In the past couple of weeks, the Jewish media has been abuzz with the news that Rabbi Lila Kagedan has been hired to work as a part time member of the clergy team at the Mt. Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph, NJ. A recent graduate of Yeshivat Maharat, she has chosen to use the title rabbi since her ordination last June, adding yet another name to the diverse list of titles used by the Orthodox women who serve their communities—Yoetzet, Rosh Kehilla, Community Scholar, Maharat, Morateinu, Rabba, Rabbi.
Over the past days, weeks, months, and years, I have given a lot of thought to the significance of titles. I did not grow up in a home where titles were used, or important. This notion was reinforced at synagogue, where the rabbis were called by their first names, and not by title. Everyone knew how to identify the synagogue’s spiritual leaders. If anything, the act of calling them by their first names served to increase their authority. It was almost as if they were beyond titles. And this title-less existence followed me as I began studying at the Drisha Institute, where choosing to use a title was more generational than based on stature. There was no question that the teachers we called by their first names were as worthy of our admiration and respect as those we called rabbi.
I quickly learned, however, that utopian ideal I was used to was not reflected in the outside world. I began to see how, when I traveled to teach, I had to clear a higher bar to prove my worthiness as a scholar and an educator because of the lack of a word that went in front of my name. My male colleague who had been ordained was automatically accorded a respect that I had to earn. My denial was fully shattered in the fall of 2011. Facing my graduation from the Drisha Scholars circle the following spring, I began to meet with mentors and professionals to figure out my next step. And I was shocked to find that, inevitably, they all told me the same thing—if you want to be taken seriously, go get a Ph.D. Not because we doubt that you are an accomplished learner and teacher of Torah, but because, without a title in front of your name, you will never get in the front door.
Thus, I was forced to finally face reality. Titles matter. I suppose that makes sense in a fairer world, where titles are given to people with equivalent backgrounds and skills, the importance of credentials would make sense. However, it is no secret that this is not the reality in which we live. In an era in which people can be ordained on the internet and anyone with a website and a business card can call themselves an expert, it seems that these credentials should mean less, not more. So why is there such an obsession with what we call these smart and accomplished women who are leading their communities in ways both new and old? Does the title by which we call them really affect their ability to do this important work?
Because the reality is, women have been serving as teachers and leaders throughout the Jewish community since long before we started arguing about titles. Women had been serving their communities in formal and informal ways for years before Yeshivat Maharat, the Yoetzet Halakha program at Nishmat, the Drisha Scholars Circle, or the GPATS program at Stern existed. They have influenced thousands of students and community members directly and indirectly, by teaching, mentoring, counseling and offering guidance. They were, perhaps, less controversial before they had titles, but they were no less important or effective. So yes, it is true that an Orthodox woman who uses the title rabbi being hired by a synagogue is important. But ultimately, the title is only a label. More important is the work that she does, and will do. And that work is not new to the women of the Jewish community, no matter their denomination.
One of the challenges with titles in general is that they are often supplemented by adjectives with are meant to describe but actually divide. Rare is the Jewish community across the denominational spectrum that is able to see their rabbi as a rabbi who happens to be a woman, rather than as a woman rabbi. (And yet, I have never heard of a man who is called a male rabbi.) And even when this female-ness is presented as a positive—a woman who can connect with the women in the community, who can work on sensitive women’s issues, who will bring a new perspective and compassion to the table—it is always there. Ultimately, even as more and more Jewish communities open to the possibility to women in leadership positions, the most important title remains “woman.”
So I will offer a proposal. It might be controversial in light of the battles that we women have had to fight to be taken seriously, and to be offered the chance to be credentialed like the men around us have for centuries. However, I believe strongly that we will be better served as a community if we stopped paying so much attention to titles. Not because they don’t matter now, but because we get to choose whether they will continue to matter. And because even now, they are not used equitably, limiting our chance to see each individual for what he or she has to offer, rather than what we call him or her. It is true that we will lose a shortcut for identifying status, but we will gain all of the time and energy we have spent fighting with each other about who deserves to be called what. Instead, let’s open our eyes to the many teachers of Torah we are blessed to have in our communities, no matter their genders and no matter what we call them.