Rav. Sylvia Rothschild: a woman Rabbi, a new and innovative role who in just a few short decades have transformed Jewish communities around the world.

Rav. Sylvia Rothschild: a women Rabbi, a new and innovative role who in just a few short decades have transformed Jewish communities around the world.
Sylvia Rothschild is a British Reform rabbi. Together with Rabbi Sybil Sheridan, she was Rabbi of Wimbledon and District Synagogue in south west London, from 2003 to 2014, in the first ever rabbinic job share in England. She was Rabbi of Bromley Reform Synagogue from 1987 to 2002 and presently serving also the Lev Chadash Jewish Community and Synagogue in Milan, Italy.

Q.: Without going into a lengthy autobiography, what caused you to making Judaism so central to your life?

A.: I grew up with Judaism in my family home. Friday night was always synagogue and then a family meal with Kiddush and with time to relax together. Shabbat and Festivals were important to us as a family. We were regular synagogue goers, my father was always either Chair or Secretary or Treasurer of our synagogue, and we were all involved and helped out. My synagogue was a small community and every person had value there and a role to play to keep it functioning. Rabbis visited to help out but the synagogue community worked because we all made it work. Though the community was an old one – the third oldest Reform Synagogue in the UK – many of the people I grew up knowing were European refugees, many with a number tattooed on their arm, and I think I absorbed their determination not to lose Judaism osocial work before going to the Leo Baeck College to study for the Rabbinate.

Q.: Would you please describe an overview of the main currents of contemporary Judaism? There is still the perception of Judaism as a whole single current and the majority of people do not have idea about the fact that Orthodoxy is not the only form of Judaism: in the latest century, many other currents took place all over the world, especially in the US and the UK.

A.: Judaism has never been monolithic and there have always been different ideas co-existing within it: Different ways of thinking about God, different customs and levels of stringency from the earliest days of Rabbinic Judaism. Judaism then, has evolved and developed during its history, and is expressed differently in different communities and at different times. It is important to understand that right through Jewish history we can see that Judaism is dynamic, responsive to the context it finds itself in, and has the ability to change and adapt according to the needs of the people.
Contemporary Judaism also has a number of different streams within it. Besides the different geographical/historical expressions of Sephardi / Ashkenazi /Italkit traditions, there are many different traditions and theologies within Judaism, all based on our foundational texts and which are authentic expressions of them, and each of them give different weight and importance to different areas of our tradition.
People tend to talk of these different streams using adjectives: r Jewish values. They had made a positive choice for Judaism even after some of the most terrible experiences, and they taught me their resilience, hope and community as well as Jewish texts and prayers and rituals.

Q.: What was the driving force that guided you to the decision to become a Rabbi?

