Rabbi Sally J. Priesand, North America’s first female rabbi, who was ordained in 1972 by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, will be the scholar in residence at Temple Kol Ami on May 6-7.
Rabbi Priesand, who served as spiritual leader of the Monmouth Reform Temple in New Jersey from 1981 until her retirement in 2006, plans to address the Thornhill, Ont., congregation three times. The lectures are titled “Reflections on My Life as a Rabbi,” “Why I Am a Reform Jew,” and “Remembering Rabbi Regina Jonas,” the first female rabbi who was ordained in Germany in 1935 before dying in the Holocaust.
Rabbi Priesand spoke to The CJN in advance of her visit about pursuing her dream and how Jewish feminism has evolved.
Having paved the way for hundreds of other women who have since followed in your footsteps, in the 44 years since you were ordained, how have things evolved for women who dream of becoming Jewish leaders?
Things have definitely evolved. I’ll talk about some of the things we’ve learned and how Jewish feminism has impacted the Jewish community. I’m happy to say that in the Reform movement, there are more than 700 female rabbis, and I would say, probably, in all of Judaism, all the movements, there are well over 1,000 throughout the world.
When I was in rabbinical school, there were 35 men in my class and me. I had no mentors per se, and I had no female mentors, so I had no role models, and that has changed drastically today. I think that’s very positive.
Did you ever imagine at that time, having faced the challenges of being the only woman seeking ordination, that you’d see the day when Reform female rabbis barely raise an eyebrow anymore?
Well, I guess the honest answer is no. I didn’t become a rabbi because I was trying to champion women’s rights or be a pioneer or any of those things. I just wanted to be a rabbi. And I wanted to be a congregational rabbi, which I spent my whole career doing, but I’m a very lucky person, because my dream got to be fulfilled. However, I will say that for many years, I was quite conscious of the fact that people judged the idea of women in the rabbinate by me. So many of the decisions I made in my life, I made for what was best for women in the rabbinate, not necessarily for what was best for me. I did feel that responsibility. I think it comes with being the first, and I have always tried, after opening the door, to keep the door open for others to follow me.
Is the current controversy with Orthodox female rabbis and the Rabbinical Council of America’s resolutions against them similar to what you faced more than four decades ago?
In coming to know Rabba Sara Hurwitz, [the first female modern Orthodox rabba, ordained in 2009,] who is really at the centre of all of that, I realize that much of what she is going through, I went through. I think one of the big differences today is that she has a lot of supporters from every movement of Judaism, and I really feel it is incumbent upon us, in particular Jewish women, to support her in her efforts. And I very much admire her and all she has accomplished. I’m pleased she is the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, and I was very honoured and pleased to attend their first graduation ceremony a few years ago. Every year since then, they have ordained three or four or five women in the modern Orthodox tradition, and what is so exciting about it is they all have jobs in the modern Orthodox tradition. Some of them are in Canada, I believe. I think that’s very positive.
When it comes to feminism, there has to be two kinds of people. There have to be the kind of people who are willing to be out there – and right now I’m thinking about the early days of feminism – who are out there protesting and speaking out, etc., but then there also has to be women who are willing to do whatever it is they are protesting about.
So in my role, I’ve always considered myself to be a feminist, which means to me simply that every person has the right to become all that he or she is capable of becoming. In the beginning, there are probably quotes from me, way back when, that didn’t necessarily reflect that I was a feminist, but with that definition, I’ve always been a feminist. I focused my energy and attention on becoming a rabbi, not speaking about it. You need to have both.
What are your thoughts on work done by the Women of the Wall to force a recent decision by the Israeli cabinet to designate a prayer section at the Western Wall for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, and for women who choose to pray with tfillin, prayer shawls and the Torah?
I have two problems with the decision. First, I do not consider separate to be equal, and secondly, I’m not convinced that they are actually going to move forward with the space. In the separate-but-equal part, I worry a little that our Orthodox sisters may feel abandoned by us, and secondly, I’ll believe it when the government does what it says. I’ll believe it when I see it.
Do you have a message for women who wish to pursue ordination, or to those who feel threatened by the idea of women taking on Jewish leadership roles?
Try it. You’ll like it.
I spent the year before I was ordained and the year after travelling the country, speaking in various locations in order for people to see me – to see that I was human and that it really wasn’t that crazy. From my own personal experience, I have found that once people experience it, they are quite willing to accept it.
I suspect that some people are looking for a father figure, I guess. Today, I don’t honestly know, because women are making gains in every other area. I’m watching [U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful] Hillary Clinton, and I very much support her, but I see a lot of things that happen to her that would never happen if she were a man. I can empathize with her so much. We just have to keep trying to break through the barriers, and we will continue to make progress.
This interview was edited and condensed for style and clarity.