In 1969, when I began seminary, feminism was just being born and Jewish feminism was an oxymoron. Soren Kierkegaard taught that life must be lived forward but understood backward. So, looking back over 50 years, this what I have learned:
You will do things you never thought possible. You will take a new path, start over, build a relationship; you will forgive someone; you will forgive yourself; you will forget what you can’t do and remember what you can.
People and situations may come along to derail you and undermine your hopes. When I was working on a PhD while in seminary, I thought of writing my dissertation about women in Judaism. There was no real scholarship on the subject. My professors told me, “Don’t write about women. Write about something important.”
You will have doubts and fears. You will fall down, make mistakes, and even fail. But none of that will matter. You will get up; you will take another step forward, because it will feel that what you are doing is the right and important thing to do.
When women first became rabbis, many of us wore navy or black suits. It was as close to male rabbinic attire as you could get. And then we changed. We realized that we neither had to look like or sound like male rabbis. We not only changed our clothes; we changed Judaism. Our being women wasn’t the only point, but neither was it beside the point. We pulled up a seat to tradition’s table and rearranged the place settings. It made a revolution. It transformed prayer, community, Torah, history, and theology. In 50 years, it has transformed Judaism.
Moving from the classroom to the pulpit, from texts to people, from year to year, changes you. Somehow you are less sure about life. How can you be so certain when you touch life’s fragile boundaries? How can you not become someone other than who you were when you witness spirit and courage in the face of overwhelming misfortune?
Here is what I shall always carry in my heart—the terrible pain of losses that happened out of season; the ache of burying a friend; the resilience of those who grieved and still had the ability to get up, to go on and even to sing; the little girl whose mother had just died who asked me, “Who will brush my hair in the morning?” And the little boy whose mother was dying who said, “I would like to call God, Healer.”
It was then that I fully understood chesed, “grace.” Christianity discovered grace in Judaism, and then Judaism seemed to forget about it. One of the things that gets you through life’s difficult moments is chesed. You can’t make it happen and it doesn’t happen all the time you need it; but it happens now and again, and whenever it does, from wherever it comes, we must simply accept it and be grateful.
Here is what I have learned from people to whom life was not gracious, but who made their own grace, people who had every reason to give up on life, but didn’t, who had every right to be bitter and angry and who were kind. This is what matters—a good word, a warm embrace, presence.
I have learned that opposites are best when matched: love and power, justice and compassion, faith and doubt, seriousness and play, religion and spirit. Love without power is sentimentality. Justice without compassion is cruel. Faith without doubt is dishonest. Doubt without faith is cynicism. Seriousness without play is boring and unimaginative. Religion without spirit is dead. God is the “and” that brings those opposites into one harmonious whole.
You never lose what you have fashioned, the people whose lives you have touched, and the ones who have touched yours. Social psychologist Daniel Gilbert reminds us, “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think that they are finished.” We age, but we begin again, working on who we will yet become.
Rabbi Sandy Sasso is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating Rabbi Sasso and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.