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Why I'm Not a Rabbi

Why I'm Not a Rabbi

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The women grabbed my hands and joyously led me into the circle. Rather than circle dancing, this felt like spiral dancing – each spin propelled me further from the ground and into the endless Jerusalem night sky. It was late Friday night, the usual prayer services at the Western Wall had long finished. We were part of an impromptu group led by a charismatic rabbi who sat on the partition separating the men from the women to lead the prayers for welcoming in the Shabbat. The spiritual energy was palpable. With each kick from under a colorful flowing skirt we created our own private connection to the Heavens.

I had decided prior to that year to become a rabbi

It was one of my final Shabbats in Israel after spending my Junior year abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I had decided prior to that year to become a rabbi, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to delve into Orthodox Judaism – so I could know what I was rejecting. Up until this point partitions had always disturbed my prayer – why did I have to on the other side, separated from the men? I knew the prayers; I owned tefillin from my Bat Mitzvah! I even knew how to read from the Torah – why did I need to be behind a wall? Men and women were equal, this is how I was raised, anything suggesting otherwise was heresy to my egalitarian roots.

When I entered an all women's college as a freshman, I considered myself a humanist – feminism seemed like a quaint term from before enlightened people realized that men and women were the same. Bit by bit, my secular women's college began to chisel away at my preconceived notions of womanhood. Through my professors and classmates, along with the assigned reading in many of my women's studies classes, I began to appreciate women's distinctive historical gifts to society.

While I was appreciating the different role of women in society, I was still unable to reconcile these thoughts with the different role of women in Judaism. My academic study of Jewish history had left me with the impression that the ancient rabbis were megalomaniacs making up laws to complicate the lives of the ignorant Jewish people and to keep women's status lower than men. While at Hebrew University I had the opportunity to take a class with an Orthodox rabbi. His approach to the ancient Jewish texts was completely novel to me. His obvious love and respect for the words of the rabbis, completely lacking of cynicism and sarcasm, were mystifying! Not to mention his ability to maintain high academic standards in his approach to the text.

Midway through the semester I felt a shift from deep within my soul. The rabbis were not out to control the Jewish people; they were on a noble search for truth to discover what G‑d truly wanted for His chosen people. Rather than attempting to dictate laws for the sake of oppression, the rabbis were trying to decipher G‑d's prescription for the most meaningful life possible. Midway through the semester I felt a shift from deep within my soul With this new understanding of the rabbis, I was ready to approach my Judaism, as a woman, from a totally new perspective. Becoming a rabbi no longer seemed the ideal way for me to actualize my Jewish identity. Though for some time I had thought it was the only way for me to profoundly and spiritually manifest my Judaism.

When I first had decided to become a rabbi, I knew I would have to take on many obligations. My rabbinical school of choice mandated that all students (male and female) take upon themselves the obligation of praying three times a day with a tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries). Though it was a serious commitment, I wasn't concerned; I had gone through several stages of consistent tefillin wearing since my bat mitzvah, and I wasn't daunted by the amount of prayer.

I did have one question, however. How did women who had just given birth fit into this equation? The response I received was the beginning of a very long path that led me to reject the rabbinate as a career, and that particular stream of Judaism as my movement. The rabbi told me a new mother would be considered as any other sick person: exempt from daily prayers until she had recovered. A pregnant woman was "sick?" She would need to "recover?" Giving birth was suddenly an illness? I was shocked that something I longed to do was considered an interference, a problem to be dealt with?

As I sit here several years later heavily pregnant and surrounded by several children, I have to laugh. Just when was I supposed to be "recovered" from motherhood? I am so grateful to the wisdom of our Torah which recognizes that a woman's obligation to her children is of the utmost importance. This is why women are exempt from most time-bound commandments, including the need to pray at specified times or with a quorum of ten. Forcing women to be like men, without any appreciation of their unique gifts, is the real discrimination. To hold men up as the ideal to which women most conform is truly to look at women as second class citizens. Man may do this, but the Torah does not.

That Shabbat in Jerusalem I felt like one of the women who had crossed the red sea onto dry land. Traveling on that path from slavery to freedom, these dancing, praying women had freed something in my soul. The spiritual energy of these women allowed me to feel complete. I was no longer bound by the constraints of male prayer, I could finally pray as a woman, surrounded by other women.

