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Video Interview: Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris

Updated Monday, 23rd April 2012

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris talks to the Open University's Graham Harvey 

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Graham Harvey

Deborah, can you talk to us about your role as Rabbi and as Principal of Leo Baeck College?

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris

I'm Principal here of LeoBaeckCollege, which is a progressive Jewish seminary.  We train Rabbis and senior educators for the reform and liberal movements here in the UK, and also to a certain extent for progressive communities in continental Europe.  I'm kind of a jack of all trades here, I'm the senior professional who works for the organisation and as such I'm in charge of everything from ensuring that the budget comes in somewhere near balanced to curriculum review and development, to managing staff, to looking after the needs of our students, to ensuring that we have a good working relationship with our board of governors, to fundraising, which is the bane of all senior professionals.  I am involved really in all aspects of the college’s life and work, including teaching and ensuring that we have an external presence beyond the walls of the college out into the progressive communities, both here in the UK and further afield in continental Europe as well.

Graham Harvey

Before that you were a Congregational Rabbi.

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris

I was, yes.

Graham Harvey

So can you tell us a bit more about that?

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris

Yes, I worked in a number of different settings as a Congregational Rabbi, and there I did all the different sorts of things that Congregational Rabbis do; service leading, teaching, pastoral care, spiritual guidance, working with lay leadership, developing the community in all sorts of ways, all that kind of work.

Graham Harvey

Right, I'm interested in your views about what benefits there might be if there were more women in leadership positions in religions.

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris

When I was a student at the college, there were a lot of conversations, particularly in our vocational training, about different styles of leadership, and there’s a very hierarchical style of leadership where the Rabbi, or certainly in particularly I would have imagined in things like the Catholic church, where the senior religious figure has a very dominant role over the community and it’s a very top town hierarchical form of leadership.  As opposed to more empowering forms of leadership, ways in which grass roots members of communities can be brought in and built up and decisions are made in a more organic and group sort of way.  And very often those discussions were formulated in the, you know, men tend to be hierarchical and women tend to be empowering. 

As a feminist scholar myself, I find it very difficult to make those sorts of essentialist distinctions.  I've seen women, and we can all think of women who are hierarchical and men who are empowering, but on the whole the movement of women into leadership roles in religious communities seems to me, and to many others, to have had the effect of making some of those organisations, institutions more empowering, more grass roots and a little less top down.  It’s certainly transformative, women comprise 50% of the population, more or less, give or take a percentage point in any given community, and have their own life experiences of how it is to function in the world, and we bring those experiences into our religious leadership.  To remove 50% of the population from religious leadership, to exclude those life experiences means to leave something out, and it’s not only in terms of gender, we might talk about terms of sexual orientation or cultural orientation, etc, etc.  For example, is it important that we train gays and lesbians here, absolutely, they have a different experience in the world than I do as a straight woman, and it’s important to bring those experiences in and all of those sorts of people transform religious leadership. 

Here at the college we also have a great many continental European students, many of whom come from different sorts of backgrounds, and there’s a distinction in Judaism between the Ashkenazim and the Sephardic and between Jews whose heritage is in western Europe primarily, the Ashkenazim, and those whose heritage primarily comes from the Iberian Peninsula, and latterly then from places like Turkey or parts of southern Italy, etc.  And bringing those different experiences in, those different cultural identities in is really important, those people have different ways of working and different experiences of life.  So as I woman I don’t want to say there’s something essential about being female that means that this is how all women function, I think that would be a nonsense, when I think about my female colleagues we all do many different sorts of things and have different interests, but there is something about the female experience in the world that is important and that allows us to connect with 50% of our congregation, so female, in a different way to the way male colleagues can work in communities.  Some of that’s not entirely tangible, or certainly hard to quantify, I think that on the whole again women in religious leadership positions tend to bring a more cohesive, more empowering and more of a gentility to those institutions, but it’s a gross generalisation. 

I think that you can look at the progressive Jewish world as an example, and I think it has been transformed for lots of different reasons over the past 50 years, but some of that is definitely down to female leadership making its impact and the ways in which women work, and the needs to think about childcare for example. 

In the 1950s when Jewish life in continental Europe was really being rebuilt from the ground up I know, and I've heard stories told, that many of my predecessors simply had no family life.  They were so passionate and committed and almost obsessive about the need to rebuild Jewish life, and one can understand that after the ravages of the holocaust, that they sacrificed their own family life to their commitment to building Jewish communities. 

Now since women have entered the Rabbinate, and since we have brought a different awareness of the need to raise families, even as committed as we are to rebuilding communities or building communities, you know, to be tied to an infant in the ways in which only a woman can, if you're going to nurse a baby through the early months of its life you have to be tied to that child, you can't simply put it down and say I'm going to the synagogue council meeting.  That changes things and it transforms things, and now I think male colleagues do talk about going to get their kids from school and needing quality family time, and understanding the importance of building one’s own internal life and one’s stability through families of different sorts in different models that perhaps wasn’t so much on the agenda 30, 40 years ago. 

So those things are subtle but they're there and they're transformative, and I think it’s very important to have women and men and gays and lesbians and people of different cultural backgrounds, and people of all sorts of different shapes and sizes and different life experiences, because that’s what communities are made of and communities need to see themselves reflected in their spiritual leaders.





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