Changing the “We” of the Jewish Community

AS A GIRL WHO WANTED TO BE A RABBI IN THE 1960S BUT DISMISSED THE IDEA AS IMPOSSIBLE, I am deeply moved to have the privilege of celebrating this milestone both for what it says about Rabbi Priesand and for all it has meant in terms of opening the rabbinate to women. I want to honor the clarity, courage, and pure grit that Rabbi Priesand needed to get through rabbinical school, the challlenges she faced there and afterwards, and the personal sacrifices she had to make as the first woman in this role. When we celebrate the ways her determination changed the face of the rabbinate, let’s not forget the energy it takes to go where no one has gone before. Hundreds of women have walked through the door she opened, not only bringing their individual talents and energy, insights and leadership to the Jewish community but modelling an expanded sense of Jewish possibility for untold others and paving the way for the ordination of other previously marginalized groups.

At the same time, I want to hold this moment in all its complexity. While Rabbi Priesand was the first to make it through, there were other women aspiring to become rabbis decades earlier. HUC might have committed to ordaining women in 1922 when the case of Martha Neumark prodded the umbrella group of Reform rabbis to proclaim that “Women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.” Jewish Institute of Religion might have taken this step in 1923 when Irma Lindheim persuaded the faculty to admit women on the same basis as men. It certainly should have happened in 1939 when Helen Levinthal became the first American Jewish woman to complete the rabbinical school curriculum at JIR but—unlike all her classmates—was awarded only an MHL and was not ordained. In other words, had the Reform movement honored its rhetoric, we would now be marking  a hundredth anniversary rather than a fiftieth.

So why did it take until 1972 to reach this landmark? Pamela Nadell’s excellent book, Women Who Would be Rabbis, documents the gulf between decades of lip-service to the religious equality of women and men and any real willingness to relinquish male authority and power. There were many excuses for holding onto male prerogatives: the school would have to build new bathrooms; women’s presence would distract men from doing serious work; the first woman to be ordained should be outstanding, and none of the candidates was quite outstanding enough, etc. Underlying all these rationales was a fundamental inability to see women as part of the Jewish “we,” as full Jewish human beings wanting to learn and serve the Jewish people.

This pervasive sexism did not end, of course, with the ordination of Rabbi Priesand. The reports on ethical misconduct commissioned in the last year by the three arms of the Reform movement document decades of differential treatment, verbal harassment, exclusion from informal networks of influence and power, and a culture of abuse starting at the very top and threatening retribution for anyone challenging it. They make clear that fifty years of women’s presence at HUC-JIR has not in itself been enough to eradicate patriarchal attitudes or guarantee the dismantling of entrenched power structures.

It should be obvious, then, as we celebrate this milestone, that—as I argued thirty years ago in my book Standing Again at Sinai—access is not enough. It is an immensely important first step that makes possible everything that follows. The ordination of women has led to an extraordinary outpouring of creativity in every area of Jewish life. But it has not yet transformed the power relations cemented in place over centuries. It is entirely possible to invite women—or queer people, or people with disabilities, or Jews of color—into a system that they had little hand in creating while working hard to ensure that the system will not be fundamentally changed by their presence.

There is a powerful example of such othering in Leviticus 21, which specifies the so-called defects that disqualify someone born into the priestly line from offering sacrifices. A man who is blind or lame, who has a broken limb, a growth in his eye, a crushed testicle, or any number of other supposed imperfections cannot come near the altar. He is still a priest and retains certain privileges of the priesthood. He can eat the priestly portion, the most holy as well as the holy, but he is consigned to menial duties such as removing worms from kindling wood. Rabbinics scholar and disability activist Julia Watts Belser notes that contemporary readers are sometimes tempted to emphasize the status of disabled priests as priests, as if this somehow demonstrates Judaism’s commitment to inclusion. But this ignores the fact that such priests are debarred from performing the central ritual practices associated with their position. Like the members of so many other marginalized groups, they are included and excluded, granted access—in this case limited access—and stigmatized at the same time.

