No one ever told me that I couldn’t be a rabbi because of my gender. That was one of the gifts of growing up in a Reform synagogue in the 1980s. Although our congregation’s senior rabbi adhered to one of the classic male clergy stereotypes—a tall, well-groomed, be-robed figure with four children, and a wife who sang in the choir and taught Hebrew school—I saw many women serving as cantors and assistant rabbis, both in my home congregation and at my Jewish summer camp. One Shabbat, just a few months before my bat mitzvah, I looked at our rabbi and said to myself, definitively, “I can do that.” I felt this revelation in my entire body, as though a switch had been flipped and the light had come on.
I didn’t think of my choice as “feminist,” nor did I see myself as wanting to be a “woman rabbi.” This was simply what I wanted to be when I grew up—a rabbi. Young girls of my generation expected to find the doors to every possible career open to us. We were told to “reach for the stars.” We believed that we would be able to simultaneously pursue exciting professions, loving partnerships, and a fulfilling family life, without any difficulty. The only person who showed any hesitation was my grandmother, who considered religion a “dirty business” for either a man or a woman.
As an undergraduate student at Brandeis University, I began to understand some of the challenges I would face as a woman in this field. During my first conversation with an Orthodox Jew, I asked what he thought of women rabbis and he said, “No such thing.” I realized that in this world beyond my Reform synagogue, I was going to have to fight to prove my authenticity: as a student of Judaism, as a community leader, as a Reform Jew, and as a woman.
Ironically, this fight only intensified when I began my rabbinical studies in Jerusalem. While questions of pluralism and authenticity were aired in the open at Brandeis, some members of the faculty at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem warned us against engaging Israelis about the nature of our studies. Because many Israelis I met felt disdain toward women rabbis and suspicion of Reform Jews in general, I was unable to share my experience outside the walls of HUC-JIR. I returned to the United States feeling as if I had spent a year living underwater.
When I began teaching Torah to children and adults, the challenge of proving my own authenticity in the context of the Jewish tradition gave way to the challenge of proving the relevance of our sacred stories in the context of modernity and feminism. If my goal was to convince my students—many of whom were young women—that the Bible was pertinent to their lives, I was going to have to help them find characters to whom they could relate and heroines they could admire.
This was not an easy task, and one incident sticks out in my mind.
One morning after religious school t’filah, a feisty twelve-year-old girl approached me with a question—or rather, a comment—about our prayer service: “Why do we bother to include the names of the Matriarchs in the Amidah?” she exclaimed. “I don’t want to be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. They’re just the Patriarchs’ wives. They didn’t do anything.”
This student’s words helped me to realize that I couldn’t escape from the challenges of being labeled a “woman rabbi.” While I had once shied away from a gendered study of Judaism, I now faced opposition both from those who thought I should not be a rabbi and those who, like my student, thought that Judaism was inherently patriarchal.
This opposition inspired me to look to Jewish literature for models of powerful women. The stories I found—particularly in the Bible— turned what I thought I knew about biblical women on its head. Scattered among the narratives in which women were portrayed “only” as wives and mothers—or, worse, as concubines and prostitutes—were scenes in which women showed agency and effected change, both through their words and through their actions.
When I teach Bible and midrash, I tell my students that we can view the Torah as a mirror, a prism, and a telescope: a mirror in which we can see ourselves, a prism through which we can look at the world, and a telescope that we can point heavenward in our search for God.
Looking back on the stories that inspired me at various phases of my own learning, I realized that I was not only seeking out these stories for my students. I needed to find them for myself. I, too, was looking for the mirror, the prism, and the telescope in our sacred stories, and the women I studied reflected where I was in my own journey, how I saw the world I lived in, and the woman, and the rabbi, that I hoped to become.
Rabbi Leah Rachel Berkowitz was ordained in 2008 by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, where she also earned a Master of Arts in Religious Education. She is the rabbi at Vassar Temple in Poughkeepsie, NY. Rabbi Berkowitz will be a panelist at “The Sacred Calling: Then and Now” on Thursday, September 8th, 11:00 AM at HUC-JIR in New York.
Excerpted from The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, “A Mirror, a Prism, and a Telescope: Reimagining Role Models”.