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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.

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