Women Leading Congregations, Part II
I’ve lost count of how many times, during my five years as a rabbi, the liberal Jews I’ve served in Los Angeles and Washington have hinted at their preference for my gender over my female counterparts.
Most of these comments are from people who support gender equality — except when they go to pray. And the comments aren’t only from older generations: Even professionals in their 20s and 30s sometimes tell me that they can’t handle female religious leaders.
Perlo says that the complainers are often themselves women. And he theorizes that liberal religion itself ironically perpetuates this sentiment:
In liberal religion, people rarely see tradition as the embodiment of God’s word; rather, religion is valued for its sentimental, emotional content — the way it feels to sit in a pew or the familiarity of prayer melodies from childhood. In this sense, religious observance feels like being wrapped in an older, safer world, one in which life felt less complicated and more certain. And in that nostalgic world, clergy are men.
Svetlana Boym, the author of “The Future of Nostalgia,” writes that “nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress.”
When people are stuck in such a nostalgic world, time’s swift tide — which has brought shifting gender roles and widespread acceptance of diverse sexual orientations — unbalances them. Even if these people support society’s progress on gender equality, they may miss the clarity of defined gender roles. And many look to religion as a refuge where time is frozen and older, understood rules apply. As a consequence, we end up asking religion to stay a step behind the changing world.
I’m not trying to rob anyone of the warmth of her childhood memories. Nor can I say that I somehow get what it’s like to be a female rabbi.
But I do want to point out the harm nostalgia causes. It doesn’t matter whether someone objects to female clergy out of principle or out of sentiment, the effect is the same: Female religious leaders are marginalized, perpetuating religious patriarchy.
Well, as a believer in a patriarchal religion, I say: Up with the patriarchy! But more seriously, Perlo’s explanation doesn’t seem quite right to me. He goes on to say that the female rabbi problem is a matter of historical expectations, and that things will change over time. This notion comes up in a subsequent conversation between Eleanor Barkhorn (Christian) and Jennie Rothenberg Gritz (Jewish), who talk about that column, and why many men and women still aren’t comfortable with women pastoring congregations. In this excerpt, JRG imagines her ideal female rabbi:
Jennie: When I try to picture it, for some reason, I think of a woman who stands up there in front of a congregation with an amazing presence about her—a sense of profound calm and command. She could be vivacious, or more laid back—it’s not so much about personality. But I think of her as having a certain gravitas that isn’t at all macho. I realize, as I type this, that that sounds kind of vague. I have no idea what a woman rabbi should or shouldn’t wear, for instance. But I do think there’s a way to radiate spiritual leadership that doesn’t at all have to be associated with male-ness—and I’m sure a lot of people would be quick to say that their female rabbis do have that quality.
And I feel like men would respond well to that quality. There is an archetype of the “wise woman,” even if it isn’t a particularly Jewish or Christian archetype. But I do think it’s somewhere in our culture.
A lot of people would argue that none of this should be about gender at all—it should be about having an exalted, enlightened human being up there leading a congregation. That’s a nice ideal. But it may take a while before women religious leaders can truly get up in front of a congregation without being seen as trying to fill a man’s shoes. (Or wearing a man’s kippah and tallit.)
Hmm. While there is no doubt a historical and cultural component of this phenomenon, I don’t have much faith that it will be resolved by the passage of time. For Catholic and Orthodox Christians, women priests are a theological impossibility, given the sacramental role of the priest. Catholicism and Orthodoxy have produced spiritual giants from its women, despite barring women from the sacramental priesthood. Anybody want to tell Genevieve of Paris, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Hildegarde of Bingen, or Julian of Norwich, that they couldn’t amount to much because they couldn’t lead congregations as priests?
For Protestant churches, in general, the leader of the congregation does not play the same sacramental role. If the role of the pastor is to provide teaching and to lead worship, why couldn’t women do that as well as men? In theory, I don’t see why they couldn’t.
But religion, as the tough old atheist bird H.L. Mencken reminds us, is a poem, not a syllogism. If Rabbi Perlo’s congregations tell him that a female rabbi doesn’t “feel” right, that means more than he perhaps understands. Mind you, I’m the first one to gripe about people who treat religion primarily as an emotional phenomenon, but I’ve learned through hard experience the deep truth of Mencken’s observation. That is, a religion that exists only in one’s head is hard to distinguish from a philosophy. Real religion captures the heart, and, more broadly, the body, by which I mean the senses. The heart is not rational. It and should can be guided by the mind, but ultimately living religion has to cohere in both the mind and the heart.
Reading these online essays, I find myself wondering if these Jewish (and Christian) congregants struggling to accept female rabbis and pastors intuit something important that contemporary theologians of those traditions miss. Is there a givenness in our nature that causes us to desire male religious leaders over females? Or, as Rabbi Perlo has it, is this more a matter of nurture, or cultural expectations?
In our time and place, we discount the givenness of human nature, thinking it an infinitely plastic thing that we can bend and twist to fit our ideals. But human nature may not be as plastic as we think it is. Maybe that’s what’s going on here.