Tuesday, August 17, 2004

So You Want To Be A Rabbi?

Although I can summon up a beguiling persona in a heartbeat, I know I’ll never be a blues singer. If I had been born with the voice of Nell Carter, this might have been cause for genuine lament. As it is, I gratify myself vicariously through the torch songs of others, and, occasionally … ahem, well…

Some things are better off remaining private.

I also know I’ll never be a rabbi. Sadly, abandoning this aspiration has proven far more daunting. I’ve spent years on this one. There are ample reasons why I should be a rabbi. And only one real reason why I’m not.

Reasons why I’d have become a fine and able rabbi-teacher: I cherish my Jewish life. I came to a fuller observance of Judaism as an adult and my convoluted Jewish journey has inspired others. Studying new ideas and learning new things sustains me, and I’m compelled to share what I know the very moment after I’ve discovered it. I delight in connecting people to resources from which they might benefit. I’m devoted to teaching. I live in conscious awe of the personal and spiritual growth of others. I actually enjoy public speaking.

But I’m not a rabbi, because I am an Orthodox woman.

I chose to be an Orthodox Jew in my late 20s. Late, but not too late… if I had been born a man. There are places men can go to catch up. There are yeshivas that sustain newly religious men who are still learning the Hebrew alphabet all the way through to rabbinic ordination.

There is no such place for Orthodox women.

Things are changing, but not for women my age. Not for women who have families and responsibilities that bind them to other places. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of Orthodox women who know as much as, or in some cases, far more than many rabbis. There are no Orthodox women rabbis. Yet. There will be. But I won’t be among them. I got on the train too late.

Being, or in my case, not being, a rabbi is one of my life’s themes – a minor note that occasionally swells to major importance. So what do I do with an itch I cannot quell? I marry a rabbi, thus living out the title of a forthcoming book by Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz - They Married What They Wanted to Be: The Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life.

I marry a rabbi. And then I let it all roil around in me for a good, long time -

The voice of anguish – I am like the barren woman whose longing for a child scorches the heavens. I am like the nursing mother, bearing the torture of full breasts when there is no infant to suckle. I am the searing pain of wanting to give. And believing that there is no one to receive.

The voice of history – I’m in good company. When have there not been women who knew they could do a job and were prevented from doing so by virtue of gender?

The voice of desperation – I’ll study for non-Orthodox ordination. I’ll swallow every theological conflict just to get through it. Once I have the title, I’ll go back to being my authentic self.

The voice of cynicism and fear - Jews expect too much from rabbis. Rabbis get eaten alive by their congregants; they work too much; they sacrifice their own family life in service to others. Rabbis have no privacy and no one ever cuts them any slack. Finding fault with the rabbi is a Jewish Olympic sport – and every Jew is a gold medallist.

The voice of humility - I’m not good enough to be a rabbi. I’m too flawed. Such chutzpah to imagine myself qualified to represent G-d in this world.

The voice of feminism – WHO AM I KIDDING? If I only had a different chromosome pattern, my ambition would be applauded and my journey blessed.

The voice of grief – Intense desire for what I cannot have makes me weep.

The voice of faith – The time is not yet right for women to be Orthodox rabbis. Just as G-d revealed the Promised Land to Moshe from the top of Mt. Nevo, G-d sent me a husband, who is also a rabbi. I can’t be a rabbi, but I can make a life with one. This is as close as I can get. I have been given partial access to the rabbinic world, with all its glorious imperfections. With mercy and compassion from Above, I have been granted an extraordinary view.

In his commentary on Parshat Hayyei Sarah (5763), Rabbi Shlomo Riskin suggests to me, finally, that, in being a rabbi’s wife, I am potentially more crucial to my husband’s rabbinic accomplishments than I ever dared imagine.

“…[D]uring his more than three decades of post Sarah existence, there is not a single Biblical record of Abraham having any special communication from G-d as or of his achieving any act of significance on behalf of his family-nations - aside from his sending Eliezer to search out a fitting wife for Isaac. Apparently Abraham was the Rav in no small measure because Sarah was the Rebbetzin…”

The voice of resignation – I’ll never be a rabbi. That will always be my particular heartbreak.

Finally, the voice of acceptance - With hyper vigilance, I have fixated on my loss, overlooking that which remains yet in my hands. There is still so much that I can do. I can teach. I can write. I can speak. I have a voice and I have opportunities. This is my consolation.

This, I can do.

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