Post-Racial Rabbis

By | Jan 11, 2013

While Louise Elizabeth Dailey was alive, she didn’t refer to herself as a rabbi. Most of her congregants called her “Mother Dailey.” But before she died, Dailey ordained Bowen as a rabbi, an act that has stirred debate within the mainstream Jewish community.

Dailey did not have an opportunity to receive a formal ordination: Mainstream rabbinical schools would not have recognized her as Jewish, and to this day the Israelite Rabbinical Academy, like Orthodox yeshivas, does not ordain women. The academic door has also been closed to Bowen, who audited six classes between 2003 and 2005 at Pennsylvania’s Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which she says was “very welcoming and open to me.” In order to matriculate, though, Bowen would have had to convert. “But that’s like asking me to become black,” she says. “I already am.”

Bowen believes that because her mother and her ancestors were Jewish, there is no need for her to convert. Like Funnye, she prefers the word “reversion.” “We don’t use the C-word,” she says. “We practice teshuva. You study, you make a declaration that you want to return to your heritage, and then you go to the mikvah. If you are a man, you have a circumcision.” Bowen compares conversion to “being adopted. It means that you’re a Jew, but not a real Jew because you don’t have the DNA,” she says.

In addition to the conversion issue, there are those who question whether her ordination is valid. Traditionally, smicha—the transmission of rabbinical authority—was passed from one rabbi to another, following the model of Moses, who brought Joshua before the Israelite community and ordained him. Today, most rabbis receive smicha from rabbinical schools, but it is only recently “that the formal processes of ordination, mimicking what is done among the Christians in their seminaries, have made their way into Judaism,” says Temple University’s Gordon. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis points out that “the effort to professionalize the rabbinate was very important” because in the 19th century, there were “many people who carried the title of rabbi but who neither had the knowledge nor met the standards to be rabbis and who brought all of Judaism into disrepute.”

In addition to Bowen, other African-Americans have become rabbis in the traditional way. Rabbi Eli Aronoff, a longtime member of Temple Beth’El who leads Temple Beth Emet, a multicultural and multiracial congregation that holds weekly services at the historic Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, DC, was ordained by the renowned Orthodox rabbi and mohel, Morris Shoulson, of Philadelphia. “I was with Rabbi Shoulson in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” he says. “At some point he said, ‘Okay, you’re good to go now, get on out there and serve your [African-American] community.’” Like Funnye, Aronoff formally converted to Judaism, making it difficult for anyone to question his standing as a Jew.

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