On Wednesday evening, I was at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, St John’s Wood, participating in an event to celebrate Women Rabbis in the Pulpit – A collection of sermons;[1] a book I edited with my colleague, Rabbi Dr Barbara Borts, which includes contributions from 45 of the 55 women rabbis ordained by Leo Baeck College,[2] and was published in December 2015.[3]

We decided to collect the sermons of women rabbis to mark the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the first woman Rabbi in Britain and Europe after the Sho’ah, Rabbi Jackie Tabick, and the 80th anniversary of the first woman Rabbi in the world, Rabbi Regina Jonas, who was ordained in Germany on December 27, 1935. If you would like to know more about Rabbi Regina Jonas, and are curious about how it is that she was forgotten for so many years, I devoted a chapter of my book, Trouble-Making Judaism to exploring the mystery.[4]

For thousands of years, men have ruled the world and determined the place and the role of women on the basis of the presumption of male superiority. There are parts of the world even today – indeed, even within Britain – where this presumption still reigns supreme. Women Rabbis in the Pulpit proclaims the powerful message that given equal opportunities, women like men can do anything – not least, stand authoritatively in the pulpit, and address the congregation.

One of the reasons why we decided to collect sermons rather than articles to mark the anniversaries of the ordinations of Regina Jonas and Jackie Tabick, was precisely to make the point that gender equality has not been achieved until women not only have the opportunity to become learned in whatever field they choose, but are empowered to be leaders.

So, the ordination of women as rabbis within Progressive Judaism is about acknowledging that women can be leaders on an equal basis with men. But what does this really mean? In what way, are rabbis, leaders? After all, the title ‘Rabbi’ simply means, ‘my teacher’. I will return to this question, but before I do, I would like to take you on a brief excursion through the history of leadership in Jewish life – so apologies in advance for turning this sermon into a mini-lecture! But first, in keeping with a sermon, I’m going to begin with what we learn about leadership in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa.

Following two portions that largely focus on the building of the mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wilderness, a little way into Ki Tissa, we are brought back to the narrative. The people are gathered at Mount Sinai, and Moses, having ascended the mountain, has stayed there for 40 days and 40 nights. We read at Exodus chapter 32 (:1-4):

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people assembled against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him.” / Then Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So, all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took [them] from them and fashioned [the gold] with a stylus and made it into a molten calf. Then they said, “This is your God Israel, who brought you are out of the land of Egypt.”

For the ex-slaves at Mount Sinai, Moses was the God who had liberated them, and in his absence – which they feared might be permanent – they required a substitute. The tale continues with Moses coming down the mountain with the two tablets, seeing the people cavort before the molten calf and smashing the tablets in his anger. But it’s not just Moses, who is angry. The Eternal is furious – and knows who to blame. We read (32:7): “The Eternal spoke to Moses, ‘Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely.’” And then, after describing to Moses what has happened (32:9): “The Eternal further said to Moses, ‘I see that this is a stiff-necked people. / Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation’”

But Moses isn’t having any of it, and proceeds to give God some lessons in leadership. He points out that liberating the people and then destroying them will provoke the scorn of the Egyptians and also make it impossible for the promise of the land made to their ancestors to be fulfilled. Moses’ ploy works. And so we read that: ‘The Eternal renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people (32:14).’

What kind of leader was Moses? Judging by how he responded to his experience of Divine revelation at the burning bush that was not consumed by the flames, Moses was ambivalent to say the least.[5] A reluctant leader, maybe, but Moses also proved in this incident that he was also a skilled negotiator,

So, what about Aaron? Destined to be the progenitor of the priesthood, what do we make of how Aaron responded to the crisis? Did he display impressive psychological insight when he distracted the people with a brilliant exercise in occupational therapy? Did his clever plan reveal, perhaps, an all-too-hasty inclination to ditch integrity in favour of pragmatism, when the going got tough?

