From Rabbi Rashi Simon of Kesher in London, England
Dear Esther Wein
I enjoyed your essay on the subject of Women Rabbis, which I received in the merit of my wife Ruthie who is on Aliza’s distribution list.
I would add an important point (IMO): At least some of the objection to a male-only rabbinate reflects the assumption that a rabbi wields religious authority in a way similar to a priest in the Catholic church. That is, the priest is essential for such things as baptism, communion, confession, marriage, last rites, etc. Without the priest, a Catholic’s connection to G-d (or god; take your pick) is incomplete. This is not the case in Judaism. With very limited exceptions, one does not need a rabbi (as a matter of religious necessity) for much of anything in Jewish life. Not for a bris, bar mitzvah, funeral. Not to lead prayers. Not for kosher food, or even kosher meat. Even a wedding is valid if observed by suitable witnesses (true they have to be men, but that is not the point here). The rabbi is only there to verify that everything is in order. He need not witness the kiddushin nor sign the ketubah. The wedding is perfectly valid in his absence.
Divorces are complicated (technically as well as all too often in actuality), but even there it is only by convention that we insist on the authority of a competent rabbi for siddur ha-get. Strictly speaking having semicha is not an essential credential. A knowledgeable lay person can equally oversee the procedure. (We require three Dayanim, but again, rabbinic ordination is optional.)
I realise that these technical distinctions do not reach to the heart of the issue, which is the perceived inequality of it all, but you can certainly disarm your questioner by asking, “in Judaism, what is so important about being a rabbi, anyway?” The (lack of an) answer may surprise her.
Esther Wein has over 20 years of experience as an educator. She offers ongoing classes to adult women on both the weekly Torah portion and Prophets, in Lawrence, where she lives with her husband and children. Her class on the Torah portion can be heard via podcast weekly on ou.org radio and TorahAnytime.com.