I could finally pray as a woman, surrounded by other women Miriam, Moses' sister, was the first woman to lead other women in prayer. After crossing the Red Sea and realizing their victory, the first thing the Jewish people did was sing out to G‑d in praise and thanks. The Torah tells us Moses led the men while Miriam led the women. What was different about the women's prayers? They were not merely a spontaneous response to their miraculous escape, but rather was planned and expected. Even in their haste to leave Egypt in which they could only take with them the most basic necessities for what they knew would be an arduous journey, the women ensured that they brought drums and tambourines. What would they need these for in the wilderness? The women knew, due to their complete faith, that G‑d would save them and there would be cause for music and thanksgiving afterwards. The women celebrated their freedom as they sang and danced and played their drums, just as they knew they would.

That night at the Western Wall, as I prayed and danced, I felt that I was finally able to honor Miriam and those women for their complete dedication and faith. They had given of their body and soul in giving thanks to their Creator. These women were able to teach me the true meaning of womanhood and the true meaning of prayer. And just like the Sages teach that it was in the merit of Miriam and the righteous women that we were redeemed from Egypt, so too, it will be us, the Jewish women of today, who will lead the world to the final redemption.

Stacey Goldman teaches Torah in the Philadelphia area while raising a houseful of boys.
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Harmony Texas April 24, 2014

Was Devorah considered a Rabi? And what about Moses' wife also? Beyond the sincere and acute ability of women to teach and judge, there is no doubt that we are not made equal... no matter the same abilities that we may have as men, we are not physically nor mentally created equally. But being Not the same does Not mean being Less than... I totally appreciate your acceptance of this and understanding that when women try to be like men, we rob ourselves and our society of who we are and need to be, as Women. Thanks for sharing! Reply

Victoria Garden City, 12 January 8, 2011

subjugation? It is a narrow and anti feminist view that says motherhood and being true to ones self is to make his or herself second class .As far as being second class is concerned , are we not all second class to the Creator? Are we not to be putty in his hands?
Trust me when I tell you that second guessing G-d will only lead o heartbreak and misery. True happiness is only ever found in obedience to His laws and bending to his will. I am grateful to be woman and free from the fetters of manhood. Perhaps in time you will understand ...But perhaps you wont as long as you put your ideas above His.Shalom Reply

Anonymous August 5, 2010

silly story You seem to have such a low view of your previous movement even at the time of your study that its bizarre that you would even consider training to be a rabbi.
There is no valid reason why women should not be mothers and rabbis nor is it offensive that you should take some time off after the birth. I am a reform person but my boyfriend is chasidic. We went to a chabad service at his request - it was awful. i had to sit in a room at the side with a curtained window where i coudnt see or hear what was going on. People were unfriendly and downright weird. It was a world of difference from my friendly, inclusive and engaging shul.

There is no religious reason why women should be excluded the way you are suggesting. I think that many people with problems are attracted to this type of extremism but subjugating yourself in this way is not doing yourself any favours. Reply

Judy Resnick Far Rockaway, NY April 1, 2008

Not Imitation Men I too, when I first began my journey toward Jewish observance more than thirty years ago, had many questions about the supposedly inferior role of women in Orthodox Judaism. I've come over time to understand that we are not, as a friend put it, "imitation men." It's like a bad joke to say women become better Jews by imitating men and donning Tallis and Tefillin even while they violate the laws of Kashrut and Shabbos. Who said that man's mitzvot are better anyway - certainly not Orthodox Judaism! The intention should be sincere service of God, not proving we're equal. Isn't there something sad about the fact that the same Reform Judaism that encourages Jewish women to become Rabbis, also tells Jewish men they can rely on patrilineal descent? The saying is, "Stolen waters are sweet." Are we yearning to study Gemara, be counted in a minyan and become Rabbis only because it's forbidden? If it became permitted, would we still want to do it? Reply

Sarah January 29, 2008

Why I Will Be a Rabbanit I'm glad you found the right path for you...! I am now where you once stood, preparing to make Aliyah for a year to begin my path toward the rabbinate. But beyond this point, your path is not mine. I have danced with the Lubavitch and davened with the Orthodox, and they hold no allure for me. Since my babyhood, my Hebrew name has presaged the rabbinate for me. When I went to my first Kol Nidrei service at age 11, I was blessed with a vision from G-d laying out my mission in life, and it is on the bimah, guiding Reform Jews back toward greater Jewish identity and practice. That is my task, and it too is holy.

I will never be a rabbi, but I will be a rabbanit. I hope you can still wish me well--as for me, I wish you all the best, wherever G-d's will may take you.

