Sermon: Pinchas – Forty Years of Women Rabbis in the UK

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 16 July 2015

You know, sometimes I rather envy Christian Clergy.  They get the chance to dress up for the job at all times and all places – wearing a surplice and clerical collar.  It means that whenever you get some kind of official occasion where the massed clergy of our multicultural borough are meant to stand there looking meaningful, the Christian ministers look impressive and purposeful, whilst the Rabbis look like they’ve just popped out of a business meeting and are not quite sure whether they have turned up in the right place.  In all of the photos of local clergy taken to publicise Golders Green Together, the positive response to last week’s proposed and then laughable neo-Nazi action, our local C of E, Catholic and Methodist ministers all looked the part whilst we Rabbis could have been any one from the area, except perhaps Rabbi Harvey Belovski from Dunstan Road Synagogue, resplendent in wide brimmed and very Jewish looking hat. I was part of another such clergy photo call a little while ago where all of the clergy of the borough, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains even Humanist had been invited to sign up to a particular statement.

The event was the borough multicultural resources exhibition and the statement was one which assured parents that we as religious leaders thoroughly approved of our children learning about other religions at school.  This statement has become necessary because a number of children of various faiths are being withdrawn by the parents from such lessons – lest, I presume, their minds become corrupted by hearing about Eid el Fatr or Diwali or Christmas or Channukah.

The exhibition was fascinating enabling teachers to find all kinds of resources to teach about the many groups within our multicultural community.  Inevitably my eye was drawn to the Jewish teaching resources on display.  Whilst wandering around the stalls I came across a jigsaw of a Synagogue, beautifully crafted and illustrated with a scene of a service going on in full flow.  The jigsaw had panels you could remove to turn the empty building into a hive of Jewish activity.  There was a problem though.  In order, I presume to make the jigsaw acceptable to Orthodox authorities for use in their schools, all of the participants and congregants in the service scene were recognisably male.  Now I can understand this being necessary in Hasmonean Primary School, but imagine what it does when this jigsaw becomes a prop for a lesson in say a Primary school in Colindale or Cricklewood.

I suspect that it is the kind of thing which gave rise to a complaint made by a young person at the youth club which my wife Nicola and I once ran at South London Liberal Synagogue whose teacher had not believed her when she had piped up in a Religious Studies lesson.  The teacher was teaching the class in Croydon as it happens, that in a Jewish service only men participated.  This child, brought up in a Liberal Synagogue, knew that in her Synagogue not only did men and women participate equally, but that the Rabbi was a woman, Julia Neuberger.  The teacher was, we were told not impressed – telling our club member that she must be mistaken and only have gone say to informal family services where things are done differently, because in a Synagogue only men participate!

Women’s participation in Liberal services was written into the origins of the Jewish Religious Union in 1902.  Men and women sat together in services from the first service onwards.  It took though until 1915 before the first time that a woman preached a sermon at a Liberal Jewish service, that woman being, Lily Montagu, whose Jewish Quarterly Review article in 1899 had been the foundation of the Movement itself.  It was not until 1920 before women achieved complete equality in participating in services in the Liberal Jewish Synagogue.   Men and women sat together at the foundation of this North Western Reform Synagogue in 1933 and in West London Synagogue from the late 1930’s except at the High Holidays until the late 1960’s and full women’s equality in Reform Judaism was not achieved in all of its Synagogues until the late 1990’s.  Though Lily Montagu served the West Central Liberal Synagogue as their lay minister it was more than half a century before the Liberal Movement ordained its first woman Rabbi – Julia Neuberger in 1976.