A.: I grew up in a small community of people who were determined to keep Judaism going, and a family deeply immersed in Judaism too, and I spent a lot of time in synagogue either studying or helping my father do practical jobs to help in the running of the synagogue. The community valued every member, regardless of age, which I learned later was pretty rare. The week after my batmitzvah, because many of the ‘machers’* were away at a conference, they entrusted the service to me. My father was a deeply religious man whose family tree is full of rabbis going back centuries, though he was not in any way orthodox but rather a classical “German Liberal Jew”. From an early age, it was clear that my brother would be a rabbi, but at that time, no one thought about women being rabbis. It was only when I was at university and heard of the first woman being ordained in Europe since the war, that I began to think this would be something I could do too. I wanted to be certain though, so first trained in psychiatric Orthodox/ Reform/ Progressive/ Conservative/ Traditional/ Liberal/Haredi/Hassidic/Modern Orthodox/Ultra- Orthodox etc. but this can be problematic and unhelpful in understanding the Jewish world, particularly when we start to give different values to different adjectives.
The first thing to understand is that Jewishness is almost impossible to really pin down in a ‘one size fits all’ definition. Jews are a people but not an ethnicity though it is passed down the matrilineal line, because one can convert ‘in’. Judaism is a religion but not only a religion because – despite Maimonides formulation of the 13 Principles of Faith -Jews are still Jews even if they do not adhere to these principles. It is not the only monotheistic religion in the world. It is not only a culture, not only a way of praying, not only a way of life. There is no dogma and no doctrine in biblical or Talmudic Judaism despite Medieval attempts to create them, attempts that are now often seen as “orthodox” in the sense of having been accepted as if they are foundational, but which were radical innovations in their time and which were never universally accepted.
Therefore, with that in mind we can look at the contemporary scene. The Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) was a movement that grew from the political and scientific Age of Enlightenment of the middle 1600’s and 1700’s. It brought with it accessibility for Jews to encounter the outside world and a thirst for the secular knowledge that was being systematised, and was an optimistic response to the closed and rather austere world that Judaism had become. Then, from about the 1770’s till the end of the nineteenth century the maskilim (Jewish activists in the Haskalah Movement in Eastern Europe) brought scientific and philosophical thinking, and rational and intellectual curiosity (from the Hebrew word “sechel”) into the study and self-understanding of Judaism. This was seismic: from it grew the variety of progressive movements, which wanted to apply modernity to Jewish thought, which had been isolated since medieval times because of the political situation of the Jews. Zionism, both secular and religious also grew from the Haskalah. And in response to the pressure for modernity, for applying knowledge gained from the secular intellectual world, came a push-back, a conservation of tradition and a tight re-drawing – or sometimes creation – of boundaries, that became known as orthodoxy. It is important to know that the term ‘orthodox’ came into Judaism as a direct response to the formation of streams that called themselves ‘reform’ or ‘progressive’. In some places, the closed world faced other pressures: for example the original hassidic movement of the Baal Shem Tov (Besht) born in Eastern Europe in the 18th Century was an equally revolutionary phenomenon, created to move away from the austere world of study and piety. Instead to celebrate the simple living religious spirit – the Besht would quote Talmud saying “God desires the heart” meaning that the closed world of pilpul** – studying Jewish law in minute and extraordinary detail, missed the point of Judaism.
We are the inheritors of this earthquake in Jewish history. Progressive Judaism is a spectrum from almost indistinguishably traditional ‘orthodoxy’ in its practise through to a radically liberal practise, but one might characterise it as focussing more on ethical ‘prophetic’ Jewish tradition than on the ritual commandments. ‘Orthodoxy’ has many streams within it, from Haredi Judaism, which entirely rejects secular modern culture through to Modern Orthodox, which – as its name implies – embraces much of modernity. Hasidism has left its founder far behind and is now ultra-pietistic, a hundred and eighty degree turn from its origin. All the streams of Judaism are struggling with ideas, all are ways to try to reach a dialogue with God through the different lenses of the way they see their Judaism.

Q.: I had the chance to read an article on the Haaretz Journal, talking about women Rabbi. I quote a sentence that deeply impressed me for its rudeness: “A Rabba is not a Rabbi just like a woman is not a female man”. What do you think about this statement?

A.: I think it is a nonsense and betrays the fear and ignorance of the speaker. There is linguistic ignorance as well as halachic ignorance in this statement which I think dates from the time that the first women were being ordained as orthodox rabbis by an institution (there have been women who have been given private orthodox semicha*** for decades before this). These women are trained as rabbis – trained in the halachic process and in our texts just as men rabbis are. If they choose to call themselves Rabbah or Rabbi or any other title, this is their choice – it does not affect the work they do and their authority and competence to do it.

Q.: One question of the importance of family life for a woman Rabbi. When we are assessing issue regarding gender equality in working environments, we always have to face the reality that women are disadvantaged because a lot of common places still valid also in contemporary times. The stereotype of women that have to balance family priorities with working life still matters. This is even more significant for a woman that has an important commitment like you: being a Rabbi working for a community, a congregation and her family. How do you balance the tasks you have and how is a normal working day for a woman Rabbi?

A.: It is important for any human being to have a family life. Usually women have facilitated that life for the family much more than men have. Women who work have two jobs – one outside and one inside the home. Women generally still carry the emotional load within a household. Being a woman rabbi with a family in that sense is no different than for women doing jobs outside of the home and also running a family home.
For me, it is never easy. I had my first baby just five months before getting semicha and seven months before working full time as the only rabbi in my community. I learned strategies and created boundaries in order to have a proper family life, but that learning was at a price of course and I had to be mindful every step of the way. After sixteen years working nearly every day and evening and weekend I decided to move to another synagogue and I created the first rabbinic job-share with another woman colleague. We developed a model of working which was very successful and worked together for twelve years till her retirement. It was blissful knowing that I was not ‘on call’ on the weekends and days that she was at the synagogue and able to take care of whatever needed doing.
Now I work part-time for the Lev Chadash Community in Milan. I also have other roles and responsibilities, all of which are part time too: for example co-chairing the British Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights, and being very involved in Tzelem, a very new cross-communal group of Rabbis working for social and economic justice in the UK, which I helped to start. I do ethical consultancy, mentoring, executive coaching, writing – every day is different for me.

