OPINION: Female faith leaders – What’s the big deal?

OPINION: Female faith leaders – What’s the big deal?

By Ben Rich is former Chief Executive of Reform Judaism

Standing last month outside York Minister, being interviewed by a sports commentator about the significance of the ordination of the first Anglican bishop, was one of my more unusual experiences. 19 Ben Rich oped2 (2)

Together with the convenor of York Quakers and a representative of the Catholic campaign for Female priests, I was put through my paces by presenter Adrian Chiles. I found myself slightly taken aback by what a big deal the occasion seemed to be. Half a dozen film crews, hundreds of clerics – many female – and the Archbishop of York were present to see Libby Lane become the Bishop of Stockport in a breakthrough moment for the Church of England. And yet within Liberal and Reform Judaism, the sight of female clergy long since ceased to be noteworthy.

Growing up, Rabbi Julia Neuberger oversaw my Kabalah Torah (the then Liberal equivalent to a barmitzvah) and it seemed strange to go to other shuls to discover men could also be rabbis. And women now hold pretty much every senior position within our movement: Charley Baginsky, chair of the Liberal Rabbinic Conference, Deborah Kahn-Harris, principal of our rabbinic training college, Alex Wright, the senior rabbi of our largest shul, the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood.

Our movement – founded on the principle of gender equality – is so much stronger for its exercise in practice.

We are able to call on the talents of all the members of our small community, not just half, and we can attract the very best into the rabbinate because there is no ceiling on their ambitions.

Gender equality is one of the core features that distinguishes progressive Judaism from its Orthodox alternatives.

In some respects, it would be a shame to lose what in marketing jargon is an important unique selling point and yet that would be to diminish the contribution that women have to make across the denominations.

I hope the work of the increasing band of feminists within the Orthodox movement will bring about a change of attitudes there, too, so women have the opportunity to play a greater role in our religion, whichever denomination they choose.

Because if they can, all Judaism will be stronger. And if the Church of England can do it, then maybe it is no dream.

• Ben Rich is former Chief Executive of Reform Judaism

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