I started reading torah in the second grade. Each week, I chanted from our sacred, ancient scroll in junior congregation, and felt privileged to help bring our most cherished stories to life for my friends and community. At the end of that year, my rabbi gave me a gift for investing the time each week to prepare: a tikkun korim, a specially printed volume of the Torah with the Hebrew, vowels and trope marks on one side, and the unmarked, adorned text as it appears in the scroll on the other. He inscribed the book with a famous teaching from Pirkei Avot that has become one of my favorites: Ben Bag Bag said: hafoch bah vehafoch bah. Turn it and turn it, since everything is in it.
I love this insight into the Jewish tradition. Knowing with certainty that everything is in Torah animates my approach to teaching and fuels so much of what I do as a rabbi. Judaism is an all-encompassing religion; it’s not just concerned with what happens when we gather together in sanctuaries and houses of study, it gives us instructions for each and every moment in between.
Torah wants to help us understand the entire range of human emotion and experience, it gives us the wisdom and context to relate to both triumph and adversity, and it cares deeply even about mundane minutiae like which shoe to put on first. Because in Torah, nothing is minutiae; everything is an opportunity to live life with the sanctity of awareness that we live on God’s earth, and while we are here, we never forget who we are. And if we ever do, we can follow Ben Bag Bag, search for ourselves in Torah, and find the exact insight we need to feel rooted once again.
Lonely? Adam understands you. Faced with an impossible dilemma? Abraham can relate. Exasperated with your loved ones? Moses will meet you for a whiskey, neat.
But this promise—that as long as you look hard enough, that you’ll be able to see yourself in our story—doesn’t always hold. And especially after Ben Bag Bag’s celebrated axiom, it can be even more painful to discover that the sacred canon in our tradition—the one that is all-encompassing and exhaustive—doesn’t tell your story.
I also started reading Torah when I was in second grade. I grew up in shul and on the bima, I was raised with the assumption that girls and boys had the same opportunities, the same access, to Torah and to roles of ritual and communal leadership. Many of you have heard me speak about my zaydie z”l who was a rabbi with Orthodox smicha from Liverpool, England, who ultimately aligned himself with the Conservative movement after he escaped to North America during World War II. He gave me his bar mitzvah tefillin when I was eight years old and I never thought twice about the gendered nature of this choice—I just always cherished these tefillin as a symbol of Jewish survival and my zaydie’s love.
The first time I encountered a direct challenge to my foundational assumptions was in high school. At a USY convention in Canada when I was supposed to represent the Hanegev/Southeast region as a davener and teacher over Shabbat, I was startled by a flock of gabbaim who raced over to bar my ascension to the bima, wiping their brows with relief when they stopped me in time. It made me feel incredibly small.
If Ben Bag Bag was right, why wasn’t there room for me on the bima, at a USY convention, a gathering for Conservative teens? What was it about my gender that communicated to these men that I wasn’t the right person to lead my peers in prayer and study—and even more painful—that my very presence as a leader would decrease the sanctity of their sanctuary?
As I grew, I learned more about Judaism’s deeply entrenched misogyny. I learned that women in the Bible could rarely be expected to be valued as more than an incubator for the next generation—and if someone did indeed rise above that station, she was radically countercultural.
This attitude permeates our tradition—and except for some bright spots, some optimistic exceptions—our tradition was written by men, for men. In my journey through rabbinical school, I kept believing in Ben Bag Bag, searching our tradition for my story. Much of the time I could create small inroads, but continuously writing my own narrative when there should be a precedent already is exhausting. And, like a hopeless romantic, believing that I would find my answer if I just kept turning the pages, I was often left empty-handed.
Shira and I came to Dallas as a pair, on equal footing. But we both knew that as the first woman pulpit rabbi in the history of our synagogue, it was not going to be easy for our egalitarian aspiration to meet reality. After all, the picture many have in their head of a rabbi is not of a woman, and perhaps not even a younger-looking man, who looks say about 23 or 24 years old on a good day. It’s of an older distinguished gentleman who speaks with gravitas in a deep baritone and whose very presence evokes silence and awe as soon as he enters the room.
