by Ruthie Warshenbrot
About a year ago, my colleague Shannon Sarna and I raised an issue to the Jewish community in general, and the Jewish Federations of North America in particular, when there were no women finalists in their Jewish Community Heroes contest. We have not been the first and unfortunately will likely not be the last to question a Jewish communal institution on its gender inequity. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America responded to our piece by emailing us and asking, “What are the answers?”
My Gmail records show that 17 emails later, we had identified several elements of what the “answers” might be to address gender inequities in the Jewish community: calling out “bad behavior,” as we had done in our article; raising awareness; programmatic corrections (those that create equal opportunities); and mentorship or training of women (those that support and encourage women to advance). We ultimately came to the option of addressing these gender issues by looking back to what our tradition has to offer us, and unpacking deep-seated norms within our community from the perspective of Jewish values.
A year later, the Shalom-Hartman Institute of North America and the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El joined forces to host “Genesis and Revolution: A Beit Midrash on Gender, Power and Authority in Jewish life.” As if picking up from that Gmail conversation, the day opened by questioning to what extent our tradition is fostering these problems of gender, power and authority, and to what extent is it solving them. We spent the day exploring a diverse set of Jewish texts in order to dig deeper into what is underneath some of our assumptions about gender in the Jewish community.
The impressive group that engaged in the conversation for the day was engaged in the topic and eager to see a Jewish community strengthened by the full diversity of voices in it. There were ways in which the participants represented the Jewish community at large: multiple age groups and denominations were present. There were professional and lay leaders. There were people from synagogue life and the federation system. There were even students, such as myself.
There were not a lot of men. While men were invited and encouraged to attend the Beit Midrash, we must ask ourselves: is change possible when 85% of the people taking a day to explore our assumptions about gender are women? The conversation about gender, power, and authority in Jewish life must be a shared conversation throughout the Jewish community, and not a conversation dominated by women.
In the first session, we explored different rabbinic ideas about power and authority. I was grateful that we began from the place of power and authority because it is often hard to separate our tradition’s emphasis on decision-makers and decision-making from the gender roles that have been historically assigned to these processes. Ultimately, the decision-makers and the decision-making process significantly impact what any community looks like, regardless of the context.
Through analyzing several different approaches to authority, such as positional authority and leading through consensus, as well as different “metrics” for recognizing who has power, authority, or leadership (which as we know, are not always the same), it was clear that there are multiple narratives in our tradition on this issue. In fact, the day shed light on multiple narratives surrounding a multitude of issues: different interpretations of the Shekhina; several options for work-life balance, framed in the context of time spent by the rabbis studying Torah as compared to being with their families; and even different ways of understanding God and holiness.
The main question I am left with after this Beit Midrash is how to take the nuances that we explored over the course of a full day and implement them in the fast pace of our daily lives and professional responsibilities. An entire day of learning and exploring the many narratives surrounding gender, power, and authority in Jewish tradition cannot be distilled into a pithy promotional advertisement for change. While this presents a challenge, I am comforted by the diversity of interpretations offered to us in our tradition, and believe that this should inform at minimum the idea that there is no “one way” to understand power, authority, or gender in the Jewish community. In fact, the uniform nature that many Jewish communal institutions take – majority led by white men – is not at all representative of the plurality of options available for leadership, authority, and gender in our sacred texts.
Understanding this nuance is a large endeavor, and we cannot do it alone. To return to the gender break-down of the day, I am thinking of the partnership that Hartman and Skirball modeled for us in the Beit Midrash. They did it in the spirit the rabbinic dictum that speaks of “When one derives benefit and the other does not lose.” That is the nature in which I hope that men will come to the conversation: with an understanding that they have much to benefit, and nothing to lose, from joining the dialogue about these issues and expanding the nature of who leads in the Jewish community. As we move into a world with increased collaboration and shared leadership, these multiple narratives on gender, power, and authority in our tradition have the opportunity to manifest themselves in a Jewish community with diverse leadership – which will ultimately help shape a new Jewish values narrative that includes not only gender equity, but many visions of what a leader looks like.
Ruthie Warshenbrot is the Lisa Goldberg Fellow of Jewish Professional Leadership at the NYU Wagner/Skirball Dual Degree program and a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar. She serves as a Jewish Service-Learning Manager at Repair the World.