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Books

This Joyous Soul: Communicating with God

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, we invited Rabbi Sally J. Priesand to share an excerpt of the Foreword that she wrote.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, also known as the Kotzker Rebbe, is remembered for his profoundly wise sayings, often simple, always insightful. When asked where God is, he answered that God dwells wherever people let God in. Prayer is one of the ways in which we let God in, offering us the opportunity to open our hearts to God’s presence. Thus, prayer books exist to help us communicate with God.

Prayer books enable us to look within to those values that shape our lives, and they assist us in gathering strength and courage for the tasks that remain undone. In many ways, a siddur is a history book that reflects the story of those who create it and those who pray from it. Each generation adds its own piece to the puzzle that is Judaism. A prayer book reflects those beliefs that are important to its users and provides insight into how Jewish tradition evolves from generation to generation.

Our children and grandchildren would probably find it strange to pray from a siddur that did not mention our Matriarchs, that talked about Israel only with the wish that the sacrificial cult be restored, and that consistently referred to God as “He.” They are the product of their generation, and their response to a prayer book reflects the values with which they have grown up. A willingness to change makes possible the continuity of our tradition.

Alden Solovy is a worthy representative of our generation, for creating spiritually satisfying prayer. With This Joyous Soul, a companion volume to This Grateful Heart, he has artfully crafted once again a book of prayer that touches the soul in joyous ways. His ability to focus on the needs of the human heart makes prayer accessible to the individual and the community living in a contemporary world.

We begin our day by celebrating God as the Creator of life, a reminder that God creates through us and so makes us all creators too. Solovy has taken this God-given gift of creativity and developed it in such a way that our eyes are opened to new truths, our souls uplifted, and our spirits made tranquil. An extraordinarily gifted liturgist, he puts into perspective those things that matter most and challenges us to delve into the innermost recesses of our hearts, there to find God and understand that God cares who we are and how we act and what we do. Indeed, God depends on us, even as we depend on God.

This Joyous Soul was written to accompany Mishkan T’filah, with the hope that it would be placed in pew racks and used to enlarge the offerings found on the left-hand pages of the newest siddurim of the Reform Movement. That is good news, especially for those of us who attend synagogue services regularly and appreciate new material upon which to reflect. For those who do not attend quite as often, This Joyous

Soul invites you to consider the ways in which prayer can enrich your life. Either way, these prayers are appropriate for communal prayer and/or individual reflection.

Our teacher Dr. Jakob Petuchowski, z”l, used to say that one generation’s kavanah (intention) becomes the next generation’s keva (fixed prayer). In other words, the private prayers of one generation become the public prayers of the next. I am confident that Alden Solovy’s work will find a well-deserved place in whatever new prayer books are created by our generation, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Rabbi Sally J. Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion of Cincinnati in 1972, making her the first woman rabbi to be ordained by a rabbinical seminary.  She served first as assistant and then associate rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City before leading Monmouth Reform Temple in New Jersey from 1981 until her retirement in 2006.

Students from HUC-JIR recite Alden Solovy’s “On Making a Mistake,” one of the many readings included in the forthcoming publication This Joyous Soul, from CCAR Press.

Categories
Books

The Sacred Calling: Courage to Dare and to Dream

“[The Sacred Calling] is going to be an important document forever

The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, newly published by CCAR Press, examines the ways in which the reality of women in the rabbinate has impacted upon all aspects of Jewish life. Rabbi Sally J. Priesand, first woman rabbi to be ordained by a rabbinical seminary, explains the personal and historical significance of an anthology that documents the journey of women in the rabbinate during the last four decades.

Q: How did you decide you wanted to be a rabbi? What part of the rabbi’s role made you want to fulfill this position?

A: I wanted to be a rabbi because I loved ritual and conducting services. When I was 16 and first came up with this idea, my temple encouraged me and let me do services and other kinds of things in the summer.

