An accounting of the soul. What do we mean by that line on the cover?
By the time you read this, we will have weathered preparations for the High Holy Days. In secular and in religious terms, this is a season of reckonings. No matter how many years out of school we are, fall always feels like a new beginning, and the Hebrew calendar matches these feelings with Rosh Hashanah. This year in particular the season seems especially charged. Politically, we have a sense of hope and possibility at the prospect of longed-for change in Israel. And the U.S. elections, without question, feel thrilling for Jews (though my younger daughter did say she thought I’d like it even better if a Jewish woman were the vice-presidential nominee). We anticipate the year to come, but stop long enough to evaluate the experiences of the year that has been.
In Hebrew the line we have put on our cover reads as cheshbon ha nefesh, an accounting of the soul. A number of the pieces in this issue capture the reflective and dramatic qualities of that cover line, which we chose because of its link to the High Holidays, and because it so accurately portrays the self-examination in much of what you’re about to read.
On the theme of taking stock, this issue of LILITH includes, as always, the personal as well as the political. Several first person stories here help us see the world in new ways, refracted through women’s experience. It was the piece “My First Aliyah” which triggered the shape of this issue. It’s a stop-time frame as a woman standing on the bimah sees every marker-moment of her life flash past her. For months we had been trying to decide when to run this article. Its themes of flashback and gratitude seemed finally just right for this issue, and then other articles we were thinking about for fall gathered themselves together, iron filings around a magnet.
Because for many Jews the High Holidays represent the most time we spend in services all year long, this also felt like the perfect season to look at the role feminist rabbis are playing in our spiritual and communal experiences. What happens to most of us in synagogue? We sit and stand, sometimes numbly, sometimes truly moved by a portion of the liturgy, sometimes taking the time just to feel still and centered. We also have time to reflect on our own complex relationship with our religious practice, and even with the institution of the synagogue itself. What does it offer us? And what can we offer to it the rest of the days of the year? We now—especially those of us who are female—have the opportunity to be actors and activists in our own spiritual lives as never before. To be full participants and not merely observers.
LILITH offers here an account of the ways in which some women rabbis have changed our lives, and not only because of what goes on during services—soprano voices, new texts—but also in many more significantly structural ways. Sarah Blustain, in interviews with self-described feminist rabbis across the country, demonstrates that they are actually changing the ways congregations do business: how decisions are made, whether power is shared, the ways in which rabbinic authority and the yearning for democracy combine. This is a first and important examination of these issues, which are considerably more nuanced than just counting up how many women have entered the rabbinate in the past three decades (though we do indeed offer a chart of these remarkable numbers for your delectation).
This report measures how congregations have changed, and indicates what these changes foretell for the continuing transformation of our communal life. To what can we attribute the radical changes in synagogue life over the past few years? Often it is the energy and vision of feminist rabbis who, leading congregations, have altered the experience of prayer and of community for many of us.
As with other aspect of Jewish life now, women are opening doors for men. The article on feminist rabbis begins what will be a series of articles evaluating the accomplishments of the Jewish women’s movement. Watch for more in the coming months, as we take the occasion of LILITH’s 25th anniversary to map out in a broader way the road we’ve traversed and to survey the paths ahead.
As LILITH’s editors do our own accounting of the magazine’s trajectory, so too do our authors from various points on their own journeys. “Still Life with Poodles” is fiction with a twist, an accounting of the life options of a New York woman, single in her mid-thirties, toying with the question of whether a woman’s only goal should be to marry well. The protagonist totes up her options, with surprising results. While this story is about deciding whether to marry, the darker side of matrimony is exposed in “A Natural History of Divorce,” tracking a woman’s self-esteem from girlhood through a depleting marriage. In another story, the cautionary and harrowing memoir “Let My Husband Die,” a woman fights to have end-of-life desires granted; her narrative is accompanied by an extraordinary poem from Sharon Olds on the responsibilities of love, and of lovers.
And then there is the remarkable back page, where a doctor shifts her perspective from medicine to sanctity, tenderly preparing a body for burial as part of a “sacred sisterhood,” the chevra kadisha.
One of our readers called us recently complaining that everything in LILITH magazine seemed “so sad.” Is this true? I was a little worried as I looked over the final mix of articles in our accounting-of-the-soul pages. Divorce, growing old, dying, burial. Interesting thing is, as individuals I think many of us so often focus on the bad news; it seems to take up all the oxygen. But looking again at the pages before us, I see a poem poking fun at the men in our lives who still don’t see the socks on the floor, a news story on a scholarship program for inner-city students, a class in assertiveness for older women. All of these are included here, and remind us that real life-transforming and world-transforming change is at the center of our efforts. The woman on the phone had remembered only the “sad” articles. She had forgotten all the good things that arrive between LILITH’s covers.
Somehow, the default position in our lives seems to be pessimism rather than optimism. That’s both a reality-based Jewish trait, I suppose, and a perspective that spurs us to action. If there are bad things going on, our mission is to fix them and repair the world. We do not wallow in “sadness” for its own sake. Nevertheless, when we are rendering our own accounts, it’s sometimes a struggle to remember that there has been plenty of good news as well. The poignant eldercare pieces in this issue, for example, are certainly counterbalanced by the very positive changes wrought by visionary rabbis, the diversity in new books for Jewish girls and the news reports on engines for social justice being revved up by Jewish women young and old.
Rabbi Shira Milgrom has told of sitting with her family in a humble African-American church in a blighted part of New York City. The minister, after leading some passionately happy singing, asked the congregants to turn to one another and announce that “God has been good to me.” After hearing about the service I tried saying these words out loud, to myself. I was shocked at their power. And startled to realize how infrequently I pay attention to their content.
Like what I suspect is the mode of many of you, when I take account of each of my days and weeks, I see more of the flaws than the blessings. The pile of tasks undone reproaches me, the disagreements with beloved family members sadden me, the deadlines gnaw at me, the friendly visits not made worry me. And when each of LILITH’s issues is finally in my hands it seems to require an immense effort for me to take time to celebrate, to say a shehechiyanu, at least inwardly, to be grateful for the accomplishment and for having reached this time. My first instinct, when I hold a freshly delivered copy of the magazine in my hands, is to see the things that—with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight—I would have done differently, better. Same with other aspects of life. I can see with perfect clarity all the things that must be improved. I am trying, in my own accounting of the soul, to improve my vision, to enable myself to see the good things with equal clarity—and with some pleasure as well.
So I make a suggestion, as we put the finishing touches on this issue of LILITH. Pause as you read, and as you do your own accounting of the soul. Try to remember that we all probably have more to celebrate than to regret, or at least more good in our lives than we sometimes acknowledge. I’ll try too. Sadness (as the caller says), sure, but gratitude too, for being able to work on a community that improves every season. We have to be careful not to see it or say it passively, though. It’s not that our surroundings are improving by magic; rather, this is a world that we ourselves actively shape. By design, by our own choices, we work hard toward that improvement, as these articles demonstrate.