Dr. Tamar Frankiel, an accomplished and impressive Jewish scholar, was recently appointed President of the Academy for Jewish Religion in California (AJRCA), making her the first Orthodox woman to head a rabbinical college. The author of seven books on Jewish mysticism and religion, including one on women in Judaism titled, The Voice of Sarah: Feminine Spirituality and Traditional Judaism, Dr. Frankiel has an illustrious record of teaching and scholarship and is considered a leading expert on Jewish mysticism. In honor of her new appointment, Dr. Frankiel shared some of her experiences and insights with JOFA Executive Director Elana Sztokman:
How long have you been involved with AJRCA?
Eleven years, first as faculty, then as Dean of Students in 2003, and Dean of Academic Affairs in 2008.
Tell me a little bit about your background (professionally and religiously).
I have been in academia for over thirty years, mostly in part-time positions because I was also raising a family of five and wanted to be doing research and writing as well. We also needed to be in a place with good Jewish education, which limited our choices. Until I came to AJRCA, I worked in public universities teaching world religions, American religions, and some Jewish studies, and also had been teaching in the Jewish community in adult education venues.
I have been observant for almost the same length of time, after coming to Judaism as an adult and growing into it with my husband. First, in northern California, we were with affiliated with a Renewal group, then with Chabad. In Los Angeles, we have had many Jewish choices and have been regularly affiliated with two small congregations.
How does it feel to be in your new position?
I am very excited and eager to do this work. I worked very closely with Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, the previous president of AJRCA (also orthodox), and led the school through the process of academic accreditation, so I have been involved with all levels of the school. In that sense, it is a natural step for me. But at the same time, representing AJRCA to the community is another dimension.
What does it mean to be the "first orthodox woman heading a rabbinical school"?
Let's be clear that this is a trans-denominational school, independent, not affiliated with any movement. It is not just a rabbinical school though; we educate rabbis, cantors, and chaplains to serve a wide spectrum of Jewish communities, but we do not expect our clergy graduates to be accepted by Orthodox congregations because of different norms and standards -- including that AJRCA ordains women.
Still, even among liberal rabbinical schools, it is a rare position for a woman. According to our research, there has been only one other female president, in the 1990s at the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York (we are not affiliated schools, though we were briefly affiliated in the past, hence the similar names). Surely, with more women on rabbinical and cantorial faculties, there will be a female president elsewhere at some point, but the corridors of the seminaries still tend to be crowded with men.
Orthodoxy is another story. This could only happen in a non-denominational school like AJRCA. It certainly would not happen in an Orthodox rabbinical school, nor would it be likely to happen in a school associated with one of the other movements -- they would want a president who could fully affirm their ideology.
What this signifies is a deep commitment to pluralism on the part of AJRCA. We really mean it when we say people of all Jewish backgrounds and commitments can study here, work here, teach here, and contribute to the rich exchange of perspectives that make up twenty-first century Judaism. The Orthodox perspective is honored, and so are all the others.
How are you involved in the Orthodox community?
Primarily, I have been involved in the community through my family, guiding my children through the schools, participating in community service and in events of interest with my husband. I have also occasionally taught adult classes for women. Increasingly over the past ten years, my academic and professional life has involved more of my time.
Do you consider yourself a feminist, and what does that mean to you?
Yes, in a couple of ways. First, it is clear that historically and worldwide, there are many situations where women are disadvantaged and even endangered because of their gender and exploited because of their weak position. Every person has an obligation to fight such conditions, and women have an additional obligation to speak out because, frankly, we know how it feels.
Second, even when women have basic rights, there are areas where gender disqualifies them from seeking to fulfill their potential as they understand it. When I wrote The Voice of Sarah over twenty years ago, I said that the essential thing was to hear women's authentic voices, and to discover where we really do see ourselves as different from men and contributing in different ways -- as well as where we need to be included as genuine and completely equal partners. These are not easy to sort out in actual communities, and there is a lot of pressure not to talk about it too much. We still tend to substitute ideological positions for honest conversation.
