By Dr. Elana Stein Hain, Rabbi Sarah Mulhern, and Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer
Joseph Epstein’s offensive public criticism of Dr. Jill Biden in the Wall Street Journal for the ‘sin’ of continuing to use her earned graduate degree in her title provides an important opportunity for reflection on how our Jewish community constructs and credits authority figures, and especially with a gender lens.
For years now, Yehuda has been introduced at events and addressed in correspondence as “Rabbi,” even though he never earned this title. Meantime Elana served for many years in a clergy role in a synagogue and was often ‘downgraded’ in her title and stature by even well-meaning congregants and colleagues. Sarah toiled towards two separate rabbinic ordinations but finds herself consistently referred to in professional settings by her first name while male colleagues are addressed as rabbi or Dr.; and her request to have her title honored is often treated as pretentious or cold. These designations that we receive (or don’t receive) from others are wholly independent from the titles we include on our CVs and business cards, and are not invited by us. But leaders often get ‘coded’ in particular ways based on age, gender, race, class, and appearance; and our own experiences are just a few examples of the ways that men get accredited upwards and women downwards in the Jewish community and in broader society.
In our own institution, at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, the question of title and authority is ever-present. Six members of our professional team in North America possess clergy degrees (from 7 different schools and programs!), and many other staff members are professional educators and content-creators without ordination; and we regularly see the ways in which having and not having a rabbinic or cantorial degree can affect how colleagues internally and externally view our staff as serious leaders and partners. Between our staff and our research center, there are something on the order of 27 PhDs and a few more in process; and there are constant sensitivities around how having or not having this form of accreditation influences the ways that scholars see and interact with their peers, even in ostensibly collaborative frameworks. Moreover, several members of our professional team started and didn’t finish PhDs, and came to the Institute because they wanted to sit at the threshold of the academy and the community, only to find that even at the Institute – a scholarly but non-academic institution – this straddling of the fence can still feel really uncomfortable.
All of us have also experienced the awkwardness of having to insist on the necessity of these forms of certification or accreditation for various jobs or fellowships for which we have been hiring. We have counseled individuals – correctly, we believe – who want to pursue careers in Jewish education and thought-leadership that in spite of whatever gifts they possess, they will need to attain advanced graduate degrees in order to be taken seriously in various settings, and in order to be thought of as “creators” rather than merely “transmitters.” As descriptively true as this may be, it is a huge demand to make of talented people, and it comes with enormous costs that these individuals must pay to acquire this accreditation. And needless to say, there are different obstacles in front of men, women, and non-binary folks in being accepted into such programs and succeeding in them.
A further layer in these invisible but implicit hierarchies is that some subfields of Jewish studies are considered to have more weight than others, with the textual disciplines still turning up their noses at the social science disciplines in many academic settings and professional guilds. This bias was pronounced in our institution for a long time, and continues to leach into our institution in spite of our efforts to resist it. This, too, is gendered, and there’s a long history in the restriction of women from access to these disciplines which has created such structural imbalance; as is the treatment of education as a female-coded expertise and profession (which was clearly on display in Epstein’s criticism of Dr. Biden.) And as the field of rabbinic training has also been opened to women throughout this past century, it has increasingly been degraded and criticized for the inevitable and welcome changes in the curriculum. Sometimes this may constitute principled disagreement about “what rabbis should know,” but often it is a dog whistle for the non-orthodox (and modern orthodox) rabbinate being seen as feminized.
Some of what we face in our institution and in our community can be characterized as the enduring stuff of misogyny that remains ever present in modern society, and Epstein’s article is good evidence of how widespread the devaluing of women’s expertise really is. But we are also the proud inheritors of a tradition that seriously valued the accreditation of its sages and was watchful, over centuries, over the processes that would transmit not just knowledge but authority from one generation to the next. At pivotal moments in Jewish history, the Jewish people affirmed the importance of training and ordaining the leaders who would carry us through crisis and provide our people with a meaningful sense of continuity. As committed Jews we do not wish to wash our hands of our tradition and to dismiss this commitment to expertise and authority as irredeemably patriarchal; doing so undermines for many of us our faith in its enduring value, and the very activity we are engaged in trying to be its inheritors and continuers.
This should teach us to value expertise and to credit it accordingly. In our Created Equal project at the Shalom Hartman Institute, we work towards a deeper understanding of the values at play in the preservation and transmission of authority even as we are trying to interpret our tradition in ways that can adapt more effectively to the important moral norm of gender equity and equality. We note, for instance, the difference in our sources between accreditation through expertise and how it can be acquired by just looking the part – e.g., ‘behold, I am like a 70-year-old man!” The awareness of this difference helps us to work towards gender equity both through formal structures – opening the doors and systems of formal training to people of all genders – as well as through the informal work of shifting attitudes and impressions of what a Jewish leader is “supposed to” look like. These two orientations are not linear, and the work towards advancing gender equity in leadership requires working on both simultaneously.
We see our work as in partnership with a larger rethinking underway in the Jewish community about the nature and construction of authority. Our work connects to and complements these efforts by trying to ensure that as we correct for the institutional behaviors of the Jewish community, we are ensuring that the foundation on which our community is built – the texts, values, and ideas of Judaism itself – is also placed in dialogue with our moral convictions.
The contemporary Jewish community needs leaders more than ever! The bare minimum is that we credit our leaders with the titles and accreditations they have already earned, and that we strive to make sure that those who wish to lead our community have the access and tools to those systems of empowerment. At stake for us is not merely the dignity of our leaders; it is the very commitment that these individuals will continue to undertake for our collective benefit. Granting honor to our trained leaders grants honor to the Torah that they have learned, and to the authority that our community has vested in them.
Dr. Elana Stein Hain is Scholar-in-Residence and Director of Faculty at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America; Rabbi Sarah Mulhern is the Manager of the Created Equal Project and a member of the Teaching Faculty; and Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.