Two Voices: this week’s Progressive Judaism debate

Q: How have Progressive movements benefited from male and female spiritual leaders?

  • Rabbi Janet Burden says: 
Rabbi Janet Burden

Rabbi Janet Burden

Tempting though it may be, I will offer no paean to the virtues of my women colleagues – wonderful though they are.

I’ve heard it argued too often that women are ‘naturally’ better communicators; that we are ‘naturally’ more compassionate, and so on. Yet much of what we deem to be ‘natural’ is a social construct.

Women may have learned to be articulate, but that doesn’t mean we are necessarily better than our male counterparts at getting a point across. We may place a high value on relationships, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that we have a greater ability to be empathetic.

I’d equally challenge the assertion that women rabbis work differently; that we tend to come to decisions by consensus or that we seek to empower others. Some of us do, and some of us don’t – just like our male colleagues.

I would ask an alternative question: how could the Progressive movements not have benefitted by increasing the breadth and depth of the pooled life experience of their rabbis and teachers? One could equally ask what have we gained by having lesbian and gay rabbis? Or rabbis who chose to become Jewish? Or rabbis who pursued other careers before the rabbinate?

As Ben Zoma used to say: Who is wise? The one who learns from every individual. Rabbis with different life experiences help expand our understanding of people, in all their glorious variety and complexity.

• Janet Burden is rabbi of Ealing Liberal Synagogue

  • Abigail Jacobi says: 
Abigail Jacobi

Abigail Jacobi

In the affirmations of Liberal Judaism, it states that “women and men may lead services, become rabbis and hold any synagogue office”.

We no longer solely acknowledge the Patriarchs in liturgy or education, but also place huge importance on the contributions of Sarah, Rebeccah, Rachel and Leah. Why wouldn’t we when women make up half of our synagogue membership?

Having women as spiritual leaders has enabled the diversification of Progressive communities. In secular and religious worlds, we teach tolerance and respect, regardless of race, gender and sexuality.

By appointing women to spiritual leadership positions, Progressive Jewry enables women and men to take on lay leadership roles and provide positive role models as girls and boys become bar or batmitzvah.

Growing up in a Liberal community with a female rabbi, I learnt that women and men were equally responsible for building the Sukkah, lighting Shabbat candles and leading services.

Boys and girls became bar/batmitzvah, then Kabbalat Torah, before becoming lay leaders themselves. The answer to this question is a no-brainer.

Spiritual leaders of both genders increases the number of engaged members and doubles the pool of leaders. After all, how could a movement justify limiting half its membership to the status of passive observers who only get to lay out Kiddush on a weekly basis?

• Abigail Jacobi is a Liberal Judaism outreach co-ordinator