And: what about Miriam? She is not mentioned. Indeed, following the two verses which report that she led the women in a dance with timbrels, after passing through the divided Sea of Reeds, on the way out of Egypt,[6] Miriam disappears completely from the narrative until the Book of Numbers chapter 12. According to tradition, women were granted a special festival of their own – Rosh Chodesh, the Festival of the new moon – because they declined to contribute their earrings for the building of the molten calf.[7] So, perhaps, while the men were busy collecting gold, huddling around Aaron as he worked with his stylus, and then dancing around their shiny new god, the women were gathered with Miriam, singing and dancing, shaking their timbrels – and waiting for the crisis to pass.

Moses ordained Joshua, as his successor. After Joshua, leadership passed to the judges, all of whom, with one notable exception – Deborah – were men.[8] And after the judges, there were the kings: Saul, David, Solomon, and so on. With the building of Solomon’s Temple, the all-male priesthood became responsible for the official religious leadership of the people, as they presided over the system of sacrificial worship.

However, the priests were not the sole source of spiritual authority. While the priests conducted the sacred rites, the prophets offered ethical leadership, challenging secular and religious authorities alike, as well as the people to act righteously, with justice and compassion towards the vulnerable and marginal. Miriam, like Moses is referred to as a prophet in the Hebrew Bible,[9] and so is Deborah. [10] However, there are very few female prophets mentioned in the Hebrew Bible – according to tradition, just seven in all[11] – Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah and Esther. Of these, only Miriam, Deborah and Huldah[12] are actually called prophets in the Bible, [13] and apart from Esther, they don’t have any books named after them.

When King Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, the people were exiled to Babylonia. Without recourse to Temple worship, it was the scribes, like Ezra, who kept the people together. And the seeds of the development of the synagogue may be discerned in their communal gatherings.[14] It was also the leadership provided by the scribes that following the return to the land and the building of a new Temple evolved into a new class of scholarly leaders: the rabbis.[15]

Following the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, the scholarly leadership of the rabbis centred on the development of the halakhah, the legal framework for Jewish life that extended religious practice into the daily lives of the people, in their homes, and in the synagogue.[16] For centuries, rabbis were the teachers and judges for their communities, answering questions and deciding points of law.

After the French revolution of 1789 and the gradual emancipation of Jewish communities from a segregated existence, the role of the rabbi expanded, under the influence of Christian ministry to encompass pastoral responsibilities, and in the progressive world, in particular, the leading of Shabbat, Festival and life cycle services and the reading of the Torah. Prior to these developments, pastoral care was the responsibility of all members of the congregation, and those leading services and reading the Torah were simply the most learned and pious amongst the congregation.

Until the modern era, the rabbinate was not a profession. Since becoming a profession, rabbis who work in a congregational setting have become employees, subject to the authority of the governing body of the synagogue – usually called the Council. And with professionalisation, the rabbi’s role has expanded still further to include such tasks as cheerleader, fundraiser and outreach director. The rabbi has also become the professional Jew in the congregation; the full-time Jew, practising Judaism on behalf of others.

I’ve been talking about general trends. Of course, not all synagogues are the same in all their features. If we think about our own congregation, for example, it’s apparent that having spent significant periods of time without a rabbi, and having had for the past 15 years, a rabbi, who only conducts 50% of Shabbat services, BHPS, unlike many other synagogues in the progressive world, has a good number of lay people involved in leading prayer and reading the Torah.

And this synagogue also has a female rabbi. The wide variety of sermons, collected in Women Rabbis in the Pulpit, demonstrate that female rabbis are as varied as their male colleagues. Nevertheless, women rabbis are often perceived and treated differently than their male counterparts by the lay leaders and members of congregations. That difference in perception and treatment revolves principally around issues of authority. While the authority of a male rabbi is usually taken for granted, female rabbis often have to prove their authority.

Authority issues apart, differences in the ways in which females and males are socialised has an impact on the ways women and men practice their rabbinate. Like many of my female colleagues, I see my rabbinic role primarily in terms of being an enabler. I consciously use the authority of my role and my training as a rabbi to enable others to engage in Jewish life and practice – principally, through my teaching.

