Midrash Sifre teaches that the Israelites left Egypt with Miriam at their lead: “when you left Egypt–” during the time of your redemption, the tribes traveled only when Miriam preceded them (Sifre Deut. 275). Miriam is one of the important women in the Passover story and she has many titles: prophet, leader, sister of Moses. In her essay, Rabbi Sara Cohen, ordained in 2017 by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, discusses the different titles Israeli women take on when they become rabbis.
In her last year in law school in the United States, my sister became engaged to a rabbi. As soon as friends and family heard of the engagement, they would say to my sister “Oh. So you’re going to be a rebbetzin?” My sister, a top student at one of the world’s most prestigious law schools, would grit her teeth and say pointedly, “No, I’m going to be a lawyer.”
When I moved to Israel and told that story, I learned that the term for rebbetzin in Hebrew is rabbanit. I also came to understand that in Israel the title rabbanit is familiar to Israelis who come from all points on the religious spectrum, perhaps even more so than for Jews in other places around the world. The familiarity of the term, even to non-religious Jews, is partly due to the fact that in Israel, all brides who get married by the state-run religious establishment, are required to meet with a rabbanit – usually the wife of the rabbi who is going to officiate at the couple’s wedding ceremony – so that she can teach the new bride about her upcoming duties as a Jewish wife. As both the term and the job description of a rabbanit are very familiar in Israel, so is the way one becomes a rabbanit. A woman becomes a rabbanit by marrying a rabbi. There are esteemed, learned, and brilliant rabbaniot in Israel…99% of whom earned the title by marrying a rabbi.
Having recently been ordained as a rabbi in Israel, when describing my position in Hebrew, I often hear, “Oh. So you’re a… a… a rabbanit?” For most of the people I meet in my daily life, rabbanit is a familiar word, but it is unclear what the term for a female rabbi is. There is a gut feeling that the term rabbanit isn’t quite right, but neither does the term rav, which is a distinctly masculine word, sound right.
The question is much simpler in the United States, where of course many more women have been ordained as rabbis than there are here in Israel. In English, “Rabbi” is not a gendered term. In the early days of women’s ordinations in English-speaking countries, calling a woman “Rabbi” may have sounded strange and may have caused consternation among those who objected to women’s ordinations as rabbis, but linguistically speaking, it is just as easy to be called, for instance, Rabbi Esther Levy as it is to be called Rabbi Mordechai Levy.
But in Hebrew in which every noun, verb, and adjective is either masculine or feminine, complications arise. Thus, toward the end of my recently completed studies toward rabbinic ordination at the Schechter Rabbinical School in Jerusalem, I was faced with a dilemma that neither my Israeli male colleagues nor my female North American colleagues are faced with upon graduation from rabbinical school. At Schechter, the question came up when the administration was preparing the ordination certificate: “Sara, are you going to be a Rav or a Rabbah?”
Having to choose my own title highlighted the atypical nature of my new status. Many rabbis, both men and women, both in Israel and abroad, are challenged by the question of how they should be addressed by congregants. Usually the question is, “Should I use my first name, or my last name?” In a world that is becoming less formal with time, rabbis and congregants are wondering whether someone should call his or her rabbi “Rabbi Cohen” or “Rabbi Sam”. Nevertheless, Hebrew-speaking male rabbis do not have to debate the question of the title itself. Everyone understands the term “Rav”. Not so for Hebrew-speaking women rabbis.
A number of women rabbis in Israel told me something along these lines: “I choose to call myself Rav, because I did not want anyone to think that there is even the slightest difference between me and my male colleagues: not in my training, and certainly not in the authority conferred upon me by the title.”
Other women rabbis told me that they chose the title Rav because the title Rabbah is meaningless in Israeli society: It doesn’t mean anything to anyone when you say you are a Rabbah. On the other hand, using a woman’s name with the title Rav also sounds strange in Hebrew, partly due to the awkwardness of matching a male noun – Rav – with a feminine verb form when talking about the action of a woman rabbi.
Recently someone told me that rabbah is not even a word in Hebrew. That claim actually has an authoritative answer, as the Academy of the Hebrew Language recently stated that “it seems as if the word rabbah has already found its way into the public consciousness as the female form of rav.” Nevertheless, when I use the word rabbah, I often find that people react in a way that makes it clear that they think it is a weird, nonsensical word. Often the reaction is not necessarily linked to an ideoloigical attitude towards women in the rabbinate, rather the reaction points to the fact that the word just sounds odd to the average Hebrew speaker.
Nonetheless, it is hard to separate language from ideology. After my ordination, a friend who is a gabbai in my synagogue told me he was uncomfortable calling me to the Torah as Rabbah, as Rabbah automatically signifies a diminutive form of the title, and he would rather call me up as Rav. On the face of it, my friend’s comment signifies an egalitarian, gender-neutral approach. Nevertheless, I asked him to consider why he feels that the female form of the word is necessarily diminutive. It is true that in English many feminine forms of job titles are no longer widely used. There has been a shift away from calling a female poet a “poetess” or a woman writer an “authoress”, in part because female writers objected to those terms, as they designated a lesser status. In Hebrew, however, in this day and age, using the female rofah for a woman doctor does not automatically designate a lower status. So why would using the title Rabbah necessarily denote something lesser?
Some Israeli women rabbis have chosen to use Rabbah in order to emphasize the differences between male and female rabbis. Like it or not, a woman rabbi is going to bring something distinctly not-male to her job: a woman’s perspective, a woman’s experience, a woman’s point of view.
In Israeli society, where the state-controlled religious institutions are both patriarchal and non-egalitarian, and where those same religious institutions are the beneficiaries of huge sums of government funding, we few Israeli women rabbis could argue that we have more crucial concerns than deciding whether to be called Rav or Rabbah. Nevertheless, if there’s one thing we know as Jews, it is that there is power in words. Whether we call ourselves Rabbah or Rav, it is clear that staking our claim to the title is a clear statement of belief: The rabbinical institutions in Israel can no longer be the sole provenance of men. In modern Israel and in modern Judaism, marriage to a rabbi cannot be the only way that Jewish women become public religious leaders.
Rabbi Sara Cohen serves as a regional rabbi in the Eilat/Arava region and as the rabbi on Kibbutz Ketura. She was ordained by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in 2017.