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The ‘Working Identity’ of Jewish Women Clergy

October 31st, 2013

By Lynn Kaye, PhD lkaye@huc.edu Devon Carbado and Mitu Gulati’s recent book, Acting White? Rethinking Race in ‘Post-Racial’ America argues that race is not a set of physical features, but a performance. Racial identity is work done every day when a person of color anticipates the expectations of their white colleagues and provides (often unconsciously) the particular expression of racial identity that is required in a given situation. The authors refer to the “racial double-bind” where a person of color seeks to provide the right blend of racial “otherness” that makes a company feel good about their diversity but not so much that their white colleagues feel alienated. To the authors’ credit, this persuasive and engaging book discusses parallels between racial “working identity” and gender or sexual “working identities.” Carbado and Gulati note that many groups constantly negotiate the delicate line between one’s sense of identity and the institutional norm regarding gender, class, race, sexual orientation or disability. As I was listening to a discussion of this book hosted by the University of Southern California’s Center for Law, History and Culture, I began thinking about the ways that Orthodox Jewish women clergy[1] perform complex negotiations of their identities each day at work. While these women serve their communities in pastoral, educational and ritual contexts, they are also called upon to perform their identity as women. Women clergy, like people of color in majority-white work contexts, differ from the institutional norm of Orthodox male rabbis, but their presence is increasingly embraced as a reflection of the Orthodox community’s overcoming of discrimination against qualified women. Like moves toward racial diversity in the workplace, however, getting the job means learning to provide the right blend of socially expected female Orthodox identity with institutional norms of how a (male) rabbi looks, acts, speaks, or dresses. As the authors of Acting White point out, racial identity is expressed in many details, from hairstyle and speech patterns to political activism, affiliation with professional organizations and social connections.  Each of these aspects of “working identity” potentially signal to a company whether this is the particular kind of candidate of color they seek. “Whitening” a resume might mean including some evidence of African-American identity, which would confirm an opportunity to expand workplace diversity, but leaving out certain other details. The book argues that U.S. laws against discrimination currently allow intra-group discrimination, that is, bias in favor of members of particular groups who enact a certain kind of working identity, and against those who do not. One case discussed in the book concerned Harrah’s, a business that mandated women wear makeup to work. This policy was found to be legal. In their discussion of the case and the “working identities” of white women, Carbado and Mulati mention the reactions to these cases by female law students:
 Some other students pointed to the history of informal dress codes for women at elite law firms. Not long ago, when women were entering the ranks of lawyers at these firms, men and women thought that it made sense for women to dress ‘gender neutral’ – which is to say, dress as much like men as possible, but not wear trousers. Women embodied this view by donning boxy suits, avoiding make-up, and sporting big bow ties that supposedly simulated men’s neckties. This sartorial regimen changed, not simply for reasons of aesthetics but also because this simulation of male styles did not help to integrate women into law firms, let alone into the partnership ranks or those organizations. At least some women in these same law firms today succeed by wearing makeup and appearing feminine, at least in terms of dress…The moral of this story is that it is better for women to have these informal dress requirements be gendered rather than gender neutral. Gender neutrality produces gender anxieties, which inevitably disadvantage women. (94)
Women entering the workforce as Orthodox clergy face the same questions that women have faced in previous generations as their professions were integrated. How can I enact my identity in a way that will smooth my acceptance and allow me to do the job I was hired to do? This “gender comforting” is sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious. It includes choices about dress: What does an Orthodox woman rabbi look like?[2] It includes comportment and speech: How does an Orthodox woman rabbi respond to “gender play,” such as teasing from male congregants? It includes what she teaches: Can an Orthodox woman rabbi speak publicly about feminism, parity in ritual participation or women’s marital rights, or will this make her unacceptably female or insufficiently orthodox? It includes social and professional affiliations: Can an Orthodox woman rabbi join a cross-denominational clergy organization, or otherwise engage with causes that are associated with the liberal Jewish denominations, or will this, combined with her gender, raise questions about her Orthodoxy that would not be raised if she were male? The truth is, just aspiring to be a woman Orthodox rabbi is seen by some in the Orthodox community as reflecting a contradictory identity, as opposed to a genuine expression of some Jewish women’s religious selves. My goal here is not to answer these questions, but rather to articulate the work that an Orthodox woman member of clergy must do to negotiate her “working identity.” The authors of Acting White note that constantly performing identity in the workplace is tiring, even though much of this work involves unconscious patterns of behavior learned young. This point too is worth noting for women Orthodox religious leaders, their communities, and those who seek to aid their success. A greater appreciation of what it takes to be an Orthodox clergywoman might help to lighten her load.   Dr. Lynn Kaye is Assistant Professor of Rabbinics at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. She served for several years as Assistant Congregational Leader at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York.  

[1] I use this term to encompass rabbis, maharats (an acronym for “halakhic, spiritual, Torah leader” that began to be granted women in 2009), yoatzot halakha (halakhic advisors in the realm of family purity, the first of which were certified in 2000), communal leaders and scholars, and women without title who serve by dint of communities’ recognition of their leadership.
[2] Here I use “rabbi” because the title, though not yet adopted by most women Orthodox clergy, is the most evocative of the image of Orthodox clergy.

