Spigel speaks on women’s roles in ancient synagogues

On Thursday, Nov. 6, Chad Spigel, associate professor of religion, gave a talk at Temple Beth-El titled “Why Did She Spit in the Rabbi’s Face? Women and Ancient Synagogues,” as part of the community’s 140th Anniversary Speaker Series.

“I do archeological digs, and they asked me to talk about the archeological project I’m working on,” Spigel said. “But I had just given a talk in March at the Jewish Community Center about the excavation and I didn’t want to do the same thing.”

Instead, Spigel chose to speak about the role of women in ancient synagogues, a topic that is of particular interest to the Beth-El community after their hiring of a new female rabbi. The community now has an entirely female clergy, including two rabbis and one cantor.

“The 19th century reform movement theoretically concluded that men and women were equal when it came to worship, but it didn’t play out that way,” Spigel said. “The first female rabbi wasn’t until 1972, over a hundred years after.”

Seven years later, in 1979, Temple Beth-El hired their first female rabbi as an intern. Spigel discussed how the community has been at the forefront of including women in leadership roles. The majority of his talk, however, focused on female leadership during antiquity, from the year zero to about 500 or 600 of the Common Era.

“Rabbis during antiquity weren’t really in control of synagogues, so we don’t have evidence of female rabbis at that time, but that doesn’t indicate that woman didn’t have leadership roles in synagogues,” Spigel said. “In fact, based on inscriptions and literary sources, it seems women could have had leadership roles.”

During the Middle Ages, the culture shifted when Jews began to live in Islamic lands where women had less of a role and when religions, like Christianity, began to have issues with women in leadership.

“Jews just followed the cultural norms,” Spigel said. “In the modern period, Jews are also moving towards cultural norms; other religions are just now beginning to have women in leadership roles, as well. Jews in America have followed American trends as far as women getting more rights.”

Spigel was the fourth and final speaker of Temple Beth-El’s series. Visit www.beth-elsa.org for more information on the community’s history and the female clergy members at Temple Beth-El.