Rabbi Raysh Weiss
Shaar Shalom Congregation, Halifax
Rabbi Debra Landsberg
Temple Emanu-El, Toronto
Rabbi Weiss: I feel blessed to live at a time when being a woman rabbi is less and less of a novelty in the progressive Jewish world. The very term “woman rabbi” feels exoticizing and tokenizing to me – much in the same way that emphasizing the sex of someone in any other profession feels demeaning and unnecessary. I am blessed that in my day-to-day life, I do not feel the kind of sexism that my colleagues just a generation ago routinely faced.
That said, every so often, we are confronted with jarring reminders of the fact that sexism is still prevalent. One such example of discrimination against rabbis who are women comes from last month, when the Chief Rabbinate of Israel released its blacklist of 160 rabbis, whose letters confirming the Jewish identity of immigrants to Israel will not be accepted. Not one female name from any Jewish movement in any country made the blacklist.
One of my colleagues joked that the omission of women constitutes a tacit validation of our conversions and letters by the chief rabbinate. The sad reality, however, is that the list attests to the fact that rabbis such as you and I are entirely invisible to the powers that be in the Israeli rabbinate and, as such, not even nameable in this blatant act of public disrespect.
Rabbi Landsberg: Call me a caricature of a child of 1960s New York Jewish liberals, but when I look at the apposition of women and Israel, my mind doesn’t first go to the rabbinate. And when I look at the conjunction of women and rabbis, my mind still does not go to the Israeli rabbinate. Jewish women should set their own agenda, in solidarity with other Jewish woman, and there are many battles on behalf of our sisters in Israel that need a voice.
I believe that you and I will better support feminism in Israel by taking this moment to speak out on vital matters, such as – to name but two – the regression of gender equality in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and gender-segregated public buses.
Rabbi Weiss: The issues you identify are well deserving of our attention and advocacy, but examples such as gender segregation on buses, egalitarian access to the Kotel, the perpetuation of the agunah crisis and, to an increasing extent, gender inequality in the IDF, are inextricably bound up with the growing control of the chief rabbinate over the state.
In addition to protesting and working to bring about positive change, both on the ground in Israel and throughout our Diaspora communities on a grassroots level, it is also critical to direct at least some portion of our energies toward confronting and opposing the divisive and corrosive actions and ideas that emanate from the very locus of institutional religious power in Israel.
Do you think it is appropriate for congregational rabbis in the Diaspora to engage in this issue? And if so, what should our response be?
Rabbi Landsberg: If a man of deep integrity and unbreakable allegiance to Israel – like Rabbi Adam Scheier, the senior rabbi of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal and vice-president of the Rabbinical Council of Canada – is blacklisted, then klal Yisrael is torn asunder. It should be clear to all lovers of Zion that our relationship with Israel has been forged in the sweep of Jewish history, the collective solidarity that is the promise of Zionism. So as to your particular question: it is undoubtedly appropriate.
What we are witnessing is nothing less than an epochal schism in rabbinic Judaism that’s been created by this Jewish Vatican. But I must say that in the fight for the Jewish world that values relationships and learning over institutions and clerical power, I know where my heart lies.
Israelis will have to determine the proper place of such an institution in their society. I think our rabbinic energy is ill-served by navigating the byzantine ways of Israel’s official rabbinate. Instead, we should direct our energy positively by strengthening the bonds between each other – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, women and men, from one congregation to another. Without relying on officially sanctioned power structures, we can shape our future for the better.