Over the past number of years, Shira has entered many rooms: sanctuaries, shiva houses, weddings halls, and been met with eyes of skepticism or disbelief. More often than not, as soon as she opened her mouth to speak, the perception in the room began to change. The strength in her voice and the wisdom in her words allowed people to build a different picture in their mind of what a rabbi could be. And when she left the room, it had been transformed from a space of apprehension to one of affirmation and celebration.
This is not her husband talking, by the way, this is the same testimonial I’ve heard countless times as Shira has worked hard to earn her place beside mine and the other male rabbis we’ve worked with at Shearith Israel. Her success teaches us that Ben Bag Bag was correct; with the right amount of creativity and audacity, you can turn our story over and over again until it meets the demands of a new day and a new time, just as our rabbis have been doing for millennia.
What is so inspiring about rabbinic Judaism is its invitation to us, in every generation, to be authors of our own destiny. Halakha is a growing, burgeoning system that develops over time; it is a playground, and we are the ones turning the jump rope. We have parameters so that we maintain our identity, but we are also charged with evolving our religion and practice so that we always reflect the morality and values of our time.
And by the way, this idea of rewriting the story is not a new one; there are countless examples and here are just a few.
One of the first categories that our sages introduced to the rabbinic canon is that of convert. Despite what you might think, conversion is not an idea that existed in the Bible. Nowhere does the Torah describe the Israelite cult as a religion, but rather an association of clans and tribes, united under a common law.
When non-Israelites married into these clans, there was no process of religious education, no immersion in a mikveh, no abandoning, even, of a previous faith. I know what most of you are thinking: what about Ruth? Wasn’t she a convert?
And while it’s true that her character plays a prominent role in our biblical tradition, Ruth was certainly not a convert. Even after her famous declaration to Naomi: your people are now my people, your God shall be my God—Ruth calls herself a nochriyah, a foreigner.
Even the rabbis in the Talmud wrote about Ruth as if she was not an Israelite, noting how significant it was that King David was a descendant of a non-Jew. If Ruth had truly converted, why would she be referred to in this way, by the very rabbis who invented the system of conversion?
It’s clear that the rituals of joining the Jewish people and their legal significance came into play hundreds of years later. Perhaps, precisely, to elevate and celebrate those who had chosen to cast their lot in with the Jewish people during our long exile. In Bemidbar Rabbah, the rabbis write that the Blessed Holy One greatly loves converts, implying that God’s love for them is greater than even native born Jews, because converts consciously choose to leave behind their former life in favor of a much more uncertain path forward.
Such incredible praise for converts, despite the fact that Ezra the Scribe lambasted Jewish men for intermarrying with Babylonian women who wished to travel with their new husbands to Israel and rebuild our Temple and our sacred land. At the end of the Bible, non-Jewish women who wanted to join us were seen as diluting our nation, but according to the rabbis, they’re cherished by God, they bring honor to the Jewish people. This complete reversal of the Biblical stance on conversion is entirely the product of the rabbinic imagination and the rabbinic agenda. And we are better off for it. How wonderful would it be, if every convert within our community was not just welcomed, but elevated and celebrated in the most public way possible as prime examples of the most heartfelt and serious commitments to Jewish living and the Jewish people.
Ben Bag Bag himself would have been thrilled to see converts find themselves in our tradition in such a way, because he himself was a Jew by Choice.
This year, as you know, we’ve added the names of the imahot, the matriarchs, to the opening blessing of the Amidah. Though for some of us, this change was a long time coming, it’s important to stress what a radical departure this is from the way our liturgy traditionally comes together. The siddur is more than a seemingly random collection of praise and blessings. It is the original hyperlinked text filled–with allusions and connections to passages throughout the Bible, the Mishnah, and the Talmud. These direct quotations are meant to instantly transport us back in time to singularly significant moments in Jewish history.
