Meet Lila Kagedan – The First Orthodox Woman In The US To Hold The Title Of ‘Rabbi’

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When we look at the definition of feminism – “the social, political and economic equality of the sexes” – we can’t help but feel there is one crucial area missing: religion. Sure it could be argued that religion is covered under the “social” strand, but in an area that is already crowded with so many issues such as domestic violence, reproductive rights, and sexual assault, we feel it is only fair to look at religion and the way it treats women as its own entity.

Over the past few years we have seen some interesting and progressive trends in some of the world’s major religions. In the UK, the Church of England made the bold step of appointing its first female Bishop, Reverand Libby Lane, in 2014, despite much resistance over the years since the issue was brought up. But with the average age of the COE member being 60, it cannot afford to shut women out any longer.

Closer to home, 2015 saw the church of the Latter Day Saints take the first step toward giving women greater leadership opportunities by appointing several women to the Priesthood Leadership Council for the first time. Sister Linda K. Burton, general president of the Relief Society; Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson, Young Women general president; and Sister Rosemary M. Wixom, general president of the Primary, have been appointed to councils that establish policy for the Church. This move comes after a movement to ordain women has swept through the LDS church over the past few years, and while that position is still not open to women after a vote was taken, the opportunity for leadership and policy-shaping is a crucial step forward.

Another major religion that has broken a major gender barrier in its highest level of leadership is Orthodox Judaism. At the end of December, it was announced that Canadian-born, New York-based Lila Kagedan will be the first women to officially hold the title of Rabbi, after being ordained at the women’s seminary Yeshivat Maharat in New York in the summer.

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It is significant because although Lila is not the first woman to hold the position as such (women have in the past been called Rabba or Maharat) she is the first to hold the same title, giving her an equal positioning as men in the church.

As expected, there is opposition to Lila’s appointment and title, but she says her new job was less about being revolutionary, and more about clarifying her role.

“I wanted to take a title in a position of serving the community, so that people would know exactly what it is I was trained to do and exactly in what capacity I was there to serve them,” she said, as reported by The Jewish Chronicle Online.

However she is not shy about admitting the significance of her position and what it means for other women in the faith.

“Change is difficult and frightening. We are very much used to a certain esthetic when we say ‘rabbi’,” she said.

She told the media that despite the opposition, she has received a lot of support for women like her who are breaking barriers, yet not breaking down the core tenets of their strongly held beliefs, and that in itself is the most important part. The approach to equality in religion is vastly different to that of, say, equal pay, or quotas in the corporate boardroom. Many religions rely on a set text to be the basis of their principles and laws, and although many claim to be inclusive of women and equality ideals, what happens in society is often a different story.

None of us are stranger to the way religion has been used as weapons to subjugate and oppress people, as has been the case all throughout history. Even in America today, we see the way certain religious groups and organization seek to infiltrate areas of society governed by secular law, such as reproductive healthcare, and use their personal beliefs to shape legislation in a way that is harmful and restrictive toward women.

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While putting a woman in a position of leadership doesn’t automatically solve all problems, it is a matter of increased representation of the women within a certain faith that can perhaps allow new voices to rise to the top and serve their communities better.

Steven Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew Union College who studies American Jewry told the Jerusalem Post the Orthodox movement has seen a growing trend of women’s spiritual and communal leadership recently.

“The Jewish world has increasingly, if incompletely, moved toward more gender equity as women have assumed leadership roles that were once the primary or even exclusive province of men. Rabbi Kagedan may be the first woman to head an Orthodox congregation; but she won’t be the last,” he said.

A quick look at the history of female leaders in Judaism shows that Lila’s Rabbinical ordination is well overdue. The first female rabbi ever to be ordained was Regina Jonas of East Berlin. On December 25, 1935, Rabbi Dr. Max Dienemann, head of the Liberal Rabbis Association of Offenbach, ordained Jonas to serve as a rabbi in Jewish communities in Germany. In the United States, the Reform movement ordained its first female rabbi in 1972, the Reconstructionist movement in 1974, and the Conservative movement in 1985.

There may not be a “religion” strand in the formal definition of feminism, but in our eyes, the feminist movement cannot ignore the need to empower and affirm female leadership in all faiths.

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  1. Pingback: This Jewish Girls' School Is Challenging The Status Quo By Including Feminism In Its Lessons - GirlTalkHQ

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