Raba – A Woman Rabbi (translated from Polish by Gina Kuhn)


Raba – A Woman Rabbi

A Conversation with Tanya Segal, Poland’s first female rabbi, and Boaz Pash, the Chief Rabbi of Kraków

By Małgorzata Prochal, translated from Polish by Gina Kuhn

The article was published in “Dziennik Polski”, largest regional daily newspaper on August 3rd, 2012



It is still a common belief that a rabbi is a man, usually an older one with a black hat. It’s not everyday that you meet a woman serving this function.

Tanya Segal: A woman rabbi is not very common both in Poland and in Europe. However, there are movements where this is completely normal. I’m the rabbi for the Progressive community in Kraków, which belongs to Reform Judaism. This movement began in Germany at the break of the 19th century. Although from the beginning, it called for equality between women and men, implementing this idea in practice took a while. The first woman rabbi was Regina Jones, ordained in 1935.

Boaz Pash: In traditional Orthodox Judaism, only men can be rabbis. Nevertheless, there are women who perform similar functions. However, they don’t have legal standing or titles, and are only able to carry out duties that can be performed outside of the synagogue. We do not yet accept women leading prayers and study at yeshivot is limited exclusively to religious men.

How many women rabbis are there in the world?

TS: Currently in Europe there are just a few. In Israel, there are about 25, while in North America, where the Reform movement is strongest, there are over 600 women rabbis.

How do you address a woman rabbi?

TS: In Hebrew, there wasn’t a feminine version of the word rav – rabbi. That’s why, following the modern phenomenon of ordaining of female rabbis, they came up with a new word, raba. Upon finishing of rabbinical studies, you have a choice of how you want to be addressed. Interestingly, today most choose the female version.

Who is a rabbi?

BP: A rabbi is a teacher who is also a spiritual and communal leader. In Judaism, there are no activities that are exclusively for rabbis – unlike in Catholicism for priests. He is not the only person who can lead prayers in the synagogue. That’s why, in small communities that don’t have enough money to pay a rabbi, his role can be taken over by another person.

There is a commonly held perception that Judaism forbids women rabbis.

TS: But is that actually true? If you analyze Jewish law, you can conclude that it is not contradictory to halacha – it has to do with the social standards of thought. For centuries, the role of women was confined to running the household and raising children. Possibilities for spiritual growth and exploration were limited to men. The ideal Talmud chaham (a highly-educated student devoted to learning Torah) was shaped by the yeshivot, or religious schools, which did not accept women.

BP: Interestingly, in Kraków before the war the level of education was much higher for women than men. [Men] only attended religious schools, where they studied the Torah, the Talmud and didn’t have any general education like women, who mainly attended Polish schools.

And were there any outstanding women who were involved in religious matters?

TS: In the Torah and the Talmud, we find examples of women who made an impact on history and their times. We read about our foremothers who were endowed with prophetic vision and also about women scholars. A good example is Bruria, a Talmudist of great intellect. However, ordinary women had clearly defined roles that were not connected with learning and leadership.

BP: Now slowly, you can see a different approach to women in all movements [of Judaism], but in Orthodox Judaism these changes are not really felt. It’s a well-known fact that women no longer have to sit at home all day, they can go out, go to school, study. In Israel, there are also female-dominated professions, such as judges or teachers. That’s why the Orthodox Hasidic world will someday – not now, but maybe in 50 years – will also be forced to accept the changes.

Every morning, when devout Jews pray, they say, “Thank you God, for not making me a woman…”

TS: In Progressive communities, we have replaced this verse with another blessing. The Orthodox prayer comes from the fact that women, unlike men, are exempt from mitzvot zman grama, religious obligations relating to a specified time (such as praying three times a day). Men, on the other hand, have to fulfill all the mitzvot, and it’s a great joy for them – that’s what’s expressed in this blessing. But, we need to remember that words are important and have an impact, and so take responsibility for the content that defines our relationships with others. That’s why in Reform, we look over the text and analyze it.

