Why women’s spiritual leadership matters
“Ask your rabbi.” This is the advice I heard my entire life in my religious community in Tzfat. But did it always have to be a (male) rabbi? What if there were someone else I could turn to for spiritual guidance?
When I was in high school, I had a female principal, whose role was always accompanied by a (male) rabbi. The principal handled administrative duties and the rabbi was our spiritual authority. At some point, my female principal retired and was replaced by a male principal who also happened to be a rabbi. He thus became responsible for all matters administrative and spiritual.
Throughout my adolescence, this all felt normal. Similarly, I never raised a question when my B’nei Akiva youth group provided only male emissaries to facilitate “chodesh irgun” — the annual kick-off event. I did not question the fact that I was not seeing women in these central roles because it never occurred to me that women could lead in such a way.
Interestingly, it was always men who educated us girls and young women about our important place, as women, in Judaism. They discussed with us, passionately, our place in Jewish life and what we could do to strengthen our relationship with G-d.
What was this role, exactly? As women, the greatest gift we could give to our families was allowing the men to fulfill their duties. As adolescent girls, we were taught that in the future we were meant to stay home with the children while our husbands went to pray at synagogue. We were supposed to be proud of our lack of participation if it meant that men could participate more.
Our teachers tried to impart to us that it was a good thing that we did not have to go to synagogue or publicly participate in Judaism. According to this line of thinking, women are already so holy that we don’t need to do anything extra to practice Judaism. Rather, we demonstrated our devotion to G-d by letting the men in our lives lead while we took a backseat.
This attitude was pervasive in my community. For my friends and my peers, spiritual and educational role models were men. The politicians my parents voted for were men, and the figures we turned to with questions were men — not because we thought they were better, rather because they were all we saw around us. And just as I did not question this dynamic in school, it was apparent that those in my community also failed to question the lack of visible, powerful women.
Now, years after my time in high school, I am elated by the progress that women have made here in Israel (and likewise around the world). I turn on the television and see more women journalists than ever before. There are more women taking an active part in the business world. When I go to vote, I know that most political parties have women high on their rosters, if not at the top. We have come further than many women could have imagined 50, 30, even 20 years ago. The world my daughters were born into offers many more opportunities for women than I had as a young girl. Yet there is work to be done.
When I read Bethel Coleman’s recent article in Makor Rishon about how women are increasingly taking on the role of spiritual leaders in Israeli schools, I felt not only relieved, but also hopeful. For girls (and boys) to see women in positions of religious authority will teach them that we are all equally valuable in Judaism. If “you can’t be what you cannot see,” this might be a turning point in the Orthodox community. With more women as religious leaders in schools, girls and young women will learn, by simply seeing different options, that they too can be leaders in religious life.
In my role at Women of the Wall, I have long championed women taking ownership of their Judaism. While our immediate goal is equality at the Kotel, we work to ensure that no Jewish women feel marginalized because of their gender. From meeting with students to holding tefillin-wrapping stands in public places, it is critical that women see other women who are empowered in their Judaism. We can only be what we see — and this is one way we’re making that happen.