On a recent trip to Berlin with a dozen other Conservative rabbis, we made certain to stop at the apartment building that Regina Jonas once called home. I had never heard of Jonas, but to the four female rabbis in our group she was a hero.
In 1935, she became the first woman in the world to be ordained as a rabbi. My colleague, Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, hosted our group at her beautiful Berlin synagogue during our visit and doubled as a knowledgeable tour guide. We also had the opportunity to meet with rabbinical students at the Abraham Geiger College, where in 2010 Rabbi Alina Treiger became the first woman to be ordained in Germany since Jonas.
Today there are hundreds of inspiring, smart and passionate female rabbis who have followed in the steps of Regina Jonas.
As another “rabba” will soon be ordained, American Jews are just getting used to the idea of female rabbis in the Modern Orthodox world. However, in the more progressive streams of Judaism, female rabbis have been on the scene for decades and are now part of the fabric of everyday Jewish life. In fact, one funny anecdote demonstrates that for some of the youngest members of the Jewish community, female rabbis are the only form of rabbi that exists.
A female colleague tells the story of introducing her 5-year-old son to a male rabbi. He reacted in shock and said, “But Mommy, I thought only ladies can be rabbis.” Out of the mouths of babes.
In Newsweek magazine’s recent ranking of the top U.S. rabbis for this year listed many more women at the top. Among these superstar rabbis were women who are leading institutions and large congregations, as well as highly sought-after authors and entrepreneurs who have launched their own communities.
Like other professions in which women were once not welcome to join, the rabbinate has been forced to learn how to accept female rabbis into the ranks. Certainly this acceptance is most challenging for the oldest generation of rabbis who came of age in the old boys network—a rabbinate sans women. Rabbis now in their middle age were the first to welcome women into the profession, but also have memories of the controversy that took shape around the seminary doors opening. But for younger rabbis—I include myself in this cohort even though my doctor tells me I’m aging a bit each day—there have always been female rabbis, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.
I recall the first time I jumped into a New York City cab and noticed that my driver was a woman. I did a double take, but then things progressed as usual. She got me to my destination, I paid the fare and her tip, said thanks, and was on my way.
Not so with female rabbis, however. There are noticeable differences between the sexes, and we shouldn’t pretend they don’t exist. Having women as rabbis has added immensely to all aspects of Judaism, and female rabbis have helped shape the conversation.
Female rabbis have added beautiful new rituals to our tradition. They have introduced spiritual rituals that most men wouldn’t have dreamed up, like prayers for fertility, teachings at the mikvah and meaningful customs following a miscarriage.
Female rabbis have brought naming ceremonies for our daughters to the meaningful level of the brit. They can relate to the teenage bat mitzvah girl in ways that male rabbis never could or would never even try. Their commentary on the Torah and Talmud is fresh, and they can provide voices to the hidden personas of the many female characters of our rich text that have been missing for generations.
When I was in rabbinical school, I gained new perspectives from my female peers who at the time numbered just one-third of the student body. I cherish the wonderful professional and personal relationships I have with our female rabbis in town. They offer so much to our community, and I feel sorry for the previous generations who missed out on the female rabbinic voices.
Many women might yearn for the day when we no longer use the term “female rabbi” or when the Forward doesn’t publish a list of the top 50 female rabbis. But we should embrace the changing face of the American rabbinate. Men and women are different creatures, and so, too, it is in the rabbinate. It will only be to Orthodoxy’s benefit to welcome more women into rabbinic leadership roles. Regina Jonas would be proud.
(Rabbi Jason Miller is the director of Kosher Michigan, a kosher certification agency, and president of Access Computer Technology, a tech support and social media marketing company.)
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