The challenge today as I see it is both to steadily expand the realm of access and to continually push beyond it to more thoroughgoing transformation. How, for example, do we eliminate the too-often-diminishing modifiers—not just in our language but in our consciousness—before woman cantor, queer cantor, Syrian rabbi, disabled rabbi, Asian rabbi, and so on? How do members of these groups become simply and fully rabbis and cantors? Surely, step one in dislodging the attitudes and power structures that hold these modifiers in place is confronting their existence. Belser argues, for example, that we should read Leviticus 21 as “a call to witness the long shadow of stigma and exclusion that has shaped the lives of so many disabled people.” We will never know how many disabled people who aspired to be rabbis or cantors over the years dismissed that goal as impossible—just as we will never know how many women and queer people who might have been serving the Jewish community for decades banished their own dreams. As one of those women, I know the shadow of stigma and the power of that no.

In this context, the recent reports documenting misconduct in the Reform movement are significant signs of hope. They represent an important first step in the process of confrontation. The abuse and mistreatment they describe have had a long history, whether acknowledged or not. If recognizing and naming them is the beginning of a larger truth and reconciliation process, if it leads to new reporting and evaluation procedures, to concrete changes in authority structures, and commitment to open and sustained conversation, then the reports could play a pivotal role in the move beyond access to reshape the ethos of Reform institutions.

But there is also a second critical dimension of moving beyond access that I want to lift up and that is allowing the increasing visibility and leadership of minoritized Jews to effect a personal and collective transformation of Jewish communities. Disability activists are fond of saying that anyone who is fortunate to live long enough will eventually be disabled. Their point is that what is defined as disability is not just a minority status that needs to be accommodated but a dimension of bodily variability and finitude. Because people are disabled as much by social barriers as by physical infirmity, creating spaces that are maximally inviting for everyone across ability and throughout the life cycle needs to be a social and communal priority. We have all experienced how the curb cuts mandated by the Americans with Disability Act for wheelchair users have been a boon to bicyclists, parents with baby strollers, people with bad knees and many other groups. While not every needed change will benefit as large a population, thinking in terms of universal design would both open up access for more and more people and take us beyond it to a more fundamental re-envisioning of our society.

Every social movement that has shaken up Jewish identity in the last decades raises analogous challenges. Imagine if the enormous amount of time and energy—the years really—that the liberal movements devoted to worrying about whether LGBTQ Jews should be admitted to rabbinical school or married under a huppah had been spent thinking about human sexuality and the gulf for everyone between the sexual values presumed by our canonical texts and the ways people are actually living today. Imagine if, instead of debating the percentage of Jews of Color in the Jewish community and secretly wondering about the status of the Jew of Color in the next row, white Jews ask ourselves what we are missing when we know nothing about the rich history of Jews of Color in the United States and other parts of the world. What parts of our own story have we been deprived of, and what would it mean for Jewish identity and self-understanding if all Jews committed to recovering a more complex narrative about who we are?

Feminists—joined more recently by transgender activists— have been asking questions like this for a long time: not just, may I please have a seat at the table, but what can breaking out of the straightjacket of gender do for everybody? How does transgender rejection of the gender binary invite all of us to reflect on how rigid definitions of sex and gender limit our imaginations and constrain our life choices? What does questioning gender mean for our liturgies and our life cycle rituals, our interpretation of texts, our prayerbooks and educational materials, our institutional structures, the Hebrew language? The ordination of women has been one pivotal moment in the process of opening these questions and new ways of being, but the larger revolution remains to be accomplished.

What I am talking about, in essence, is changing the “we” of the Jewish community. Inviting or “welcoming” new groups of people into the rabbinate always presupposes one who does the welcoming and one who is invited in. But who gets to be on the welcoming committee? How do we change our institutions so that they actually embody that “we” in the broadest possible terms? Reconstituting the “we” is more difficult and challenging than expanding the faces around the table, but it opens up possibilities for genuine inclusion that were only seedlings when Rabbi Priesand was ordained fifty years ago.

Judith Plaskow, a Jewish feminist theologian and professor of religious studies, wrote the first full-length Jewish feminist theology, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective. She gave this speech at HUC-JIR for the 50th anniversary of Sally’s ordination. It has been edited for publication.

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