Elohei avraham elohei Yitzchak elohei Yaakov. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob is how God introduced Himself to Moses for the first time from amidst a bush engulfed in flames. By adding the names of the matriarchs, we have not only changed a quote from the Bible, we have literally changed Jewish history. We are arguing that just as the patriarchs were present in that moment to impress upon Moses the authenticity of this divine encounter, so too were their wives. Not as an accessory, but as a quartet of their own equal weight and merit.
Though we wholeheartedly agree with the decision to make this change, I’ll be honest with you: at first, we were reluctant, because changing a biblical verse shouldn’t be done lightly. And yet, we know that this is the same game that rabbis have played for centuries, the same license that they have taken time and time again in order to be creative and inclusive. How wonderful and how profound it has been to listen to the voices of Jews ten, twenty, thirty, forty years older than us who came of age generations before we, sing out the names of our foremothers with love and with respect. How sweet was that moment when our community truly progressed and became more inclusive and more reflective of the pride we have in the women who gave our nation life.
One of the common themes that links our biblical matriarchs is the experience of infertility. As I mentioned before, the ability to provide heirs was paramount in the world of the Ancient Near East; especially in our narrative: when God brings Abraham into his covenant and promises him descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven, he says: how can I do this if I have no son? Sarah listens, and she feels so desperate to give her husband what he needs that she does the unimaginable: offers her handmaiden Hagar to provide an heir in her place.
Whenever a woman in the Bible presents as infertile, it was because God had closed her womb. After hearing her prayers, God would open her womb and just like that, she would conceive and give birth. And while some might argue that watching these biblical characters go through this journey might offer comfort to our sisters who struggle with infertility, what about those whose wombs never open, no matter how much they cry out to God, no matter how raw their throats and how frayed their nerves from countless fertility drugs, rounds of IUI and IVF? Where is that story in our tradition?
Though it’s not a perfect solution—because ultimately she does give birth—the rabbis recreate Hannah’s character in the Talmud, exploring the emotional roller coaster of infertility. In the Bible, Hannah fervently prays in the Temple, vowing that if God gives her a child, she will devote his entire life to divine service. Immediately, God opens her womb and she gives birth to Shmuel.
In the Talmud, however, Hannah comes before God with even greater audacity, challenging the premise with which God created humankind. She rails against God time and time again, hurling ultimatums toward heaven, until finally saying: “Master of the Universe! Of all that you created in woman, You did not create anything for naught. Eyes with which to see, ears from which to hear… and breasts with which to nurse. These breasts that You placed on my heart—what for if not to nurse with them?”
The rabbis give voice to Hannah’s unfathomable pain and incredulousness that God would taunt her with the possibility of bringing life into the world only to fall short. She does what so many women and their partners wish they could do when struggling with the same experience: angrily hold God accountable. It’s a start.
If you asked most people what the Bible says about those who are gay, they’ll probably respond back without missing a beat: Leviticus says that a man lying with another man is an abomination. It doesn’t say anything at all about a sexual relationship between two women. And so, our society in general—not only the Jewish community—has resigned to this fact: that if someone is gay, it is impossible to both uphold religious values and to live the truth of their full identity.
But that’s ignoring a huge part of the story that has already been written about the place of same sex partners in normative Jewish tradition. In a passage from the Bible, we find the following dialogue between two characters: Person A’s soul became bound up with the soul of person B. And person B loved person A as he loved himself. And they make a pact, to reflect the sacred encounter between the souls of person A and person B. And later, when person A is lamenting the death of person B, he says: I grieve for you, you were most dear to me, more than any other person I have ever loved.
Who were person A and B? Adam and Eve? Abraham and Sarah? No, King David and Jonathan, the son of his rival for the monarchy, Saul. And though biblical scholars sometimes frown upon the implication that the two of them were lovers, commentators have been reading a sexual relationship into the text since the stories were first recorded.
