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.

Rx for the Human Spirit

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria/Metzora deals with genital discharges and skin diseases, very unpleasant things. Worse yet, people have taken this portion to some very unpleasant conclusions, framing human illness as a punishment from God.


What if, despite the lovely descriptions of skin eruptions, this portion isn’t about a physical illness at all? Let’s take a short passage:

18 When an inflammation appears on the skin of one’s body and it heals, 19 and a white swelling or a white discoloration streaked with red develops where the inflammation was, he shall present himself to the priest. – Leviticus 13: 18-19

What if we reread this, but instead of someone having something on their skin, it’s a moral failing: racism, sexism, enviousness, unkindness? Perhaps some family member has pointed out our unkind behaviors, or a friend has mentioned that a dearly-held opinion is actually quite racist. Our first impulse on realizing these things is to deny it or hide it, because we’ve been told it is shameful. (We have also been taught to feel shame about skin diseases and genital discharges, come to think of it.)

What if, instead of hiding or denying, we went to a counselor, our rabbi or a therapist, and said, “My wife says I am unkind,”  “I am envious when I see friends get honors,” or “I would hate it if my son dated a black woman.” The good counselor would take a close look at the evidence and the context. They’d explore it with us. And perhaps things are not what they seem (“he is clean”) or perhaps there are changes that need to happen. Then they could help us toward the changes until we are “clean.”

This is not an easy fix. It requires honesty, humility, and bravery. It is not fun saying to a counselor, “I have unkind/envious/racist thoughts.”  We hear over and over that nice people don’t have those thoughts. We may have them and then squish them down quickly, because we are ashamed. On some level, we know it isn’t OK.

But as with the mysterious disease in the Torah portion, these things affect others in our community. Some of them are communicable (children learn racism and sexism from someone) and some are just plain contagious (I am unkind to Joe, and Joe kicks the dog.) Some can’t heal on their own; we may need help to change.

Here in the 21st century, there are many diseases we can cure, and many more that we can manage; even AIDS and some cancers are now somewhat manageable. However, besides physical illnesses there are other plagues with which we have made much less progress. Perhaps the prescription in Tazria/Metzora is really for them, the plagues of the human spirit.