Progressively Speaking: How significant is Britain’s first Orthodox female rabbi?

Progressively Speaking: How significant is Britain’s first Orthodox female rabbi?

What does the arrival of Dinah Brawer into her new role mean for the community?

It’s official: Rabbi Dr Sperber signs Rabba Brawer’s semicha
It’s official: Rabbi Dr Sperber signs Rabba Brawer’s semicha

Rabba Dina Brawer becoming Britain’s first Orthodox female rabbi is an historic step for Anglo-Jewry. It was the culmination of a fantastic personal journey.

It has been welcomed in this newspaper and elsewhere by every one of my Progressive rabbinic colleagues and made everyone in Judaism, Progressive or Orthodox, think about the road ahead.

From my own experience as a Progressive female rabbi – married, like Rabba Brawer, to a male rabbi – I know the road to gender equality, for all of us, is complex and uneven.

The British Orthodox world has not always been respectful. Orthodox male colleagues have declined to sit on panels with me. As a Progressive Judaism student chaplain, I have led Jewish Society Shabbat dinners on university campuses, where the honour of leading Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals) was instead given to my husband, who was there simply to accompany me.

But I have seen the Orthodox world move on gender issues. And I know Rabba Brawer’s serious commitment to Torah and to service,  in the model of the Chabad shlichut/emissary-ship with which she grew up with in Italy, is, as she says, the mission she can fulfil in this conversation and at this moment.

We in the Progressive world, too, have gone through evolutions. Lily Montagu, our heroic and trailblazing founder, was never ordained a rabbi, although her spiritual leadership, knowledge and commitment should well have warranted it.

The first Progressive female rabbi was ordained in 1975. We are currently only in our second generation and therefore still pushing boundaries and re-making culture.

We are still learning every day – about the need for paternity and partner leave for raising children, or what the evolving role of the rebbetzin means in a feminist and queer world.

Such questions must be infinitely more difficult in Orthodoxy, which has still to address equality in minyan, in prayer and in Torah reading.

I believe in 50 years there will likely be two Orthodoxies – egalitarian, which can’t stand the cognitive dissonance of modern times, and where women are fully emancipated, and one that can’t or won’t evolve and will shut the door to equality.

In that brave context, mazeltov, morateinu, our teacher in Torah, Rabba Dinah Brawer.

Rabbi Leah Jordan is Liberal Judaism’s student chaplain

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