On the Shoulders of Revolutionaries: Queering Jewish Texts and Reform Ritual
As a child, I could see myself becoming a rabbi. And now, as a queer rabbinic student, I can envision myself echoing the call of women rabbis who demanded to see themselves in tradition.
Queer readings of Jewish texts are liberating – they explode traditional categories of classification and rigid ways of thinking. Rather than pushing readers toward clear cut understandings of biblical figures, aggadic material, and Jewish law, queer analyses of texts open up and shed light on multiple truths and ways of being in relationship to Jewish ritual and values. I believe that one feature of any sacred text is its ability to capture and say something about the human condition. Understanding a text through a queer lens has the power to not only locate universal human truths, but also to amplify these sacred elements, allowing us to see themes and characters as constantly changing. In opening texts to new meanings, we as people then have the permission and power to understand ourselves as constantly changing, traversing borders, and breaking down barriers. Queer theory also pushes us to challenge the binary nature of labels like, “sacred and profane,” acknowledging that the line between such categories is constantly shifting and permeable. When the boundary between sacred and profane is understood in this way, the brokenness and injustices of our world can become sites of sacred work, partnership, and healing.
While there are many scholars, clergy people, and Jewish organizations engaged in the project of queering Jewish space and text, I would argue that the power and full force of this work has not yet been incorporated into many Reform congregations. How would a “queering” of Jewish space look in mainstream Reform Judaism? Perhaps it would challenge our, often, hierarchical leadership structures, open up the possibility for new rituals in our congregational life, or push us to embrace and name every aspect of the human experience, like anxiety, joy, anger, and frustration in our worship. What would it mean for our congregations if gender was experienced not as a set of defined behaviors, but a fluid and ever changing category? Would there still be a brotherhood poker night? Or a sisterhood fashion show? When we free ourselves and our children from expectations of behavior based on constructed categories like gender, we open ourselves up to new understandings of proximity, social change, and justice – we understand that boundaries and borders set between people only grow wider and stronger when we refuse to cross them.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of celebrating the release of The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate at HUC-JIR in New York City. As part of this celebration, Rabbi David Adelson, Dean of the New York campus, moderated a panel discussion between three women whose rabbinates represent the influence of women on the American Jewish landscape. Addressing the packed chapel, Rabbis Sally J. Priesand, Rebecca Einstein Schorr, and Leah Berkowitz spoke about their experiences confronting and breaking open barriers as female clergy members. The powerful testimony of each rabbi made clear both the tremendous strides the reform movement has taken toward gender equality since Sally Priesand’s ordination in 1972, and the groundbreaking work female rabbis continue to do in teaching us new ways of being in the world.
As a female, third-year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR, I am a direct beneficiary of this work. Listening to these women share pieces of their respective rabbinic journeys, I could not help but feel tremendous gratitude for my ability to walk along their well-trodden paths. Growing up, watching Rabbi Leah Cohen, the rabbi of my home congregation, in action every Shabbat, it was never hard for me to imagine myself on the bimah or to see myself entering the rabbinate. When I applied to HUC-JIR, I didn’t see my application as an act of daring or courage, but rather the fulfillment of my childhood dream. But there is more to this story. Women rabbis have not just opened the door for young girls to see themselves in positions of Jewish leadership; they have also fundamentally infused the role and identity of the rabbi with endless possibility. As a child, I could see myself becoming a rabbi. And now, as a queer rabbinic student, I can envision myself echoing the call of women rabbis who demanded to see themselves in tradition. In creating and opening up new models of religious leadership, women rabbis have sewn the seeds for other forms of non-traditional engagement with Jewish texts and ritual, the harvest of which is in full-bloom.
Like Moses, Miriam, Jacob, the levitical priest, Judah the Prince, and countless other figures and innovators of our tradition – we have the power to cross boundaries, re-imagine ourselves, and to demand relevance and blessing from our tradition – to queer notions of identity and meaning in this world.
Hilly Haber is a third-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in NYC. Originally from New York, Hilly has a Masters of Theological Study from Harvard Divinity School and has worked in temples from Boston to Boulder. Hilly is a rabbinic intern at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.