Discussing the Public Domain and Private Arena

The Australian orthodox synagogue I grew up in half-time till a year or so before Bat Mitzvah, taught that the Jewish public domain was the province of men and the Jewish private arena was the realm of women. Each gender had their specific role in a world that was separate but equal. Although my family eventually transferred their allegiance entirely to the progressive synagogue, partly because they believed in the equality of women, it occurs to me then as now, that the nature of true equality, where men and women are regarded as equal partners in the public and private of life is still an evolving entity.

Much has been written and discussed – rightly so – on the public achievements and challenges of women as rabbis on this 40th anniversary celebrating the ordination of Sally Priesand. In many ways the public realm (traditionally male) was the key focus of revolutionizing towards equality.  As much as we laud the changes and lament the resistances of the public arena, our discussion should not forget to focus on the private realm (traditionally female). In what way has the presence of women in the rabbinate altered the private lives of rabbis, for the good or not-so-good, and what are the issues that we need to continue addressing?

In our private realms, testimonials about the lives of men and women in the rabbinate speak of how the presence of women in our profession has opened the doors to re-prioritization of family, the effort to maintain a work and life balance, and the allowance of career breaks. Women in the rabbinate and their concerns have elevated the status of the private realm in the lives of professionals. This is true for many other professions that have opened their doors to women. Equally true is that these private struggles for living life differently than in the past have become ongoing questions for which many of us have not found an equilibrium or resolution.

In our private realms, women rabbi’s natural female relational tendencies can be hampered by our public personas. How do we court true friendships and relationships where our social life can be tied to our professional commitments?  Is it possible to avoid transference or projection on how folk think clergy should behave/be when forging new connections? Is it appropriate to tell our congregant or local friends about our bad day or our difficulties at work? And if we cannot let off steam with our friends – is this the true nature of friendship?

In our private realms, from the beginning of women’s rabbinic time there has been a debate over suitable attire or lack of attire, not just for our professional lives, but also our private time. Can we wear a revealing bathing suit? On a date can we show legs or cleavage?  Is it appropriate for a woman, and especially a woman rabbi, to breastfeed her child in public? Should our professional persona have a say on our private attire? How much does our community’s perception of modesty affect our private covering and clothing?

Forty years on from that life-changing moment when an institution ordained the first woman rabbi, we have come so far, yet we are in so many ways still wandering in the wilderness, still to reach the Promised Land. Forty years on and we debate the public issues and challenges of women rabbis in the hope that our talk will inspire a better world in the communal arena. The public is easy to debate – it is public! Yet let us not forget forty years on we must also keep the private domain on the discussion agenda , for only by articulation of our many personal struggles and concerns,  will we begin the path to change and resolution, in both the public and private worlds that make up the fullness of our lives.


Rabbi Linda Joseph




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About Rabbi Linda Joseph

Senior Rabbi of Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills MD, a suburb of Baltimore. I love God, Jewish traditions, creativity and texts. I enjoy teaching, prayer, community and connection. Storytelling, making art, listening to music, writing, reading and cooking are some of my passions. I am blessed each day when I get to play with my dog Ben Bag Bag and my cat Khazar and when I get to hang out with my husband Richard.

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