Rabbi Naamah Kelman was the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi in Israel. She is associate dean at the Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem, and seeks a progressive direction for Judaism and a greater understanding of pluralism. She is involved with Mazorim Spiritual Care/Israeli Chaplaincy, and Rabbis for Human Rights. She spoke with Swati Chopra:
You were the first woman rabbi in Israel.
Throughout the centuries the religious leaders of Judaism have been men. A woman was ordained for the first time in 1972 by a stream of Reformed Judaism, which began in the 1850s in Europe and later moved to the US. Israel was established with an official synagogue and rabbinate, which are orthodox and patriarchal. They control all laws of marriage, divorce, burial, conversion. And they continue to get more and more extreme.
I was fortunate to be born in New York and come of age during the Civil Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement. On my father’s side, i’m a tenth generation rabbi. So, i like to say i went into the family business! But it wasn’t automatic. It was a journey.
Does the official rabbinate accept you?
Not at all. But they don’t accept men who are not orthodox.
What is the women’s Bible project?
It is the product of the Reform Movement in Judaism in the US. Some 15 years ago, a woman suggested that since so much of our tradition is interpreting the Bible, wouldn’t it be wonderful if women’s voices interpreted the Bible?
There are over 200 women’s voices in this Bible, who are Biblical scholars, rabbis, teachers. They come from many groups; most are Reformed. It was launched in December 2007. This Bible highlights the women’s angle. Not with a sledgehammer, but by saying that this might be interesting to women from this perspective.
You’re in the heart of a conflict zone. Is there a woman’s perspective to peacemaking?
People in the peace camp in Israel come from the impulse to reach out to the other, to make room for the other. And I don’t know if that’s a woman’s perspective. There are many women in the peace movement. When I’ve been in interfaith dialogue, with Palestinian Christians mostly, I try and introduce a woman’s perspective. When things get angry, I try and speak from a different place, about what we share.