As long as she made no demands to earn the title ‘rabbi,’ Henrietta Szold was the first woman, in 1903, allowed to attend classes at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary. She would be celebrating her 160th birthday today – born in Baltimore on December 21st, 1860, Henrietta was one of eight daughters of Rabbi Benjamin and Sophie Szold. I first heard about her at Hebrew School – a passing footnote as a famous woman and that Hadassah hospital was named in her honour. Her informal title was ‘Mother of the Yishuv,’ and in Israel, Mother’s Day is celebrated on the day that Szold died, the 30th of the Hebrew month of Shevat.
However, the kerfuffle surrounding Dr Jill Biden’s title made me think about Henrietta afresh. Szold was so much more than a street name, a kibbutz name, or even a hospital; did she want to be a rabbi and use the title? Did she eventually curtail her academic and intellectual pursuits because she realised she would never receive due recognition? Just as Dr Biden earned her academic doctorate and deserves to use the title, so too Jewish women with academic doctorates should be using theirs. But what title for the Jewish woman who sacrifices her life for the Jewish people? What title for all the Jewish women who, as it says in the Yekum Purkan prayer said on Shabbat mornings, support the community with acts of tzedakah (righteous charity)?
What title for Henrietta Szold, the editor at the Jewish Publication Society for over 20 years who translated the monumental works of Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, facilitated male scholarship, corrected and edited their work, ensuring it reached a wide audience? What title for all the women who continue to support their husbands or their sons to study Jewish texts, often foregoing their own ambition to pursue academic careers in favour of their husband?
What title for Henrietta Szold, the woman who ensured that thousands of children in Nazi Germany were brought to Israel and resettled through the Youth Aliyah programme? What title for all the women who have fostered children or helped women and their children leave abusive Jewish husbands and fathers? What title for the women who drive around at night picking up leftover food from events and discreetly dropping it on the doorstep of hungry families?
What title for Henrietta Szold, the woman who became a member of the Palestine Zionist Executive, a forerunner to the Israeli parliament established in 1948, and laid the foundations for the nursing profession and the medical infrastructure of the country? What title for all the women who have established organisations to strengthen the State of Israel. What title for the women who have lobbied the religious authorities for changes to punitive laws against women?
What title for Henrietta Szold, a woman who had no husband and no children? What title for all women who do not follow the conventional path of marriage and motherhood?
What title for Henrietta Szold who appreciated the power of prayer, and gave voice to the need for women to say Kaddish? Her letter to Haym Peretz in 1916 showcases her intelligence, piety and belief that women must take responsibility for their own religious needs. What title for the women who wrote prayers of devotion for hundreds of years, and for the women who are writing contemporary prayers capturing the essence of women’s lived experiences.
There are a slew of honorifics for Jewish men within religious life including Rabbi, Dayan [judge], Gaon [brilliant scholar], Gadol ha’dor [greatest of the generation] and Hacham [lit. the wise one, rabbinic leader in the Sephardi community]. A rabbi’s rather cynical son once said to me that at every large event with a head-table full of prominent rabbis, all of whom sport long bushy beards, there will be one clean-shaven man. He’s the guy who paid for the whole thing. He’s called the Gvir, the wealthy person whose generosity also buys power and access.
Women are also using their money supporting religious change and Henrietta Szold could hardly have imagined the transformation. Since the 1970s, women have been ordained in the Reform and Conservative movements, and in the last few years, the phenomenon of Orthodox women rabbis, and more broadly, the exponential increase in women’s Talmud study, has demanded appropriate titles for learned women. Hence titles including Rabba, Rabbanit, Yo’etzet Halacha, To’anot Rabaniyot Maharat and Ma’ayan have emerged, although in some circles, these nomenclatures have been mocked. These titles focus primarily on scholarly achievements, but we need a corresponding title for the women at the helm of social change, those using their intelligence, political nous, empathy, networks, foresight and dogged determination to effectively address a communal need.
We stand up for esteemed rabbis, a sign of the respect for the Torah knowledge they have acquired. Next time a modern Henrietta Szold walks into the room, I suggest we stand up for her as well. And call her by her title.
First published 21st December 2020