I am also very grateful to my parents because they didn’t throw up their hands and say, “What kind of a job is that for a nice Jewish girl?!” Instead, they said, “If that’s what you really want to do, you should do it.” And they gave me what I consider to be one of the most important gifts that any parent can give to a child: the courage to dare and the courage to dream.

Q: Do you see changes in Jewish life since the 1970s that can be attributed to women entering the rabbinate?

A: I think that women have changed the rabbinate in terms of leadership because of their desire for networking and establishing relationships; that’s really how women function. And I think they’ve brought that to the synagogue. When I was interviewed for my congregation, I told them that I wanted to come to be a partner with them. I wasn’t going to change anything about the way I am and the way I function in order to meet other people’s expectations. And I was very lucky, because they hired me.Sacred Calling

When I was in rabbinic school, success seemed to mean that you had a big congregation. Everybody talked about it, and everybody talked about rabbis who never moved on from their first congregation as if they were failures. As the first women rabbi, I thought that I had to have a big congregation. When I first came to Monmouth Reform Temple, they thought it just a stepping stone. I did, too. I was always thinking, “I have to go to a really big congregation for the idea of women rabbis to become successful.” My congregation taught me that success doesn’t mean bigger. To me, success means, “Are we doing better today than we did yesterday?” My congregation helped me understand that.

Q: How have women in the rabbinate helped to shape people’s views of women in other leadership positions?

A: I do see a connection, and I think that, whenever anyone opens a door, it makes it possible for others to consider walking through that door, too. One of the lessons we learned from the Civil Rights Movement is that if you don’t see someone who looks like you in a position of authority or leadership, you don’t think it’s possible for you to do the same. And I’ve been thinking a lot about that today, because I believe that America needs a female president. Just seeing that someone was able to make a change should give anyone the courage to also make a change. You have to somehow gather the courage to move forward, and it’s always better if you have others to support you in that effort. And I think that the fact that we have so many women rabbis today is an encouragement that the Reform Movement supports others in fulfilling their dreams, too.

One thing that we still have a ways to go in is equal pay. I didn’t really know this until several years ago, when I discovered that women rabbis were being paid only 80% of what male rabbis were being paid. I was shocked, and said as much at a URJ board meeting. I don’t always say what people want to hear, but I feel I say what needs to be heard.

PriesandSallyQ: What purpose do you think The Sacred Calling will serve? What do you believe is the importance of the book?

A: This book is going to be a very important document forever, because it is so well-rounded; it has so many different views, and talks about so many different topics, and it wasn’t just written by women but by men, and that’s important, too.

I believe, as I wrote in the preface, that this is a book of history. Women have been silenced for too many generations. We’re very fortunate to live in a time when women’s voices can be heard publically. When I retired, I asked all women rabbis of all denominations to donate their papers to the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati so that there could be a place for scholars to learn about the history of women in the rabbinate. When I speak to a congregation that has a woman rabbi, I always say, “You’re a part of history, so gather your material and make sure it goes to the American Jewish Archives.” That is why I think The Sacred Calling is so important.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring female rabbis?

A: My advice is quite similar to the advice I would have given a long time ago: to be yourself, to maintain a sense of humor, and not to fear failure. Another important thing, that I think we’ve lost sight of, is trying to maintain a sense of humility. I believe very strongly that you should be proud of what you accomplish, but that you should always remember that you didn’t accomplish it alone. We should all live lives in such a way that makes a difference in the world. And rabbis have many extra opportunities to do that. And quite often, you’ll touch lives in ways that you will never know.

Q: What do you hope your legacy to be?

A: I want my legacy to remind people that any person can do or be whatever she or he wants to, and that you shouldn’t put your dreams aside even if they seem impossible.

Rabbi Sally J. Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion of Cincinnati in 1972, making her the first woman rabbi to be ordained by a rabbinical seminary.  She served first as assistant and then associate rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City before leading Monmouth Reform Temple in New Jersey from 1981 until her retirement in 2006.  

Rabbi Priesand 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 filming of the official trailer for The Sacred Calling.