A Rabba Is Not a Rabbi, Just Like a Woman Is Not a Female Man

There's a difference between gender equality and gender equity; we should embrace diversity instead of trying to homogenize humanity.

Emil Salman

I would like to join the chorus of congratulations being sent to the eight women Haaretz reported about on Friday who are now receiving Orthodox ordination as rabbas. The place that these women hold as pioneers of Jewish history is not to be diminished. Yet, unfortunately, when reading descriptions of these women as "female rabbis," I sense a certain confusion.

A rabba is not a female rabbi. A rabba is a rabba. A rabbi is a male halakhic authority, and a rabba is a female halakhic authority. Calling a rabba a female rabbi is like calling a woman a female man. A man, rather, is a male human, and a woman is a female human.

Orthodox Feminism is largely a movement that seeks to ensure the dignity of those on both sides of the mechitza, not to attempt to eliminate or downplay the distinction or the differences between the people on either side. I left the Conservative Movement that I grew up in, in part because of attempts to achieve gender uniformity.

The idea of celebrating rather than diminishing our differences, while ensuring dignity and opportunity for everyone, marks a critical philosophic difference between those who advocate for a homogeneous humanity, and those who celebrate diversity with dignity. This dichotomy pertains not only to the way we approach gender, but also to the way we approach race, religion, nationality, sexuality, and any number of topics, and it lies at the foundation of the difficulty in deciding what to call female Orthodox halakhic authorities.

Whether they are called rabbas/rabbot or maharats/maharot, they are decidedly not rabbis. Their role in the community will continue to develop as a work in progress, but the Orthodox world will continue to recognize their role as distinct from that of rabbis, as it does other classifications of roles. Take Cohanim for example. Their role and significance is not confused with those of Levites or other tribes. The same goes for Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews – they are different ethnically and follow different traditions. Even in Modern Orthodox communities where women are called to the Torah and lead certain segments of prayer services, there are often other segments that are reserved for men, and still others reserved for Cohanim.

Though Orthodox feminists wrestle with the challenge of ensuring dignity for everyone, uniformity is not necessary. Humanity is best served by accepting and celebrating diversity without trying to eliminate it. We should accept those who are different from us whether they are different racially, culturally, religiously, nationally, or even if they are of a different gender, or are different in any number of other ways. We should encourage each individual to follow their own unique path, without trying to homogenize humanity.  

The world must acknowledge the difference between the ideas of gender equality and gender equity, to recognize the dichotomy between advocates for the former and advocates for the latter, and to accept the legitimacy of those who choose equity.

If a survey were to be conducted to see what sorts of people support gender divisions in sports, I presume that we would find that “feminists” tend to support the advancement of uniquely women’s competitions. Though we are way too far behind in celebrating and investing in women’s sports to the same extent that we celebrate and invest in men’s sports, the rise of women’s sporting competitions is not typically seen as relegating women to secondary status. To the contrary, women’s sports are typically viewed as providing opportunities for women to showcase and champion their own unique abilities. Having same-sex sports competitions would, in many cases, diminish opportunities for women.

At the Sochi Olympics in 2014, Martina Sabilkova won the gold medal in the women’s 5,000-meter speed skating competition with a time of 6 hours 51 minutes and 54 seconds. If she had been competing with the men in the same event her time would have led to a last place finish.

It is okay for men and women to be different. We are different. I will never give birth, or nurse. We are different physically, and mentally, and it is okay for us to be different religiously.

I would be offended if someone told a left handed person to write with their right hand, or a person predisposed to being an artist that they should go into science. It is inappropriate to criticize a dyslexic person’s writing or to ask a blind person what something looks like. I am offended when those from other religions wish to convert me, and I do not proselytize to them. In the same vain, I am dissatisfied when the distinction between a rabbi and a rabba is confused.

Baruch Stein holds a degree in Political Science from Penn State University. After leaving the Conservative Movement where he grew up he affiliated with Haredi-led institutions but has since gravitated to the liberal-most wing of Modern Orthodoxy.