The rabbi. In popular culture, he has been everywhere — on the page, of course, but also on the small and big screens. He has been a moral center, a family supporter, a shyster, a pontificator (naturally); he has been an ancillary character and a main one; he has been a villain and a hero. And he always has been a he.
Until very recently, that is.
Women were first ordained in 1972 by the Reform movement, followed in 1985 by the Conservative movement, and art has imitated life: Latecomers to the rabbinate, women rabbis have been scarce in books, television and film. But recent credits show that not only are women rabbis sneaking into pop culture, but they also have launched an unabashed assault. For example, as anyone who has tuned into prime-time television in recent months can attest, Michelle Missaghieh, rabbi of Temple Israel in Hollywood, Calif., is single-handedly ratcheting up the female rabbi quotient on television by inspiring storylines first on HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” and more recently on ABC’s hit medical drama, “Grey’s Anatomy.” And in the past year, three very different authors — inadvertently or not — have addressed the nature of female spirituality and rabbinic authority by focusing their plots around female rabbi protagonists: Amy Sohn, best known for her sex column in New York magazine; Jonathan Rosen, founder and longtime editor of the Forward’s arts and culture section, and one of the most thoughtful voices of contemporary Jewish culture, and Julius Lester, a children’s book author and African American convert to Judaism.
By holding up women as rabbinic models, these three novels test the very nature of female rabbis. They gauge their intellectual and spiritual depth and test for the authority necessary for the rabbinate. While male rabbis are rarely measured for such qualifying characteristics, women don’t get off so easy (just as in real life, some might add). When they replace men as religious authorities onscreen and in literature, women’s roles are evaluated more critically; in fact, their credentials are parsed with a fine-toothed comb. And this very well may not be a bad thing.
In “My Old Man,” Sohn’s Rachel Block is a 26-year-old rabbinical school dropout turned bartender whose life these days revolves around her affair with a much-older playwright and her father’s affair with her slutty neighbor. Rosen’s “Joy Comes in the Morning” introduces us to Deborah Green, a pulpit rabbi who meets patient Henry Friedman during rounds at a hospital and then falls in love with Friedman’s son, Lev. Lester’s Rebecca Nachman, in “The Autobiography of God,” becomes a counselor at a small college in Vermont after leaving her pulpit position in New Jersey. She is preoccupied professionally with a student’s death, and personally with the mysterious arrival of a Holocaust-era Torah scroll and its mysterious, ghostly owners.
At the crux of each novel, though, is a tension that emerges around protagonists who are decidedly intellectual and spiritual and at the same time unambiguously feminine. Certainly, none makes any attempt to hide her feminine side, publicly or in private. Rosen’s Deborah walks around in T-shirts and nothing else, smokes cigarettes outside her window in the middle of the night and has premarital sex with a fiancé infatuated with her hair, her skin, her breasts. Sohn’s Rachel is, predictably, hot and fun. Even Lester’s Rebecca, left with a limp after a childhood accident, is said to dress “more like a mannequin in Bergdorf’s window than a rabbi.”
But Rebecca internalizes her love affair with clothing in the service of God and Jewish ritual: “She took the time to take what God had given her and transform it into a vessel of beauty. Was that any different than taking wheat and transforming it into flour and the flour into challah braided like the hair of the Sabbath Queen?” Similarly, in Rosen’s work, the way men and some women idolize Deborah’s singing voice as she recites Psalms, or her rapturous — even sexual — expression when praying, draws attention to her spirituality and her womanliness. Indeed, the cloak of femininity that shapes these ladies’ religious expression reveals the rich struggle between rabbinic and feminine identities embodied by the fictional women rabbis.
But as one might note, the women in these books seem to be “failing,” or at least fighting to retain their spiritual status and rabbinical stature. Sohn’s Block is a rabbinical school dropout, while Rosen’s Green suffers a crisis of faith and ultimately loses her pulpit position after her congregants learn she is living with her boyfriend and then fiancé, Lev. Though Lester’s Nachman finds refuge in Vermont after her congregation dwindles, she continues her life-long struggle to juxtapose spirituality with ritual, femininity and beauty with tradition. And it is she who wonders: “Was it because she was a woman? Pandora had opened the box; Eve had eaten the fruit of the tree; and though both myths concluded that the world would be a paradise if these women had minded their business, stasis was not the ideal condition. Maybe women preferred the truth, regardless of the consequences.”
In fact, the women do offer spiritual guidance that seems different from that offered by their male counterparts, a trait bordering on maternal nurturing but without ever yielding intellectual authority. Rebecca’s maternal compassion is strong enough that by the novel’s last page, she encounters God at Auschwitz and comforts him as he lays his head in her lap and cries. Stripped down to its basest level, it is an expression of feminine guidance that isn’t altogether different from that of God — who is looked to in times of crisis and who may criticize, but always does so with love.
So, though the women in these novels may fail to retain their pulpits, they succeed as authoritative spiritual beings. Rebecca ministers to a congregation of ghosts, the spirits of a community that perished in the Holocaust, and ultimately she gains a new “congregation” as a university chaplain at a liberal arts college. Disappointingly, Deborah manages to find a modicum of peace and faith but doesn’t fully reclaim her pulpit. But Sohn’s Rachel offers up the notion that a so-called failed rabbi who ministers to any needy souls — as she does when she counsels patrons at the bar where she works — may not be “failed,” after all: “I nodded and leaned back, surveying the room. I had a pulpit now but a more honest one. I would never be a messenger of God but I was doing an all right job of ministering to the masses.”
Even in “failure,” it seems, the fictional rabbis shine a spotlight on the very current question of the status of women rabbis. With external constraints broken, without institutional and cultural blockades, could they someday surpass the success of male rabbinic authority because they are learned, accessible and sensitive role models? If so, their authority could become altogether radical.
E.B. Solomont is a writer living in New York.