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Anonymous December 11, 2007

Why I'm Not a Cantor From someone who studied to be a cantor, but now is an observant mother, I understand how you landed where you have, and what it took to get there. Your journey makes you a better mom and a wiser Torah teacher. And a great role model for young, talented, intelligent women! Reply

zalman bear halevy tornek zefat, Israel February 5, 2007

why I'm not a rabbi this article should be sent to every non-orthodox jewish institution Reply

A.M. February 5, 2007

Beautifully expressed...I could relate to much!
A couple o' thoughts, as much to a post as to the author: the part re: recovery from childbirth also struck me as odd, in that while pregnancy is not considered an illness, a post-partum woman is in fact in the category of "choleh" for 30 days - the first 7 (days) to such a degree that one can be mechalel Shabbat (desecrate Shabbat)for her comfort!!
As for what the Houston woman was told: lots of ignorance out there. Find a competent and knowledgeable orthodox rabbi and get the correct info. In many if not all Sefardic shuls the Torah is taken to the mechitzah on its way back to the aron, where the woman hug and kiss it (would that we should have the love and passion they display for the Torah!!!). Reply

Laura VT via chabadvt.org February 3, 2007

Women as second class citizens I truely appreciated your statement "To hold men up as the ideal to which women most conform is truly to look at women as second class citizens." To do so may be equal but it is not equitable. Just as it is borderline racist thinking to expect everyone to live according to Western cultural standards, so too does making men the standard interfere with the development of a woman's potential.
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Betty February 3, 2007

Mazal tov to Stacey for her good sence of understanding,
even though i am not religious,evey time one of my four children was born,in silent prayer i did thank G_D for the baby i was going to have and in the same time i felt blessed to have the oportunity to pay my part of pain in the child birth, just as it is written,what a privilege for us woman,
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Leime T. melbourne, australia February 2, 2007

Hero I cant think of a bigger change, improvement or affect, someone can make to the Jewish world, than adding more Jews to it.
To me all Jewish women are Heroes.
thank you. Reply

YH February 1, 2007

sick? yes Yes, the law considers a woman giving birth and who just gave birth a dangerously sick woman and there are various laws concerning a woman within three days of giving birth, and subsequent periods of time following that.

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Anonymous February 1, 2007

Dear Stacey -

I have recently started to change my life to become obersvant. One of the questions I have not been able to deal with is why women are treated so differently? Although I am single today, I often think of days when I would want my wife to sit next to me while davening.

The more I learn about Judaism from factual sources, I am starting to understand just how beautiful our religion is!

Thank you so much for your article. It re-affirmed my thinking and it was nice to read this from an Orthodox women's perspective.

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Chana St Cloud, FL/USA February 1, 2007

on women's role in Judaism How well said it is to note that we do not have to be forced to do everything men do to somehow prove our worthiness.

I am proud of what our Jewish men do, but I am prouder still of our Jewish women. In any case, both genders together with G-d's help make the whole. Reply

fiona February 1, 2007

to be a woman, to be other than the Rabbi Becoming a mother in my case, helped me to realise that finding my own humanity had so much more going for it than having a professional title. I find this opportunity a great privilege, While I find it important that other professions are open to women, the exclusion from practising as a Rabbi doesn't seem at all antifeminstic to me because religious practise is a more intimate thing that matches the deeper rythms of life and nature. Is it not true that there have been female prophets? I speak only for myself, I would not like to prescribe how other women should live.


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jim sarvey sarvey los angeles, ca February 1, 2007

Why I am not a Rabbi Amazingly poignant article!

Todah Rabbah! Reply

Ann Houston, Texas February 1, 2007

Torah and Rabbis Two items.

One: the mehitzah. What is "behind" the wall? From the women's point of view, the Torah is behind the wall. I would be OK with the mehitzah if the Torah were read where I could see it, hear it, and touch it. In Houston's chabad, at least, the women are seated to face the men. And one woman told me that Gd doesn't want women to touch the Torah scroll. That cannot be true!

Two: since women ARE different, and have our own wisdom, the community is missing out on the insights which female scholars could provide. For the sake of all Jews, rather than for the sake of the individual women who may want to be rabbis, the legal rendering of women trained in both written and oral Torah needs to be heard. Reply

S January 31, 2007

I didn't understand your point about being sick after giving birth. Isn't it the same in Orthodoxy too? I read a book with rules of pregnancy, etc.. (definitely by Orthodox Rabbi) and I read there that woman after giving birth is consided same as very ill person. Reply

Sarah Zeldman Toronto, ON January 30, 2007

Me too! I also went though a phase when I wanted to become a rabbi. Since I enjoyed working within the Jewish community and wanted to learn more about Judaism, I thought it was a natural choice. I would have enjoyed serving the Jewish community in that way.

I later discovered that there are many ways to serve the Jewish community and that one does not have to have the title of "Rabbi" to do so.

It still seems unfair to my American sensibilties that women can't be Rabbis somehow, but I trust in Hashem and the Torah that there is a reason for it, even if I don't fully comprehend it. And meanwhile, as I said, there are many ways of serving the Jewish community without being a Rabbi.

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