What Makes A Rabbi A Rabbi?

Rabbis are rabbis in no small part by the work they do, pastoral, ritual, social justice, organizational, all informed by a sense of responsibility to the community and to tradition. But at the moment of ordination, that moment before the work of the rabbinate begins, in earnest, what makes a rabbi a rabbi is the education that she has acquired and her commitment to bring the values and vision of that education into the work she will do in her rabbinate.

Each rabbinical program defines that education according to their own standards. In my case, the official rabbinic education I received was only one piece of the learning that made me into a rabbi.

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Ten years ago this month, Rabbi David Ellenson, (second from left) then President of Hebrew Union College (the Reform movement’s seminary), placed his hands on me and entrusted me to pass on the tradition that Moses passed to Joshua and Joshua to the elders and so on. It was a powerful moment. Rabbi Ellenson is a man whose humanity, scholarship and wisdom, I admire greatly. His version of and vision of the tradition, one that critically embraced the breadth of traditional male rabbinics while also looking towards a more inclusive future, the one he was empowering me to represent, was one, I gladly accepted.

But sitting in the congregation that day were two of my other teachers, my ‘rabbis.’ Whose presence that day, symbolized not less than the formal ceremony, a sort of laying on of hands and sending me forth to bring a critical vision of Torah and Judaism. Neither of these women were officially rabbis. Both came of age in a time when they could not have embarked on that path though they helped open it for other women. But these women were my rabbis, nonetheless, and on that day, when I stood before the congregation and accepted the charge to go forth as a rabbi in Israel, I took on the mantel of their teachings no less than that of Rabbi Ellenson.

The first of these rabbis, was theologian Judith Plaskow (second from the right). I met Plaskow in the spring of 1990, just months after the publication of her Standing Again At Sinai, a pathbreaking re-visioning of revelation, challenged Jewish tradition to expand its understanding of God. As a college student, I was struggling mightily with twin needs to embrace the beauty and joy of Jewish tradition and to repudiate its pervasive and highly troubling misogynistic core. And in no small part because of this struggle, my relationship with the divine was rocky too. In 18 months of regular meetings, Plaskow both intellectually and by example of her own feminist Jewish living, opened spaces where I could envision new possibilities for Jewish living and feel comfortable reimagining Jewish narratives.

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The second of these rabbis, was historian Paula Hyman of blessed memory (far left), whose career I had admired from the time I was in high school and who eventually became my PhD. adviser. Hyman came of age professionally at a time when it was nearly unheard of for women to become professors of Jewish history and it was completely unacceptable study the lives of Jewish women. She would go on to rise to the top of the field and bring the highest standards of scholarship to the history of Jewish women. Always an activist, she used her influence to promote women in all aspects of Jewish life. Working with Hyman, I learned not only about the history of Jewish women but also how to read Jewish women into the story of the Jewish people and to advocate to ensure lesser heard Jewish voices are recognized as essential to the collective narrative.

On the day of my ordination, I did not fully envision the rabbinate that has unfolded for me. But there is no question for me that my rabbinate, which has not followed the traditional path could not have been possible without an education that included not only traditional understanding of Judaism but also pushed the very understanding of tradition. What made this rabbi a rabbi was not only a commitment to preserving the past to but challenging the very construct of the past and envisioning a broad and robust future that expanded the vision of God, Judaism and the Jewish people.

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