So this week I did something really new. I began my journey to become a Reform rabbi. For the next four years I will be studying at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. And I am positively ecsatic.
You probably have questions. The most common question I've received so far is, why Reform and not Conservative? There are several ways I can answer this question. My primary answer is that the Reform movement is the only place where I think a woman can truly be free to be a whole person. And as a woman, I place that high on my list of priorities!
There are all kinds of people serving as Reform rabbis -- with all kinds of identities, cultural backgrounds, and practices. During my first conversations about taking this path with Rabbi Alona Lisitsa, a beautiful rabbi who actively combines compassion and scholarship, Rabbi Lisitsa described HUC as the ultimate "big tent", the only place in Judaism where everyone truly can belong. She also showed me how many Reform rabbis keep Jewish practice with no visible distinction to Orthodox Jews. They keep Shabbat, kashruth, and ritual immersion practices and engage with Jewish law. One of my most esteemed mentors, Rabbi Professor Rachel Adler, is a brilliant scholar whose commitment to halakha is unquestioned, and deeply compelling. Everyone has a place, and that is a powerful vision. This is a place where nobody is judging your practice. It is where you are fully embraced for being who you are. That is so refreshing, so new, and so healing for me.
The other question that I get is about abandoning Orthodoxy. Most of my Orthodox feminist friends have been loving and accepting, and I keep hearing from them that it is clear that this is exactly where I belong. That has been a beautifully validating experience. I feel like I have been fighting for a long time to find or create a suitable spiritual home. And it seems clear that this is it.
Still, other people have been less generous. One Orthodox friend told me that this will delegitimize me. Yes, of course it will, in the eyes of certain Orthodox self-assigned gate-keepers. I have been called "Reform" for much of my adult life, in a way that uses the word as a slur. Orthodox feminists in general are called "Reform" as a way to delegitimize them all the time. Most of the time, the response is, "I am not!" But now, my response is, "I take that as a compliment!" To be Reform means to place human compassion before all else, to understand that we must be human beings before we are Jews. I am so excited about the idea of really living that way, and being surrounded by people who also live that way. And rather than internalize the notion of delegitimizing the other, we should figure out ways to truly see one another, to understand what is the ethical force driving each other. Rather than internalizing the hate, we need to develop tools to resist it and dismantle it. I have much more to say on this, and will come back to this in future posts, PG.
The Reform movement is a place of healing -- for me and for others. It is where who I am as a person comes before how long my sleeves are or how clean my Shabbat table is. Even though this is the place of the big tent, I am no longer interested in making "commitment to halakha" the be-all and end-all of my Jewish identification. I don't believe that the discussion about how to be Jewish should be about law. I think it should be about ethics, morality, and spirituality. I want to talk about relationships between people. In fact, I want to build relationships between people, rather than spend my time judging other people. This is the right place for that. People first. Compassion first. Everything else a distant second.
To be clear, this decision has nothing to do with my own religious practice. So far, it has not changed the particulars of my observance in any noticeable way. But it is about finding a home where I can share values with the people around me, where I don't have to explain myself all the time, where I don't feel like I have to apologize for putting the real needs of women in the equation. That is incredibly liberating, and healing.
One question that I have not been getting -- except maybe during the interview process -- is, why do I want to be a rabbi at all? That's a great question! Here, too, I have a bunch of answers. The main one is spiritual. We are given this life, and we should use it well. I want to bring more light into this world. I try to do this in many ways, and this feels like a really powerful and exciting way to walk that path.
I will be writing more, as I chronicle this journey from Orthodox feminist to Reform Rabbi. I would like to use this time to explore issues of what it means to be a Jewish woman, and what it means to be a human being. I hope it can also be a place for dialogue -- especially between feminist thought leaders across denominations. Some of my best friends are Orthodox feminists, and even though I understand that this can be a difficult decision for them, I truly hope that it becomes an opportunity for building bridges and strengthening community and identity. And for bringing more women's light into the world.
More to come.
I would love to hear your feedback. No matter how this strikes you, I would just ask that you respond with kindness.
In the day (!!)since I announced that I am studying to become a Reform rabbi, responses have been overwhelming. I’ve been chatting with people around the world, each with their own story about connection, community, spirituality, and Judaism. The vast majority of those responses have been resoundingly supportive. And this is not only from Reform friends. Many of my Orthodox friends have been incredibly understanding and even sharing in the excitement. Despite all the predictable naysaying Orthodox gatekeepers who have been doing their thing (some you can see in the comments on my previous post, or on my FB page; I left them in because it is important to know what kind of discourse is out there, what we’re all up against), despite all that, I have been receiving an incredible amount of support, even from places where I thought the reaction would be harsher.
I am so relieved about that. My biggest worry was that Orthodox feminist activists would see me as the one who jumped ship, and leave it at that. But for the most part, I’ve been getting a lot of love, and that makes me really happy. I see us all as fighting the same fights but from different corners.
On the other hand, some Conservative, (Masorti) and Reconstructionist friends are a bit upset that I passed over their denominations. Especially stinging was the fact that I wrote that I felt Reform is the “only place” where women can be truly free. If there is one word that I regret in my original post, it is that word “only”. I would like to change that to say the “best”, or “one of the best”, instead of the “only”. I will not change the post now because that would be intellectually dishonest. But I do think that I was wrong to write it that way. I have some wonderful mentors and friends around the Jewish world. Professor Alice Shalvi, for example, who became Conservative after decades of work as an Orthodox feminist, is someone I consider an incredible role model. I think I came off too dismissive of the work of feminists in other denominations, and I’m very sorry about that.
I would like to emphasize how much I consider feminist activists across denominations to be allies. This is where the work is. I’m not here to trounce on hard-working women trying to change the world. I want to work together. That is the vision. I’m sorry that I didn’t do a better job of emphasizing that in my original post.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a feminist thought-leader, anthropologist, and writer whose research and ideas help shape a vision for a compassionate society. She has published five books on gender in society, and today helps women amplify their own voices and find their power through Lioness Booksand Media. She coaches women through the writing process, edits, and ghost-writes women's books, and publishes women's writing through Lioness. She also speaks and consults with groups and organizations around the world on gender issues and women's experiences in the world. Would you like to schedule a chat? Contact her at email@example.com