Overcoming Clergy Gender Norms

On an ideal Sunday, I get up and quietly make my wife breakfast, so that I can present it to her with great gusto before she's emerged from bed. After dining and doing the dishes, I throw on my gym clothes and go for a run and a lift, as I've been doing since high school. If it's a truly fortunate afternoon, I then put on the grungiest clothes I can find and meet my guy friends at a bar to holler at the screen while watching football and guzzling beer. (No buffalo wings, of course; I'm a vegetarian.) Then I progress into the evening with my wife, getting a pedicure at the small nail salon next door and enjoying a romantic dinner at our favorite Indian restaurant. After getting home, I read some of my favorite works of Jewish literature (whether rabbinic texts or more popular pieces). I often get hooked on whatever I'm reading, stay up late and end up tired for my early classes in rabbinical school the next day.

To me that is the making of a wonderful day. Yet I have at various points been called "gay," "metrosexual," "manly man," "jock," "nerd" and (prematurely) "rabbi" for the way I spend my free time. Even my wife lovingly jokes that I am a miraculous mixture of her "lover" and "gay best friend." Why is it that a guy who gets a pedicure -- even with his heterosexual partner -- is assumed to be gay? Why is it that a guy who watches football and drinks beer with his friends is assumed to be straight? The need for labels itself suggests an insecurity on the part of those wielding them.

Within the progressive Jewish context, the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements are expending significant resources to reduce or remove the hurdles that women rabbis face as they enter the workplace. Those hurdles are unfair, unfortunately common and terribly hurtful to women rabbis throughout their careers -- emotionally, socially and financially. (As for the lattermost, in 2009 Forward published the statistic that female communal professionals in the Jewish community earned only 61 percent of what their male counterparts earned.)

It is a testament to the three major progressive Jewish movements that they are investing heavily in the push for gender equality in the workplace -- through training programs, regulations and more careful templates for rabbinical contracts. Such efforts have begun to bear fruit, as manifested in the growing tide of women leading rabbinical organizations (the Rabbinical Assembly), seminaries (multiple branches of Hebrew Union College), and synagogues and non-profit organizations across the country.

But male clergy are not immune to the undermining force of expectations that accompany their gender. What about the hurdles that I will face as a male rabbi when I want paternity leave or even to take time off from work entirely while my children are young? What if I want to cry when something sad happens rather than posing as the calm executive of our synagogue non-profit? As a straight man who does not readily fit within the narrow bounds of present gender norms, I find the sexism that plagues my female colleagues cuts both ways.

I do not want to be thought of as the "straight rabbi who acts gay" simply because I express genuine emotions in a professional setting. I do not want to be thought of as the "alpha rabbi" on occasions when I do not find it comfortable to express my emotions in public. Both tendencies are parts of my personality -- even though they at times lie outside the social norms, further amplified for clergy in the congregational setting.

Archetypes for men and women -- and especially clergy -- press us to conform to the norms dictated by our genders. People want religious leaders to look, sound and seem familiar. But if rabbinic leadership requires authenticity, then I, like so many others, must be allowed to lead from within the gray space I inhabit between the overgeneralized norms that seldom apply to anyone.

This article is republished with permission from the Tikkun Daily.