Rabbi, Raba or Rabbanit?

In 1983, Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon, the first woman to actively serve as a rabbi in Israel, approached the Academy of the Hebrew Language and asked how her job is described in Hebrew. The answer she received was that "the correct term is rabbanit [the Hebrew feminine form of the Yiddish word, rebbetzin, the feminine word for rabbi, i.e., rebbe], but since it is also used to refer to a rabbi's wife, we recommend adopting another term." Ten years later, Rabbi Einat Ramon-Ascherman, the first Israeli-born woman ordained as a rabbi (abroad), posed a similar question. This time the Academy of the Hebrew Language was more decisive and determined that "it should be rabbanit, just like hazzanit [the feminine form of the Hebrew word for cantor, hazzan], and from now on, this word will have two meanings."

Five years later, the academy was asked for its opinion on the title raba (the feminine form of the Hebrew word for rabbi) and responded that, "the masculine form in Hebrew refers to women as well, whereas the feminine form denotes only the feminine. That is the way Hebrew is and the academy does consider itself permitted to determine something that is contrary to this method." Another five years passed and in 2003 the Academy of the Hebrew Language offered a clearer response to Raba Dr. Dalia Marks and wrote with admirable candor: "Were we the arbiters, we would decide in favor of raba, but then we would be accused of recognizing this phenomenon ... the same happened with regard to the correct Hebrew spelling of the word `Palestinians.'" In the wake of the Academy of the Hebrew Language's stand, I will use the title raba in this article, unless referring to someone who I know prefers to be called rabbi.

Measure of confusion

Dr. Tsviya Walden, of Beit Berl College, collected these letters, which reflect no small measure of confusion, as part of a study she did on the title used to address a female rabbi. The full study has yet to be published. An abstract of it was recently published under the heading "Rav, Ravit, Rabat, Raba and Ravrava" in an issue of the journal, Panim, devoted to the Hebrew language. In Israel, Walden writes, there are already 32 rabot in rabbinic posts. The first of them was ordained in 1991, 19 years after the ordination of the first raba in the United States.

Walden cites ads from conferences in which some of the participants choose to refer to themselves as rabbi (harav) while others prefer the title raba. For example, the ads published this year by the Reform synagogue of Tel Aviv, Beit Daniel, prior to the Shavuot eve all-night Torah study program state: Raba Galia Sadan and Rabbi Vered Sakal.

A survey of the Reform movement's Web site reveals that Kinneret Shiryon, who is also the first woman to be appointed chairman of the Council of Progressive Rabbis in Israel, is referred to there as rabbi, as is Rabbi Ada Zavidov, the deputy chairman, and Rabbi Naama Kelman, the treasurer. But on the Web sites of Reform congregations, Mira Raz of the Natan-Ya Congregation in Netanya is referred to as raba. In other words, the confusion is not restricted to the Academy of the Hebrew Language alone. It is also rampant among the rabot themselves.

Walden interviewed 31 rabot. There is one thing they all agreed on. They objected to the title rabbanit, which is commonly understood to mean the wife of the rabbi, and as Walden writes, "a title that is acquired through sexual intercourse ... is not fit to be used to refer to a woman who obtained her knowledge in an orderly and recognized way." There is also consent regarding the plural form of the word - it should be rabot. But what is the singular form? Walden informed Haaretz that 24 of the rabot prefer to be called rabbi and only seven of them (32 percent) prefer to be called rabot, a ratio of three to one [in favor of rabbi or harav]. However, Walden feels this statistic is misleading.

Hebrew is the mother tongue of only 14 rabot. Of them, nine preferred to be addressed as rabbi and five (36 percent) preferred raba, a ratio of two to one. And the most stunning statistic: in 2001, Reform Raba Mira Raz received for the first time a certificate on which the title raba appeared. Since then, seven rabot, whose mother tongue is Hebrew, have been ordained in Israel. Three of them prefer to be called rabbi and four (57 percent) prefer the title raba. The fact that almost all the rabot whose mother tongue is English prefer the title rabbi can probably be explained by the fact that in English the same word is used to refer to a male rabbi and a woman rabbi.

