It’s Not Just About Race

With the news this week that the city manager of Ferguson, Missouri has resigned following a scathing Justice Department report that accused his police department of systemic racism, and with a fraternity on the University of Oklahoma having been thrown off campus for an ugly, alcohol-driven (evidently) racist incident, it is clear that race relations in America remain in crisis. As President Obama said quite eloquently at the ceremony marking the fiftieth anniversary of what came to be called Bloody Sunday in Selma. Alabama, we have indeed come a long, long way from where this country was at its worst. Clearly, we have a long way to go.

It is tempting to think that race relations is the only arena of American life in which societal attitudes continue to lag behind legal rights and obligations. But that is hardly the case.

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the rabbinic ordination of women in the Conservative movement of Judaism. In the months preceding the decision by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1985, the proposed change generated powerful differences of opinion among both rabbis and laity. Many thought that the change, if enacted, would tear the movement apart. If ever there was an issue that defined the dialectical tension between tradition and change that informs all of Conservative Judaism, then surely this was it.

Well, thirty years later, the decision to ordain women has not torn the movement apart. Whatever issues the movement faces, and they are considerable, allowing women to serve as religious and spiritual leaders has not been the cause. If anything, their presence in the rabbinate, from chaplaincy to college Hillels to agency work to pulpits, has enriched the Jewish community, and broadened the reach of Conservative Judaism across its breadth, both here in America and around the world. Thirty years later, there is no longer a question within the movement as to whether or not women should be rabbis. They are rabbis, and they are a force to be reckoned with in the Jewish community.

What does remain, however, on levels both liminal and subliminal, is a stubborn inability of many men, and some women, to relate to women as religious authority figures in real time in the workplace.

A friend recently shared with me a YouTube video that was prepared as Purim Torah for the Purim Seudah at JTS, titled “If Men Rabbis Were Spoken To The Way Women Rabbis Are Spoken To.” In a series of comments by both male and female rabbis, participants in the video point out exactly how absurd it would sound if male rabbis were subjected to some of the same kinds of comments and questions that women rabbis are on a regular basis.

Some examples … “Rabbi, I love the way your kippah matches your eyes, your brown hair, and your shirt.” “Rabbi, you’re looking a little shlubby today.” “Rabbi, lookin’ good…!” “So how does it feel to be a man rabbi?” “Would you be able to teach a class about men in the Talmud?” “Do you count yourself in a minyan?” “You’re a rabbi? But you’re so handsome!” “What’s a young pretty boy like you doing in the rabbinate?”

I readily admit that the video made me laugh, not least of all because, in my more than three decades in the rabbinate, I have had some truly bizarre and often completely inappropriate things said to me, even as a man. When I write a retrospective on my rabbinic career, there will surely be a chapter devoted to the most egregious among them. What I can say about them that is positive is that, far more often than not, they came from a place of love and respect.

But as I watched this video a second and third time, I became increasingly less amused. Clearly, the men and women participating were fully intending to be funny, in the spirit of Purim, and they succeeded. But the things they were saying to woman rabbis, and the attitudes they revealed, were a sad reflection of the lingering effect of more than two millennia of Jewish women having been, as Cynthia Ozick once commented, “written out of history.” What I came to realize anew is that it’s one thing to create a change de jure, to literally alter or modify the law to reflect a desired change. It is quite another to de facto change the attitudes of the people who live under that law.

We Jews understand this phenomenon well. When the Emancipation and Enlightenment finally took us out of the ghettos of Europe and into the mainstream population centers of those countries, the attitudes of the non-Jewish population were often notoriously slow to adapt to the new reality, and some would argue, not without merit, that they have yet to do so.

When the African-Americans of this country were emancipated from slavery under President Lincoln, it took a full century for white America to become adequately sensitized to the remaining inequities in the way they were treated to enact the Voting Law in 1965. Ferguson, the frat incident in Oklahoma, and so many other events remind us, as the President said, that the work is not yet done.

It takes a very long time to change deeply ingrained societal attitudes, no matter what the issue. But preconceived attitudes about gender roles, particularly as they intersect with religion, where “tradition” and the connection to it plays such an out-sized role, are proving to be every bit as difficult to modify if not more so, despite significant changes in the law. It takes a great deal of courage to be among the first and even second generation of women in the rabbinate, and I’m sure that the “rabbahs” of the Orthodox world would concur, as well as the women rabbis in Reform Judaism. As the Conservative Jewish world prepares to celebrate the thirty-year celebration of the ordination of women, it behooves us all to be mindful of the difficult road they travel, still.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.