The historical arc of women in positions of leadership within the Jewish tradition has a broad reach over thousands of years, not just the past 50. We also know that between the 19th and 20th centuries, there were vigorous deliberations about women being afforded a rabbinic education in conjunction with the men and what that would mean to the established cultural norms within the rabbinate and society.
On one hand, given the thousands of years of Jewish history where women held positions of leadership and authority, it is especially interesting that women’s admission into rabbinic seminaries was so fraught with debate and took as long as it did. On the other hand, we can understand that although modern Biblical scholars have made progress returning women’s voices to our cultural narratives, we still see and hear a dominant male voice. Men and women are not yet equal according to the historical record.
Yet, the foundation of Judaism was created with innovations. Think about the revolutionary nature of a sanctuary in time - our Shabbat - and that democratic ideal we call “freedom.” It seems curious that a woman in the rabbinate would be considered more revolutionary than these things.
Today, I am honored to stand among women who have braved the path forward in our modern rabbinate. I am humbled by the personal and professional sacrifices many of us have made along the way. I am eternally grateful for my professors and mentors and all the ways they have enriched my life and ability to contribute to the Jewish community and society as a whole. I am ever mindful that the road ahead will feature abundant opportunities for personal and communal growth, along with challenges that must be met with grace and courage.
Challenges and opportunities
Over the years, I have seen relational challenges, economic challenges, trust issues, power issues, things said to female rabbis that would never be said to male rabbis and ordained women’s designations of “Rabbi” being overlooked completely. But wherever a challenge has presented itself, there has been opportunity for education, change, improvement.
It is amazing that today’s children, in many Jewish denominations, identify the role of rabbi with women as well as men, with members of the LBGTQAI community, with people who have different color skin and leaders who reflect the diverse nature of our bigger humanity in other ways. All kinds of children now see that if they want to be a rabbi, they can.
Several years ago, a young mother brought her oldest child to our Friday evening Shabbat service. Her daughter was just three years old at the time. When they returned home, the child proclaimed to her mother, “When I grow up, I want to be a rabbi like Rabbi Mindie.” And in the blink of an eye, a little girl had a new dream for her future and a new generation of Jewish religious leaders is blossoming because it is possible for women to serve as rabbis.
In our day and around the world, Judaism is affected by issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, gender and sexual orientation, environmental and economic conditions and other societal concerns. Some things can no longer be as they once were. In any case, women rabbis do not work alone. Collaborative, mutually respectful leadership models are needed as we search for answers to problems, as we call upon the wisdom of our history to not repeat past missteps, to reinforce actions of compassion and strengthen our health and well-being. There is much for us to accomplish.
Taking a stand against prejudice and bullying is as important as taking a stand about lifting those on the margins. Whether male or female, non-binary or otherwise identified, kindness in rabbinic leadership is not weakness, nor should proper boundaries be a source of shame.
Because we live in a place and time of accelerated transitions, women in the rabbinate are simultaneously tasked to be agents of positive innovations, forces of stability, multicultural and multilingual. We must be adept surfers upon the waves of change, having faith that the Jewish tradition we represent remains resilient as it evolves and our growth and resilience have a place in it.
Rabbi Mindie Snyder is the rabbi and chaplain of Sun Health Communities.