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  • Rabbinic Authority from a Gendered Perspective
  • Susan Grossman1 (bio)

Women have served as rabbis in Conservative Judaism for over a quarter of a century. Like their male colleagues, women rabbis serve in the full breadth of rabbinic callings in congregations, chaplaincy, education, colleges, organizational leadership, and scholarship. When looking at the experiences of women in the rabbinate, women who are rabbis are rabbis first and gendered rabbis second. That means that most of the challenges facing rabbis are the same for both men and women. Specifically, most aspects of establishing and utilizing rabbinic authority are similar for both male and female rabbis.

However, there are a number of ways that gender affects women’s authority, in general, and women’s rabbinic authority, in particular. This article will discuss the findings of recent literature on gendered authority, in general and in religious settings, their implications for women in the Conservative rabbinate and Conservative Judaism as a whole, and how such implications can shape the direction and policies Conservative Judaism may take as it moves forward.

The studies are largely, though not exclusively, drawn from social science research. They imply that both external and internal issues complicate gendered authority. By external issues, I mean sociological realities, external to the individual woman or particular group of women, that impact [End Page 3] how such women are seen and treated by others in their roles as religious authorities. By internal issues, I mean conscious or unconscious actions that women tend to take that may undermine their authority and what women can consciously choose to do that can positively enhance their authority.

This article will begin with the external issues for three reasons. First, it is easier not to take something personally when we recognize that gender issues are global and cannot be solved on one’s own, regardless of how talented or adroit any one individual woman or group of women may be. Second, one of the lessons of the Feminist Movement is that naming something (i.e., identifying and verbalizing a problem) is the first step to doing something about it. Third, identifying what the external issues are can help individual women embrace the reality that women still have to try harder than their male colleagues—a reality that unfortunately has not improved in the last quarter century, according to the implications of some of the studies to be discussed below.

The first generation of women ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary and accepted into the Rabbinical Assembly understood that, as trailblazers, they would have to work harder than their male colleagues just to be at the same place, or even a step or two behind them. Expectations ran high that such gender inequality would diminish as the years passed.

I remember a discussion I had several years ago with a newly ordained female colleague. She commented how she wasn’t prepared for how hard it still was to be a woman in the pulpit, and particularly how hard it still was to find a position after ordination. She had assumed that since the first ordination of women had happened over a decade before her own ordination, gender inequality wouldn’t be such an issue anymore.

We now know that this is not true. Women rabbis who were ordained in 2011 and sought a pulpit found that they had fewer interviews and callbacks than their male colleagues. Most chilling is the fact that not one of the women who wanted a full-time pulpit position found one in the first round of placements, although all the men who sought pulpits found placement. Some of the women candidates have since found positions as educators within congregations, have accepted part-time rabbinic work in other [End Page 4] venues, and/or have had more success securing interviews and placement as part of the 2012 placement cycle, competing with newly ordained rabbis a year behind them in seniority.

The failure of pulpit placement for women in 2011 served as a rude awakening for Conservative Judaism’s purported commitment to egalitarianism, the equality of men and women. The placement gap also threatened to leave a generational gap in female representation in the pulpit, which in turn...


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