Review of Stein, _Textual Mirrors: Reflexivity, Midrash, and the Rabbinic Self_

October 9th, 2013

Review of Dina Stein, Textual Mirrors: Reflexivity, Midrash and the Rabbinic Self. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 216 pages. $79.95 By Lynn Kaye lkaye@huc.edu Dina Stein’s book argues that the dominant discourse of the rabbis, midrash, reflects and constitutes an imagined rabbinic self. This self, and the distinctiveness of midrash, can best be uncovered through analysis of aberrant genres, such as riddles and tall tales, as well as examinations of “reflective figures” or “possible selves” portrayed in midrash, whether in the figures of women, gentiles or Nazirites. These genres and figures, through their difference from the midrash and rabbis, provide the distance necessary to gain perspective on the norm. As she writes of Rabbi Judah Hanasi’s maidservant, she “is an other within, an other who is recognized as being seated at the heart of its being…this stranger within plants seeds of ambiguity” (117). Stein later concludes that these seeds of ambiguity are constitutive of the rabbinic self. Textual Mirrors is a revisiting of topics that the author originally tackled as individual articles. In hindsight, Stein realized that, together, the articles have something larger to say about midrash. The chapters include references to one another and she adds an introduction and epilogue which describe her theoretical framework of self-reflectivity/reflexivity (Stein defines self-reflectivity as moments of people seeing themselves, while self-reflexivity describes a text referring to itself, but she uses both to refer to ways that the rabbinic self and cultural identities are created by rabbinic texts). While it is clear, especially after having read the epilogue, how the themes explored in each chapter address the topic of self-reflectivity in midrash, I think some of the material in the epilogue might have been helpful to include in the individual chapters themselves, guiding the reader more explicitly in the building of Stein’s case. What characterizes this rabbinic self, reflected in midrash? It is the tendency to question the underlying foundations of that self, and to tolerate ambiguity and destabilization. Comparing midrash to Walter Benjamin’s observation about how a ruined structure both testifies to a presence and to an absence, Stein closes the book with this:
“it is the self-reflexivity, embedded in the ruin and in the midrash alike, that renders both the image and the rabbinic discourse a powerful, and ultimately vital, cultural force. The power of the midrash as the rabbinic discourse par excellence, one that I consequently identify as the rabbinic self, is derived not only from its ability to grant scripture relevant meaning in the belated rabbinic era. The power of midrash derives, almost paradoxically, from its self-reflective quality, from its capacity to call into question and reflect on the underlying principles – textual, religious and ideological – through which it is constituted.” (124)
In other words, it is Stein’s contention that “self-reflectivity,” which applies to a person’s or character’s self-reflection (“where a person becomes the object of his or her own gaze”) and “self-reflexivity,” which applies to language or texts’ self-reference or self-awareness, are constitutive parts of what makes midrash distinctive and powerful. For this reason, the book’s introduction gives the reader a survey of these concepts and their place in contemporary critical theory. Stein argues that midrash is a particularly self-reflexive genre because of its overt weaving of different sources, that is, its intertextuality, as well as its occupation with language play (4). The chapters’ text studies are rich in contextual detail, deeply insightful, alive to the thematic connectors within a story and enhanced by introductions of theoretical constructs. In each chapter the author presents a midrash (either classical or late) and gives the reader theoretical background on genre, philosophical and linguistic issues that are raised by it. For example, in the second chapter, Stein explains how a riddle works to question accepted categories, as it “establishes an identity between categories that are usually opposed or distinct from each other. Thus, the riddle shows users of the language that these classifications, insofar that they are reflected in language, are not unassailable…the riddle implies that cultural classifications are arbitrary” (38). This is aptly put, and reflective of the sorts of theoretical observations that occur throughout the book. In the course of a chapter she also expands on what she calls the “co-texts,” the building blocks of a story or possible allusions that are embedded in the narrative, as well as broader contextual detail of the text’s contemporary world. Her close-readings of the midrashim are comprehensive and illuminating, with bursts of extraordinary and spot-on insight both literary and thematic. Her prose is rich, dense at times, and layered with multiple analytical models and referents. It is a significant contribution to link the midrashic form to rabbinic identity and the emergence of a rabbinic self. The book prompted me to wonder about this “imagined self,” beyond its self-reflectivity, and whether this self is stable in all contexts or shifts and changes. Perhaps certain aspects, such as the self-reflectivity, remain constant while other attributes are more fleeting. This is work for another book, of course. Presenting the individual studies together as a book is also valuable because it enhances the impact of each; the “possible selves” in each narrative, like the Queen of Sheba or Serach bat Asher, reflect one another, not only the normative rabbinic self, leading to new connections and “intertexts” to explore.  

Conference on blood libel

October 9th, 2013

The Program in Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Studies and the Law & Humanities Institute at Cardozo Law School will be hosting a conference on "A Thousand Years of Infamy: The History of Blood Libel, on November 14-15, 2013. Details and registration information here.

Ifediora, “The Blood Libel Legend: Its Longevity and Popularity”

October 9th, 2013

John Obi Ifediora (University of Wisconsin) has posted The Blood Libel Legend: Its Longevity and Popularity on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Jewish ritual murder accusations, in their common apprehension, refer to alleged killing of Christians by Jews in furtherance of religious rites, or specifically Jewish practice. The blood libel, however, is a special variant, and a subset of the broader ritual murder accusation, and came much later into the panoply of accusations leveled at the Jews in the Middle Ages. This essay seeks to address the explanations given by scholars for the popularity and longevity of the blood libel as it touches on the following aspects of the legend: what gave rise to the blood accusations in the Middle Ages when the consequences were so horrific and brutal? Who “first” made the accusations against the Jews in medieval times, and who stood to benefit from such charges, or were they occasioned by economic, social, and religious circumstances that defined medieval Europe? But most importantly, what sustained and popularized it from the twelfth to the twentieth century?