I also understand my enabling role as a rabbi more broadly. Earlier on, I asked the question: in what way are rabbis, leaders? Rabbis are not priests. We do not mediate between God and the people. We do not conduct sacred functions that only we can perform. Rabbis are teachers – committed to drawing on the rich resources of Jewish teaching to grapple with the challenges of life. According to tradition, the age of prophecy has long since ceased.[17] However, from a progressive perspective, rabbis should undertake a prophetic role: speak out against oppression and tyranny and inspire others to practice tz’dakah, acts of justice, and g’milut chasadim, deeds of loving kindness. When Joshua called on Moses to restrain those who were inspired by the spirit of prophecy, as related in Numbers chapter 11, Moses responded: ‘Would that all the people of the Eternal were prophets and the Eternal put His spirit upon them.’[18] May we all be committed to encouraging and nurturing the spirit of justice and compassion within each one of us, so that we may each contribute to the renewal of our community and the repair of the world. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue,

Shabbat Ki Tissa– 27th January 2016 – 18th Adar I 5776

  1. Kulmus Publications through lulu.com.
  2. The book also includes a sermon by Rabbi Ariel Friedlander, who was ordained by Hebrew Union College in the USA, whose father Rabbi Dr Albert Friedlander was Dean of Leo Baeck College for many years. One of the LBC ordinands, Rabbi Melinda [Michelson-] Carr, ordained in 1996, has become a man named, Rabbi Indigo Jonah Raphael since 2012.
  3. The launch event for Women Rabbis in the Pulpit was held at Leo Baeck College on 7 December 2015. The book was co-funded by LJS and Bet Debora, ‘a forum for exchange between Jewish women in Europe open to women activists from all streams of Judaism, women artists, and women scholars as well as women rabbis, women cantors, and women community officials’, established in Berlin in 1998. Bet Debora held its first conference in Berlin in 1999. https://www.bet-debora.net/about-us-2/
  4. See Chapter 4 ‘Fraulein Rabbiner Regina Jonas and the Mysterious Disappearance of the First Woman Rabbi.’
  5. Exodus chapter 3, especially 3:11-15.
  6. Exodus 15:20-21.
  7. Tur, Orach Chayyim 417. Tur is short for Arba’im Turim – ‘Four Rows’; the fourth volume codification of Jewish law, compiled by Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, c.1270-1343. Orach Chayyim meaning ‘path of life’ is the first section of the Tur. The Shulchan Aruch, edited by Joseph Caro, published in 1565, which became the foremost code of Jewish law, follows the format of the Tur.
  8. Judges 4:4-5:31.
  9. At Exodus 15:20, Miriam is introduced as Miryam ha-n’vi’ah achot Aharon ‘Miriam the prophet, the sister of Aaron. For a new aggadah, story-telling midrash, commentary on Miriam see chapter 2 of Trouble-Making Judaism: ‘Why Miriam Spoke Against Moses: An Untold Story.’
  10. At Judges 4:4, Deborah is referred to as a ‘prophet’ – n’vi’ah – who judged Israel at that time.’
  11. Babylonian Talmud, M’gillah 14a: “Our Rabbis taught: Forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses prophesied to Israel. . . . ‘Seven prophetesses’. Who were these? – Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah and Esther.”
  12. Huldah the prophet is mentioned at 2 Kings 22:14.
  13. Noadiah is also referred to as a prophet. See: “Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid” (Nehemiah 6:14). However, because she opposed the leadership of Nehemiah, she was perceived as a false prophet. The prophet Isaiah also refers to his own wife as a prophet: “And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son” (Isaiah 8:3).
  14. For the origins of the synagogue in Babylonian captivity see: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14160-synagogue
  15. The rabbis were all men. However, there is evidence in rabbinic literature of women giving scholarly teachings, although they were not included in the all-male Academy, or recognised as rabbis. The most significant of these women was B’ruria, the wife of Rabbi Meir, who lived in the second century. See chapter 3 of Trouble-Making Judaism: ‘B’ruria: A suitable case for mistreatment.’
  16. The first rabbinic code of law was the Mishnah, edited c. 200 CE.
  17. According to the rabbinic sages, Malachi was the last prophet. See, for example: Tosefta Sotah 3:3 (Tosefta, meaning ‘Additions’ is a parallel work to the Mishnah); Babylonian Talmud Yoma 9b; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 11a).
  18. See Numbers 11:29.