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS) for 16 years, she’s a university lecturer, a published author, and a founder of cross-denominational learning programmes in the UK – and now she’s a Rabba! (‘Rabba’ is the Hebrew feminine form of the title ‘Rabbi’, meaning teacher.) Just as the people in the little squares on my screen could not contain their joy, I find myself overflowing with excitement at Rabba Lindsey’s achievement – not because her brilliance or credibility were ever in doubt before her title, but simply because I am SO excited to see what she brings to the community next. I am excited by what she will do personally, and by the people and possibilities I know she will inspire. I am excited, I am proud, and I am hopeful.

I’m also angry, kind of heartbroken, and remarkably unsurprised. Following her semicha, Rabba Lindsey has had her research fellowship at LSJS revoked, meaning that she is no longer able to teach there. This is despite her publicly stated intentions in studying for semicha “to enhance [her] Torah knowledge and develop [her] learning further, so that [she] would develop higher skills and knowledge, to teach at a higher level and provide needed leadership within the Orthodox Torah world in London, and in the Jewish community in general”. Rabba Lindsey has never intended to seek a post as a communal Rabbi, and had offered to not use her new title when teaching at LSJS. By way of parallel, this is akin to an experienced and accomplished educator completing their PhD and promptly being removed from their post, their employment terminated because the institution did not acknowledge their status as a doctor, even though the individual had offered the concession to not use that title in work. Nobody expected female rabbinic ordination to suddenly be accepted by the Orthodox world in the UK. Nobody expected it to be easy for Rabba Lindsey and her colleagues. This response isn’t so much surprising as it is heart breaking, infuriating. There has to be some middle ground, some way of stopping the sand slipping through our fingers. I can’t help but feeling that we’re sitting back and watching something huge passing us by.

I know many incredible women who are not rabbis. They are not rabbis, despite being committed to a career in Jewish life, in learning and teaching, in community leadership, and to halacha. These women make the measured and painful decision to stay within communities that fundamentally limit them. In staying, they feel that they can make more of a difference from the inside; they can toe the line, slowly and quietly igniting a revolution from within; they can reach a wider audience, an audience who otherwise would not hear their voice. This is not a decision taken lightly. This is a career-limiting choice, an acknowledgement that there is no room for progression or growth, unlike in any other career and the careers of their male counterparts. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t questioned themselves at every stage, who hasn’t accumulated sleepless nights wondering whether they’re doing the right thing, tossing and turning in the anguish of choosing to remain in a community in which they cannot fully realise their potential, fully be themselves. It’s a painful, active decision. It’s a decision I wholeheartedly respect.

This is true of people who choose to not to be rabbis, in the knowledge that the Orthodox community will reject them on the basis of their gender. However, this experience is also true of people who can choose to be rabbis, secure in the knowledge that they will be not only accepted but celebrated in mainstream Orthodoxy. These are the people, the men, who earn their rabbinic title and are able to wear it with pride. They are loved and respected community leaders, high profile educators. There are no limits on the progression of their careers. They might not agree with everything that the Orthodox community does or stands for but, again, they feel they can make changes from within – often quieting part of themselves in order to do so. They can toe the line, speak to a wider audience, subtly planting seeds towards a more accepting community. It might not accumulate to years of sleepless nights, but it still is not an easy decision. It still involves quieting a part of themselves, at least until the moment is right for them speak up. It’s not an easy decision, but it’s an important role and, again, it’s one I respect.

Or I did, until this week.

For as long as I can remember, the metaphor of the glass ceiling has been that of an invisible or unacknowledged barrier, preventing a given demographic from rising beyond a certain level. It never made complete sense to me. Glass isn’t invisible. Glass isn’t unacknowledged. Glass is transparent. We are standing below, watching the people above us walking around on what they unquestioningly call a glass floor.

The barrier has never been invisible or unacknowledged to us. We have always been aware that there are heights we can aspire to but cannot reach, just as those living above us are all too aware of the depths to which they can never fall. Though gravity is on their side, the glass ceiling was never going to be shattered from above. And I get that, I understand that, I really do; why shatter the floor on which you stand? Why risk your own livelihood, your own security, for the sake of others? But, if you’re standing on that glass floor, telling yourself that you deserve your place there by virtue of helping others to climb to your heights, you’re wrong. Unless you’re physically leaning over the edge and holding us a rope, you’re wrong. The time has passed for walking around and telling your fellows that maybe, one day, building a ladder might not be such a bad idea. We’ve built our own ladder. We just need you to help us hold it in place while we climb.

In offering Orthodox rabbinic ordination to women, Yeshivat Maharat (and other institutions) have built the ladder. In achieving semicha, Rabba Lindsey has climbed the ladder and reached the top. In offering to concede her title at LSJS, she has knocked politely on the glass, and asked for a small hole to be made through which she can climb. At no point has the floor underneath your feet been threatened. At no point have we taken a hammer to our ceiling; we know it is also your floor.

Yes, for as long as I can remember, the ceiling has been made of glass. We have always been able to see what was above it; to aspire, even if we knew it would not be in our lifetimes that we achieved. The role of a Rabbi is multifaceted. Some are teachers, some are community leaders, some are spiritual and pastoral guides, some are prayer service leaders, some are decisors of religious law. Rabbis can be any one or combination of these things. For a long time, women couldn’t be any. Then, incrementally, we found that we could give pastoral care, we were able to learn and teach religious texts, we were allowed to hold leadership positions on synagogue and community boards. All without an equivalent title, of course, but we could do it. In Orthodoxy, in the UK, there are now qualifications that enable women to be decisors and advisors on areas of religious law. The ceiling has always been glass; we’ve always been able to see what was above us, to aspire, to get closer to it. The cause of my current heartbreak, I think, is that it feels that this is no longer the case.

In removing Rabba Lindsey from her teaching post, LSJS (and, by extension, its President, Chief Rabbi Mirvis) have rendered the glass ceiling opaque. It feels like we can no longer see what we are aspiring to. It feels like we are walking around in the dark. To the people above, to those who justified their place on the inside by their efforts to make changes from within, I would like to say, perhaps, that I was wrong. The shattering of our glass ceiling should not be seen as a celebration, certainly not if it also leads to the downfall of you and all that you hold true. But, in your actions this week, or your lack thereof, you have not just sealed the cracks in your floor that you felt were threatening, you have covered our glass ceiling in cement. In not speaking out, in not standing up, what is the cost at which you have maintained your own security? It feels like our light has been lost. The better we are at something, the more qualified we are to serve our community, the less we are able to exist within it.

Finally, I will say this: women’s roles in Orthodoxy have been shifting throughout centuries of history, generally in reflection of wider societal change. This has never been seen as a threat to the integrity of Orthodoxy. The same is true of other societal and Orthodox changes, unrelated to gender. It is only with the emergence of other denominations, in the last hundred or so years, that Orthodoxy has developed the seeming need to define itself in opposition to these movements. ‘Reform changes things, so Orthodoxy can’t change anything’ very much feels like the mindset of the Orthodoxy in which I grew up. This doesn’t feel like integrity, this compulsion towards resistance and opposition. It doesn’t feel like integrity to turn away brilliant and qualified teachers because of their title or gender. It doesn’t feel like integrity to spend this week in anger and in heartbreak, when I want to be bursting with joy and pride for Lindsey, when I want to be celebrating the achievements of my Rabba.

When I say the ceiling is no longer made of glass, I don’t want it to be because the ceiling is now made of cement; I want it to be a celebration.

About the Author
Jemma Silvert is currently studying for her Neuroscience MSc at UCL, and is the Programme Development Coordinator for JOFA UK.
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