As happens when dealing with linguistic innovations, over the years some fairly amusing suggestions have come up. For example, the linguist Yitzhak Zadka suggested in 1986 using raba or ravit. Walden writes that "it does not seem correct to me to affix to the title for a woman the form used for the diminutive (as in kapit [for teaspoon, i.e., small spoon] and mapit (for napkin, i.e., small tablecloth), especially in light of the fact that the original meaning of the word rav [i.e., rabbi] is great, great in Torah knowledge."

The president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, Prof. Moshe Bar-Asher, in a letter to a colleague in the U.S., suggested using rabat, a title that might be reminiscent of the capital of Morocco. On the other hand, some of the rabot voiced similar criticism of the title raba, which sounds like "Tel Aviv rabati" [i.e., greater Tel Aviv] and reminds them of the children's song "Simha Raba, Simha Raba" [about the great joy surrounding the impending spring season and the Passover festival]. Other suggestions include: hakhama [the feminine form of the Hebrew word, hakham, or scholar and rabi, another variation of the Hebrew word, rav]. Sivan Mass, who is a secular raba, prefers the title rabi, which is a Hebrew acronym for the words Raba Yisraeli [Israeli raba].

The Conservative-affiliated Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies rabbinical seminary ordained three rabot this year. The acting dean of the rabbinic school, Rabbi Einat Ramon-Ascherman, told Haaretz that in its rabbinic ordination certificates the school uses the term rabbi (rav) for women as well.

Different type of leadership

However, for one graduate, Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, it was very important that the diploma state raba and so it was done. Elad-Appelbaum argued that the title raba expresses a different type of spiritual leadership. Ramon-Ascherman says she does not attribute any importance to the question of whether she is addressed as rabbi or raba. But when she was referred to on the radio as rabbanit, she called in to correct it. She feels that in Orthodox and conservative circles, it is easier to use the title raba and in so doing not recognize the equal status of the rabot and their equal authority.

Not everyone agrees with her. Raba Tamar Duvdevani told Walden that "the use of the title raba is at the time threatening and challenging; it threatens many men and invites hostile reactions, for the most part defensive, but also violent." Ramon-Ascherman thinks it is better that the Academy of the Hebrew Language not decide now, but rather allow time and reality to take their course.

Keren Dubnov, the academic secretary of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, says that several years ago the Academy deliberated over this question and as result, it has been inclined in recent years to recommend using the word raba. However, there has been no official decision. Dubnov explains that an official decision requires a lengthy series of discussions and not every word follows that course.

The reason for favoring the title raba over rabbi (rav) is the principle of "male and female he created them," i.e., the desire to have a masculine and a feminine form for every position. The only exception to this rule is the position of prime minister, for which the academy found no feminine form. This dilemma is best expressed, according to Dubnov, by the position of the academic secretaries at the academy, because the word, mazkira (feminine form of the Hebrew word for secretary), usually is associated with typing and transferring phone calls. Dubnov notes that former State Comptroller Miriam Ben-Porat insisted on signing documents with the words mevaker hamedina (the Hebrew masculine form of state comptroller), contrary to the academy's position that she be referred to as mevakeret (the Hebrew feminine form of the word comptroller). If, as expected, Dorit Beinisch will soon head the Supreme Court, says Dubnov, she should be referred to as nesi'ah (Hebrew feminine form of the word, president) and not as nasi (Hebrew masculine form of the word, president).

Eternal rest

It has been six and a half years since the first municipal secular cemetery in Israel opened in Be'er Sheva and only this week was the second such cemetery opened. It too is far removed from the center of the country and is located in Kiryat Tivon. Yaron Yad'an, of the Kiryat Tivon branch of Menuha Nekhona association (which advocates for secular cemeteries in Israel), says the fight to obtain land and a burial permit lasted eight years. For now the cemetery has 100 burial plots and an option to expand. Because the land belongs to the local council, no burials of people from outside Kiryat Tivon will be permitted. Clearly non-Jews will also be buried there, but the association has yet to make decisions regarding issues faced by nonsectarian cemeteries such as what statues (an angel?), what religious symbols (a cross?) and what music (Wagner?) will be permitted there. In the meantime, the battle continues to be waged in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, but there is as yet still no secular burial option.