In between times a woman Rabbi in Germany was the first to be ordained.  Regina Jonas was ordained in 1935 and served German Liberale communities, she was murdered in the Shoah in 1944.  When the Liberal movement was considering setting up its own Rabbinic training college in 1954 it was decided that women would be entitled to train for the Rabbinate there but that the movement could not guarantee them a congregational post.  In the end the Liberal movement joined the Reform in Leo Baeck College.  Their first woman applicant for Rabbinical training was Vita Clarke in 1966, her application was rejected on academic grounds.  The next was Jackie Acker, who is now known as Jackie Tabick, and heads the Bet Din of the Movement for Reform Judaism. She became the first British woman Rabbi in 1975.  A few weeks ago we celebrated her 40th anniversary of ordination.  Sally Preisland had been ordained by the American Reform movement in 1972.  Now in 2015 there are several hundred women Rabbis around the world, the majority in the US, but fully half the Progressive rabbinate in England, and many in Israel and Europe and Australasia.

The guide to Reform Judaism published by our movement asserts that we our Judaism holds “an uncompromising commitment to gender equality.”  This is a progression in Judaism that begins in our Torah portion today.   Just before the listing of the daily, monthly and festival sacrifices in this portion which tidies up the Israel story we have the episode of the daughters of Zelophehad where, following a passage which sets out the inheritance of the tribes of Israel through the male line, five sisters ask Moses if their family is to lose its inheritance if there is no son in the family..  The Rabbis noted that this is one of only two examples of case law in the Torah where Moses goes to God to ask for a change in the laws which he received at Mount Sinai – the other one having to do with what happens if someone misses celebrating the highly significant Passover.

The daughters of Zelophehad do indeed win for women the right to inherit their father’s property if he has no sons.  I’m afraid that this does not last for long – the final verses of the Book of Numbers in nine chapters’ time put some severe bounds to this right.  The law gets changed again so that the inheritance never passes to them unless they marry within their father’s tribe.  Then from then on the property passes only down the male line.  This remains the case in Halachic Jewish Law, although a courageous Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel issued a Takkanah, or Rabbinic decree that from the time of the formation of the State, property would pass equally to sons and daughters in the land of Israel.

So whilst the daughters of Zelophehad might appear to have gained equality – it is only that defined by the male dominated power and societal structures of their time.  Is it different now?  Now that there are 400 female Rabbis are women truly equal even in our Reform Judaism?

There are a number of residual, shall we call them outward inequalities.  We retain even in our synagogue some sense of activities which are traditionally the preserve of either gender – so almost all of the time our Candle lighter on Friday evening is a woman, the scrolls are more regularly handled by men, few women don our prayer wear (kippah and tallit) which I am convinced requires the continuing lead of shall we say the more mature women in our congregation so that younger women will follow their lead, somewhat fewer young women celebrate Bat Mitzvah than young men celebrate Bar Mitzvah – there still seems to be a sense that to do so is an option for girls but de rigeur for boys.

Secondly, though it is invidious to generalise, there is less women’s literature of quality in the Jewish cannon.  If I look around my Rabbinic library and our Synagogue library, most of the books written by women are dealing with issues specific to women.  There are few works on theology, biblical interpretation, social ethics etc.  The bookshelf is half full.

As Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger puts it :  It is not religion itself, the faith, the hope, the spirituality, the attempt to carry out God’s will, which discriminates against women,.  How can it, when [religion] is all about human aspiration? “ [On being a Jewish woman p69] It is the religious structures that we have created that still need to move, assumptions that we make in the education of our children, assumptions that we make when we organise our services and community life.

Alyth’s Rabbis and Cantor and our Council is committed to this Synagogue being an exemplar of gender equality where all opportunities for Jewish participation are open to all.  No Synagogue is egalitarian where any space or prayer service forbids men and women to participate equally.  We do so on the basis of the Torah’s first statement about men and women – that they were created together in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).  We work to make this reality on the basis of the challenge that has to be posed whenever equality falls out of kilter – following the example of Moses who takes God’s instruction to put it right in the case of the daughters of Zelophehad in our portion today.  We are proud that our Movement celebrates the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the first woman Rabbi in the UK this year.   May all Judaism in time become open to men and women equally and may we work to ensure that this is always absolutely true in our own Judaism.