What do you think are the greatest challenges facing Orthodox women today?
I am concerned about the immense social pressure on Orthodox women not to talk about what is important to them personally, because they put their families first. This is not just a Jewish or Orthodox woman's problem -- it was at the root of the whole feminist movement! But we have been pushed into a corner on this one, as we are told over and over again that we are the last bastion of family values. We aren't, but even if we were, if such an attitude stifles honesty, it is unhealthy for the family in the long run. We need to talk openly without fear, about whatever affects our health, our stability as family members, our fulfillment of the potential God has given us.
That's very general, a broad-brush concern. More specifically, I think we face a real spiritual challenge. Twenty years ago, there was a sense of ferment and energy in women's explorations, even when davening together on our side of a high mechitzah. Perhaps it is just where I live, or a generational change, but I am concerned that the fire has died down. Synagogues everywhere face this problem, but we as Orthodox women need to inspire our daughters or the next generation will turn somewhere else. I think, as you do at JOFA, that ritual inclusion can be a big part of this, but there are other pieces too, like music and meditation, that we can investigate -- and learn from our non-Orthodox sisters.
What changes would you like to see in the Orthodox community over the next few years?
I would like to see more positive attitudes toward Jews outside Orthodoxy who are doing good, and a greater willingness to talk and collaborate. Sometimes you have to choose between being right and being in a relationship, and I think we Jews need to find ways to be in relationship with one another.
I also would like to see Orthodoxy honoring women – and men, for that matter – for their contributions in the secular world. Maybe I am just not looking in the right places, but I rarely see Orthodox publications writing about our leaders in various professions, academic scholars, CEOs, etc. Part of our job is to tend God's creation and this work should be honored too.
Do you think that gender challenges cross denominations?
Yes, because unconscious attitudes change slowly, even though policies and public statements toward women in authority have changed. For example, women are more likely to be criticized on issues of personal appearance than are men. Male behavior is still the standard, too, and a woman can easily get caught between being "too masculine" (forceful, commanding, etc) or "too feminine" (not directing enough, accommodating, etc).
However, we in Orthodoxy have structural challenges to women exercising authority that the other denominations do not have. I was shocked to learn recently that a community split over the nomination of a woman to be head of a day school. And, as JOFA women well know, many congregations don't let women be synagogue president or similar offices, despite helpful RCA statements.
How do you think you may be able to use your new position to affect positive changes -- in terms of gender and other things -- in the Jewish world, including the Orthodox community?
My main work is building AJRCA, increasing the impact of what we teach -- how to be a welcoming, inclusive community, develop our spiritual lives, and enhance the contribution each person can make to the Jewish community and the world.
That is what we do. That is our statement to the world, and I hope others can hear it, Orthodox or not.
To the extent that I can do more, I would love to foster interdenominational discussion, particularly among women. It is a little easier for us, I believe, to relax ideological barriers and share common concerns. If anyone wants to fund women's retreats for that purpose, I'll be there!
What do you think the JOFA community can do in order to help advance more Orthodox women in communal leadership roles?
Positive publicity is a big contribution you make already. This helps women recognize that being observant is not a barrier, and conversely that an Orthodox woman in a significant position is good for our public image.
But there is something deeper. According to the story I learned of Sarah Schneirer, who founded the first Bais Yaakov schools, she convinced rabbis to support her because she pointed out that women were using their talents in the secular world. They were studying French and secular music -- and probably much more frivolous things -- instead of Torah. I know many Orthodox women in management positions in the secular world -- we are losing their talents when they could be contributing to the community. We need to make this point again and again.
Let's not forget about talking to our husbands, brothers, and fathers about this. We don't need to split men and women over things that are good for the community and good for individual women. We are very fortunate to live in a time when we can make an impact on the world as observant Jews trying to live according to the Divine will. We can do it together.
Read the rest at the JOFA blog http://www.jofa.org/Community/JOFA_Blog/Interview_with_Tamar_Frankiel/