BP: We do not change the Sidur (prayer book). Tradition is tradition and must be respected. The question is whether we all accept this blessing. Of course not! In this prayer (during Shacharit), we thank God for a lot of things – that He did not make us a non-Jew (shelo asani goi), a slave or a weak man. And that a man was not created as a woman. I don’t see this blessing to reflect a religious context, but a social one. For centuries, women were regarded as being sinful and lesser than men. This is related to the first sin, where a woman deceived a man and he fell into temptation and both were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Today, we know that our job is to improve the world so that it resembles the one before the Fall, but these changes do not come from the rabbis.

TS: But who then decides that the time has come when the community is ready to accept changes? And what is the role of individuals and the leader in this situation?

BP: Let me ask you a question that is even more difficult. Why do some Jews have more trouble accepting the involvement of women in religious life than, say, a violation of the Sabbath? They drive a car then, they smoke. Yet, we do not accept the advances of Reform Judaism. And if you say today: “You know what? A woman is going to read from Torah in the synagogue tomorrow,” there would be a revolution here. Thus, the same men who are not doing everything as they should react to the idea of reform with anger. Changes may occur, but they must come from the community and be accepted by its members.

Is it easier to be a Reform Jew?

TS: Really, that’s a lingering stereotype. Progressive Judaism recognizes the possibility of different interpretations of Jewish law than Orthodox Judaism, but that doesn’t mean ignoring it. We engage in a broad dialogue with tradition in order to find meaning in it that is current for us today. This allows us to form a closer bond with and a conscious approach to Jewish law and tradition. Anyway, I’d like to invite you to come to services at Beit Kraków – they are open and everybody can come. The entire liturgy is in Hebrew, but we try to enrich it with elements not found in the Orthodox tradition, such as [instrumental] music.

BP: The problem with Reform Judaism is that it’s not sustainable. We know that the first generation of Reform Jews in America went to synagogue and were generally very religious, but the second and third [generations] looked for more simple solutions and generations-old traditions slowly disappear. It’s a good solution for the short term, but it doesn’t build permanent structures.

TS: Now, in Israel, many people identify with the Reform movement. I see it, for example, in my son. His generation is much more open and also looking for something in the spiritual aspect of life. Young people often rebel against orthodoxy and move away from Judaism in general because they do not understand that Reform Judaism is also a [legitimate] religious movement. So, it’s really important that people realize that there are different ways and different possibilities.

Is there a dialogue between Orthodox and Progressive Judaism taking place today?

BP: I will answer this question with a little story. Once, there was a man who had two sons: a poor one and a rich one. When it was almost his birthday, he wrote to them saying, “Whatever you spend in my honor, I will repay.” The poor brother said to the rich one, “Please lend me some money so I can go see Father.” The rich one refused and bought things only for himself and his immediate family. After the party, the rich son went to his father and said, “Look, father, here are all the bills for my expenses.” The father said: “I will give you nothing because you didn’t spend the money for my honor and pleasure, but only for your own since you prevented your brother from coming and celebrating with me.”

So, I think that if I stood before God and said: “We’re all right because we belong to Orthodox Judaism,” the question remains: what about the brothers? We must approach the Father all together.

TS: Interestingly, in Poland, the dialogue is much more natural and authentic than in many other countries. For example, during Limmud (a conference modeled on one in England), the Orthodox and Reform held Shabbat services next door to each other. In other countries that hold Limmud, Orthodox rabbis will not agree to come if the Reform community is allowed to participate. We are lucky here that the movements are more open to one another, and a lot of that is thanks to Rabbi Boaz Pash and Rabbi Michael Schudrich.

TANYA SEGAL has been working as the rabbi of Beit Kraków, the Progressive/Reform Jewish community, since 2009. Born and raised in Moscow, she was an actress in the Moscow Jewish Musical Theatre. In 1990, she moved to Israel. She studied theater and mysticism in Tel Aviv, and completed her rabbinical studies at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. She was ordained in 2007. 

BOAZ PASH has been the Chief Rabbi of Kraków since August 2006. Previously, he served as a rabbi in Ukraine, Brazil, India and Portugal. He is a graduate of the Joseph Straus Rabbinical Seminary and was ordained at Yeshiva Heichal Ha’Torah. His main interests are kabbalah and Jewish philosophy, and he is the author of a book on the teachings and doctrines of the kabbalist Rabbi Aschlang. He is a member of the Rabbinate of the Republic of Poland.

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