I Mansplained a Woman Rabbi and I Liked It

By Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Sitting in a meeting, chewing over some complex sensitive issues, I mansplained a respected woman rabbi… and I liked it!

There we were a mixed group of highly accomplished rabbis, struggling to find a way forward on a complex issue. Hands went up as the moderator asked for comments. One speaker, a colleague I respect greatly, shared a gutsy, insightful analysis of the situation and, apparently, offered a solution to the current conundrum.

I say “apparently” because I really didn’t hear her words. I was caught up in my own analysis of the situation, which apparently was more important to me than listening to her well-reasoned comments.

So after she finished speaking, I offered up my analysis, culminating with a suggested solution.

It was brilliant, I thought. Immediately four other people in the room – both men and women – at once called out: “She just said that.”

I said, “Really?”

They replied, as one, with a resounding, “Yes!”

I asked, “You mean I just mansplained her and all of you?”

Of course I did. Because we men do it to women all the time.

Learning about Mansplaining

And thus began the next phase of my continuing education about how women, including accomplished professionals and experts, are routinely ignored, erased, belittled and pushed aside for the opinions of men.

According to Wikipedia,

The term mansplaining was inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 essay, “Men Explain Things to Me: Facts Didn’t Get in Their Way. In it, Solnit shared an anecdote about a man at a party who said he had heard she had written some books. She began to talk about her most recent, on Eadweard Muybridge, whereupon the man cut her off and asked if she had “heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year” – not considering that it might be (as, in fact, it was) Solnit’s book. Solnit did not use the word mansplaining in the essay, but she described the phenomenon as “something every woman knows.”

Mansplaining is just one of a number of tools we men employ purposefully, inadvertently, or cluelessly, which have a profoundly problematic effect: it creates an atmosphere in which women, including professionals and experts, are routinely seen or treated as being less credible than men. Solnit wrote that women’s “insights or even legal testimony are dismissed unless validated by a man. She argued that this was one symptom of a widespread phenomenon that “keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.”

Being a Better Ally

I like to think of myself as one of the men who, by allying with my female rabbinic colleagues, is helping to improve the experience of women in the rabbinate. I take pains to ensure that the other rabbi at our synagogue, Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA, receives full family leave benefits, pay equity, and an equal voice, especially in matters of importance. I routinely work to amplify her voice. When it was time to partner with local civic leaders on finding solutions to the homelessness crisis, and many thought that I as senior rabbi (a term we use sparingly) should be out front, I insisted that she be the lead because this was her project and she had the expertise. (I’m one of the good ones, right?!?)

Yet I was amazed, and frankly horrified, at how easily I slipped into mansplaining and disenfranchising a female colleague. I sat with the new awareness and discomfort for the rest of the meeting.

I also did what we men often do when called on our behaviors. I tried to see if my explanation was significantly different than hers. (For the most part, it wasn’t.) I texted an apologetic explanation (feeling embarrassed and yet perhaps a little too defensive), thus presenting myself another victim of this situation. And I (think I) apologized. (I know I did not do so publically, which was also called for.) Yet I engaged in typical behaviors: surprise, explanation, initial denial, and finally recognition.

Making Teshuva (repentance)

Later that day, after I finished licking my wounds of embarrassment and self-recrimination, I resolved to engage in a Jewish four-step teshuva process:

  1. Admit: Yes, I mansplained.
  2. Confess: I did apologize directly to her after the meeting, and again by email. I admitted that I should have paid more attention, that I should have affirmed her analysis and supported her suggested solution. Then I confessed publically to the all who experienced me doing it (by way of this public blogpost, which I sent to everyone at the meeting).
  3. Make amends: In addition to publically apologizing, I promised to use this experience to open my eyes more widely to the pervasiveness of this behavior by men (and women) who denigrate the expertise and wisdom of women rabbis (and other female professionals too). And to help stop it.
  4. Pledge: I pledge to not fall into this behavior again. Because if I want to be one of the good guys, generally a solid ally, and I descended into this behavior so easily, I need to take extra precautions not to do this again. (I invite my colleagues (hochei-ach tochee-ach) to help me notice if and when I do this again. With kindness.)

Changing the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate

The Central Conference of American Rabbis has begun a poignant process of raising awareness and enacting cultural change with the advent of a high-powered Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate. Chaired by Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus and Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, with Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR’s Chief Strategy Officer, as Staff Liaison to Task Force, and Diana Ho as consultant, the Task Force holds the overall goal to create tools and protocols that will help lead to a culture change within the Reform Movement. Read the CCAR’s public announcement, or Rabbi Allison Cohen’s well-articulated review of its first public presentation. Like for other men, these efforts are helping me and others learn that there is so much I don’t understand about women (rabbis).

My boorish behavior illuminated for me the truth that our female rabbis have been pointing out for a hundred years: that we do have a problem. Women rabbis still encounter substantial obstacles, which require critical conversation and examination. Women rabbis report experiencing gender-based bias, inappropriate comments, sexual harassment, sexual assault, lack of proper institutional support, undermining behavior, and issues related to contracts, pay equity, and parental leave. Intertwined with these challenges are also issues of sexuality and gender nonconformity.

We men need to wake up to our complicity, even admitting publically that we have a problem. We must ask questions, listen to stories that testify to the pervasiveness of the behaviors, and call out each other when we are complicit. We are all teachable. We can learn alternative ways of engaging to embrace the wisdom and insights of our peers.

I Didnt Really Like It

So yeah, I mansplained a female rabbi and I (didn’t really) like it.

But I did like being called out on it, because I learned so much about myself (I don’t pay enough attention), my gender (we do this all the time), my responsibility (to call it out, like my colleagues did to me) and my hope (that we can change this culture).

So to all who witnessed my mansplaining behavior: Chatati (I sinned). I was wrong. And I apologize.

I’m going work on this until I, and others, stop mansplaining (and engaging in other such behaviors and attitudes). And that work begins now.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is rabbi of Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, California and blogs at Or Am I?