Sexism and the Rabbinate

Image: Rabbi Denise Eger, center, reading Torah during her installation as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, surrounded by other rabbis, March 16, 2015. (David A.M. Wilensky / Times of Israel)

When I first was ordained as a rabbi, I felt awkward introducing myself as Rabbi Ruth Adar. Despite the fact that I had just spent six years in school, a year overseas, a fortune in tuition, and significant blood and tears in preparing for the rabbinate, it felt presumptuous to introduce myself as “Rabbi Adar.” Several senior colleagues set me straight on that: Honor to the rabbi, known in Hebrew as Kvod HaRav, is a way of showing respect for the Torah in a rabbi’s head and heart, and to the years of dedication to the Jewish People.

Now, when people ask what to call me, I say “Rabbi Adar.” Sure, there are old friends who know me from before, but even they use the title when we are in public.

Lately I’ve noticed a practice that bothers me a lot. Male rabbis are usually referred to as “Rabbi Lastname.” Women rabbis, however, are all too often addressed as “Firstname” or “Rabbi Firstname.” This happens even when they are part of a group of rabbis: too often only the male rabbis get the proper title!

I don’t think that most of the people who do this are conscious of what they are doing. The same individual will refer to male rabbis as “Rabbi Cohen” or “Rabbi Josh” and then turn around and talk about “Sarah” or “Denise” as if the rabbi is just another member of the congregation.  They may even feel affection for that rabbi, but still they call her by her first name only, or by some form of diminutive. Worse, I realized that in some cases, I had picked up this bad habit.

My personal teshuvah on this issue is to always, always refer to rabbis in public as “Rabbi Lastname,” especially if they are women. I do this because sexism is wrong, and this is a way to model better behavior. I also do it because, as my senior colleagues taught me, these are individuals who have dedicated all they have, all they are, to the service of Torah and the Jewish People.

Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women In the Rabbinate from CCAR on Vimeo.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

8 thoughts on “Sexism and the Rabbinate”

  1. Thank you for posting this. I’ve never known what is the proper way to address a Rabbi, male or female. So knowing it’s Rabbi Lastname is a gift to me and relieves a lot of stress about doing the right thing.

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  2. I find your perspective interesting. Here in the UK it seems to be getting the custom for both male and female Rabbi’s to be called by their title and first name. I’m not sure if this is because we are being less hierarchical or because in smaller communities it indicates a more friendly approach. I’ve certainly not come across female Rabbis being called just by their first name, when male Rabbis have been addressed by their title and name.

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    1. It depends on local custom, of course. I don’t have any quibble with the community in which all rabbis are “Rabbi Firstname.” The issue that bothers me is the situation in which male rabbis are addressed one way and female rabbis another. It should always (not just sometimes) be consistent.

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  3. At my shul they do the title and first name formulation, for the male rabbi, the female rabbi and the male cantor. It took me a while to get used to it, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but at least there’s no differentiation between male and female.

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