The rabbis in Pirkei Avot describe David and Jonathan’s relationship as selfless and enduring, contrasting it favorably with other sexual relationships between men and women, ones of unequal power, and sometimes, of abuse. The implication here is that when a relationship between two men becomes more than just a friendship, it actually has a greater potential to be ideal because the two hold an equally prominent place in the gender dynamics of the time.
And in the Middle Ages, great literary scions, figures like Abraham ibn Ezra and Yehuda HaLevi wrote openly about the desires they had for their male companions.
“How does this man from Aram color his lips so ruddy,” HaLevi writes. “His song plows my heavy heart. He sings to awaken my fire. Enough, my love, drink from my mouth.”
At the time when they were written, these stories reflected the lives of men who were required to choose woman partners, despite whatever their natural inclinations might have been. But today, when the stigma of homosexuality has begun to fade from society, why aren’t we telling these stories? Why aren’t we holding them up as prime examples of one more type of sacred Jewish relationship that is now openly sanctioned through marriage ceremonies that have been rabbinically approved by two of the largest Jewish denominations in North America?
And finally, though there are plenty of relationships between Israelites and non-Israelites in the Bible—be it Moses and Tziporah, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba—we know that rabbinic Judaism has never sanctioned intermarriage because it has never fit within a legal framework provided to us by our sources, and out of concern for maintaining the integrity and continuity of the Jewish people. We want to state, of course, from the outset, that there is no imminent change to this stance within our movement, and there certainly can be no debate about the statistics that indicate that Judaism is best preserved in a home in which each person is a member of the Jewish people. We can state unequivocally, however, that the absence of the story of interfaith couples who have successfully raised committed Jewish children, has done irrevocable harm to the American Jewish community.
Despite whatever qualifications and disclaimers might be necessary, we have spent the last few decades railing against intermarriage as the ultimate threat to the future of the Jewish people—failing to adequately reflect on the myriad of other circumstances and communal failures that have resulted in the decline of participation in Jewish life. And in all those years, what exactly have we accomplished? Sure, we may have encouraged more Jews to seek out Jewish partners, but what it has also done, is alienate and vilify Jews who marry outside of the faith, but who have also made an extraordinary commitment, along with their spouses, to teach their children to love Judaism. We have done far too little to lift these families up as an example of the pride that we have in the transformative power of choosing to live and model a Jewish life.
And this does nothing to take away from those parents and grandparents, rabbis, and teachers who have absolutely done right by our people in encouraging endogamy. In many cases, these heroic and often painful endeavors are also missing from our story. We hope that as the next few decades unfold, we’ll do more to open the narrative up for both sides to share their experiences—both their struggles and their triumphs.
But it goes without saying that we have so much more work to do when it comes to listening to and understanding interfaith couples—helping them find a place within our community and giving them the tools that they need to accomplish the same goal that we’re all fighting so hard for: a thriving, vibrant, Jewish future.
But, in order to get to this thriving, vibrant, Jewish future, we have to commit to a couple of things:
First, we must recognize that the more room we make for the plurality and diversity of Jewish life, the better off we’ll be as a community and as a civilization. Each one of us has a story to tell, and each of our stories adds infinite color and texture to the communal narrative as we challenge existing assumptions of the normative Jewish experience.
Second, we must continue to mine our tradition for the vast amount of material that is already there, that already highlights and validates the stories of those we have reflected upon today, and those stories we have yet to tell. And if, for some reason, we don’t find that material, we need to give ourselves the same license rabbis and communal leaders have been giving themselves for centuries. We need to use all our creative power in this holy endeavor to make sure that no one is left out of the story we tell as a congregation, as a Dallas Jewish community, as a Jewish people.
This power has been given to us by God, who told us explicitly in the book of Deuteronomy: lo bashamayim hi, our Torah, our story is not about some idealized picture up in heaven, but about the grounded reality of every living soul that shares this magnificently beautiful and diverse earth, for it is we who teach heaven about the tremendous potential of God’s creation. May we all live to see our stories told—and may we have the strength to tell them, all of them—in a year full of health, happiness, and fulfillment.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share