Q.: Do you think that women Rabbis have the same consideration as the male Rabbis in terms of opportunities and equality? In particular:Equality in terms of

  • Being appointed by a congregation
  • Pay and salary
  • Job prospects
  • Time to dedicate to the family


A.: No. The gender gap is still with us. And when a male rabbi dedicates time to their family everyone is impressed at what a caring husband/partner/parent he is, but when a woman rabbi does this people tend to think she can’t be doing her primary job very well. Just like the outside world.

Q.: There has been quite the controversy lately over the titles “Rabba”, “Rabbi” and “Maharat” and their application to women. “Maharat,” is an acronym of four Hebrew words — manhigah, hilhatit, ruhanit and toranit — which means a “female leader in Jewish religious law, spiritual matters and Torah.” How would you define yourself?

 A.:I have always just called myself Rabbi. The word ‘maharat’ was coined as a political compromise by Rabbi Avi Weiss. It was clever and it describes the role beautifully, but for me its history is unhelpful, seemingly created to slide the semichah of orthodox women past those who didn’t like the idea by using a made up word. Rabbah also doesn’t resonate with me though I know it does with others. Everyone knows what a Rav or a Rabbi is, and these are the titles I choose to carry.

Q.: What is your vision of God?

A.: I am not sure I have a vision per se, but for me God is simply there, existing, outside of time and space and our petty perceptions. Someone said to me recently that my God errs much more on the side of mercy than the side of judgement and I think that is true.
Do you think that the figure of a woman Rabbi is commonly definitely accepted, or do you think that there are still some prejudices? I am not talking only about the resistances displayed by the Orthodox Judaism, but also in the Reform and Progressive environment. Could it be possible that women have to work, study and face a harder life if compared to men to demonstrate the possibility to cover new roles that are completely new in our society, making a comparison with the past?
As I write this, the Israeli Reform Movement have just ordained their hundredth rabbi, among the class is the daughter of their first woman rabbi. Women are now 50/50 in the rabbinic colleges in the UK and the USA. We are a long way from my own interview where I was told “we already have three women in the college, would you wait until one of them is ordained?”. But it remains true that there are still prejudices, even in the Reform and Progressive world. There are people who want a male rabbi because they see them as authority figures and others who want to not disturb their orthodox family or friends at life-cycle events by having a woman rabbi there. There are people who retain some misogyny even though they don’t want to admit it, and others who still naturally gravitate to the stereotypes of old. Even the UK sign language for the deaf uses a beard to describe a rabbi. So yes, we have not yet normalised women rabbis completely even in our own world, and the pressure I felt as the 8th woman to be ordained in Europe to do well in order not to ‘let down” all the other women may be less now but it has not disappeared. But at the same time there are now people who grew up with women rabbis and are completely comfortable with us and don’t especially notice our gender, and as the generations go on, that will surely become the norm.

Q.: Although there is no halakhic (Jewish legal) prohibition against female rabbis, the Orthodox world still does not allow women to be ordained as Rabbi. Do you think that some evolution toward a positive direction could be possible?

A.: Because there is no halachic prohibition and because women –and men – are studying the texts and are able to verbalise that fact, slowly the myth that women cannot or should not be rabbis is lessening its hold in the orthodox world. There have always been women scholars, just fewer than men and less publicised. For example Rashi’s daughters and granddaughters were noted Biblical and Talmudic scholars in the 11th-12th centuries in France. Miriam Shapira-Luria was known as Rabbanit Miriam and she ran a yeshiva where she taught Talmud and rabbinic literature in the early 15th century in Padua. (She is my 15th great grandmother). Asnat Barzenai also ran a yeshivah in Mosul in Iraq in the 15th/16th century. These were exceptional women it’s true, but they are not so infrequent in our history – it is just that they are hard to find as their stories have been almost obliterated over time. But now women are training to be rabbis in greater numbers even in the orthodox world, and each one makes a real contribution to the work towards equality. I think it remains true that generally the women across the movements are harder working and study harder than the men – equality is yet to reach the aspiration of the New York Commissioner of Education Ewald Nyquist who wrote in the New York Times in October 1975 that “Genuine equality is not when a female Einstein gets promoted to assistant professor: Genuine equality is when a female schlemiel moves ahead as fast as a male schlemiel”. I look forward to the day that happens

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