There’s So Much I Don’t Understand about Women (Rabbis)

By Rabbi Paul Kipnes

I get energized when I discover a key to unlocking the meaning of a significant text that previously had eluded me. Having realized how little I knew, I then cannot stop turning the text over and over in my mind to mine it for new insights. Now when the text is as central and poignant as the experience of women in the rabbinate and the key to understanding might be as simple as asking and listening, the insights are simultaneously painful and explosively poignant.

This week, four esteemed rabbinic colleagues guided us through a program entitled Creating Cultural Change: Engaging with the Work of the Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate. It was the first of many opportunities to engage with this CCAR Task Force, express thoughts and concerns, and help guide the way forward. (Two webinars for non-attending rabbis to participate are scheduled in the coming months.)

The session was eye-opening, disconcerting, and hopeful. Speaking about hopes for cultural change, one female colleague said she hoped that in five years she could serve as senior rabbi in a large congregation without having to do it like a man. I responded with my first reaction, that I hoped that within two years I will understand all that you really mean by that statement.

Sitting that morning around a table, and reflecting throughout the day with colleagues of all genders, ages, and orientations, I discovered the sad but energizing truth: that for all I hold myself in high esteem for my support of female colleagues, there is just so much about their experience that I just do not understand.

So I did what I usually do when I realize I don’t understand. I asked questions. I listened. I learned:

About how often women rabbis are challenged about their competence and professionalism, leaving them to ponder “what really just happened.”

About how regularly women rabbis experience denigration by male rabbis (beyond the harassment and abuse).

About the lengths some women must go to receive maternity leave or pay equity (commitments that have been a mainstay of our congregation since we hired our first woman rabbi).

About the apparent blindness of male rabbis who don’t realize that if women receive pay equity, then the median compensation level rises, and with it, all our compensation levels.

Most poignantly, though, I discovered that there are so many challenges for women as rabbis that I cannot even begin to comprehend. If I really want to help right these wrongs (and I do), then I am going to have to ask a whole bunch of questions and be willing to listen to the answers.

Because beyond the big name Harvey Weinsteins we encounter in our rabbinates (yes, we do have our own), there are so many subtle (and not so subtle) ways that women rabbis face discrimination, delegitimization, harassment, abuse and more.

So I declare:

I do not understand.

I am trying to listen and learn.

I approach this open heartedly and open mindedly.

I thank my colleagues who share, make me aware, open up to declare, what I wondered and fear: that even those of us who consider ourselves the “good guys” are most probably blind to realities of your lives.

And I thank the Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate for helping me wake up. So, like with all texts, I keep discovering out that there is so so much I do not understand. I am energized by the prospect of asking, listening, learning and advocating.

Cross posted on Ravblog

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