Monday, September 10, 2007

The "Rabbanit" Debate- Part 2

In an earlier post, mainly devoted to my abhorrence of shul-bashing, I mentioned the new staff appointment at my shul. Conversations over the past few weeks have prompted me to expand on this discussion, particularly since it's taken an interesting turn.

For those who wish to engage in this debate, let's make one thing very clear: this is not a debate about whether or not women should be given the title "rabbi" (or an equivalent title, if one exists). It's a interesting debate in its own right, and we wouldn't give it justice if we discussed it right now. This is really a debate about leadership, community, and public perception.

So here's the back story: my shul has a new "ritual and program director". This director is a woman. She also holds the title of "Rabbanit Chair" (still not sure what that means, though), which is an endowed position, paid for by the generous legacy of a staunch feminist who had been a member of the congregation for years.

The debate was originally about calling this woman "rabbanit" as the modern Hebrew equivalent of "rabbi", and employing her in what is, essentially, an assistant rabbi capacity. I had adamantly opposed considering her to be "assistant rabbi", and was critical of those who bestowed such a title upon her. Without really knowing her, I was critical of her as well, interpreting this debate as largely stemming from her own feminist leanings. Calling her "assistant rabbi" was a sure-fire way to ruffle my proverbial feathers.

Then I went to New York, and spent shabbat with people who knew her, and had learned with her (one of whom happens to be the person who engaged me in this debate the first time around). All of them were under the impression that she was, in fact, the assistant rabbi of the congregation, and that we were happy to consider her as such. And this is where the "rabbanit debate" took an interesting turn. It is no longer about whether or not she should bear such a title (as mentioned above, I do not want to discuss that here), but about how her hire as shul staff was portrayed to her (and her friends), and to the community of which she is now a part.

From my NY friends, I gleaned that she, herself, considered the position offered to her as being an assistant rabbi job under a different name, and that she (and her colleagues) were excited to find an MO shul that was ready for such a step. She, apparently, accepted this position under such an impression of the community, which she had only been able to visit once, when she and her husband came to interview.

The community, by and large, was under a far different impression. When she and her husband came for that interview, we were told that he was interviewing for the assistant rabbi position, and that she was under consideration for education director. They came, they left, and soon afterwards the congregation was informed that she, and she alone, had been hired as "ritual and program" director. Not long after that, it was announced that there was this new endowment for a "rabbanit" chair, which she would hold as well. The shul rabbi also gave a drasha somewhere in this time frame about bestowing the title "rabbanit" on women who had attained a level of learning equivalent to that of smicha.

So here is the debate: how much should a congregational rabbi do to forward his own agenda? The shul rabbi has made his own views on women in Orthodoxy very clear, and hiring this woman in this capacity is a step towards furthering his agenda. However, there really isn't a part of the congregation that backs him on this. While the congregation is divided on feminist issues, the divisions are pretty much between those who 1) don't know about the issue, 2) don't care if there is an issue, and 3)adamantly oppose change. There really is not a strong segment that wants to be at the forefront of pushing the boundaries.

Is it fair to the community to ignore the fact that the majority never wanted such a controversial staff appointment? Is it fair to this woman to hire her under the misperception that the community is ready for a "rabbanit"? Should a congregational rabbi ignore his communities wants in favor of his own?


(Note: One more time- this is NOT about whether or not women should be called by any title. This is about the role of leadership in a community. Also, this is not in any way meant to be an attack on the woman mentioned. I respect her, and look forward to developing what I hope will be a close relationship with her.)

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