My husband, a Reform rabbi, is retiring after 25 years as senior rabbi of Temple Sinai in Washington. Upon the occasion of his retirement (!), the synagogue’s chapter of Women of Reform Judaism invited me to speak for Sisterhood Shabbat. Here is what I said:
When Sisterhood graciously invited me to speak tonight – and I thank you all for this opportunity – it was pretty clear to me that this week’s Torah portion, Emor, part of the Holiness Code, as it is called, has special relevance for me this Shabbat.
This is because Emor spells out certain rules for the priest and his relationship to his family. And it emphasizes that the community’s expectations for the priest are expectations for his family as well. Significantly, it demonstrates that there are two standards: one for the priest and his family, and a different one for everyone else in the community. The punishment for a priest’s daughter who loses her virginity before marriage is a fiery death, because she brings dishonor on the priest. The conventional death for a woman who commits a sexual indiscretion is just plain old stoning.
The priesthood ended when the Temple was destroyed, and rabbis became our teachers and community leaders. A vestige of the special role of priests, however, was and is that rabbis are viewed – and view themselves – as “symbolic exemplars,” in the words of psychologist and rabbi, Jack Bloom, in his 2002 book, The Rabbi as Symbolic Exemplar: By the Power Invested in Me.
As leaders, they retain some semblance of specialness – holiness – if you will.
Most Jews, whether they are affiliated with a congregation or not – unless they are totally hostile to Judaism and the Jewish community – respect rabbis (or at least they should). Most rabbis, in turn, conduct themselves in ways that earn the respect of the community (or at least they should).
This isn’t something I thought much about as I was growing up, and I never thought about rabbis’ families, until I was part of one. Shortly before I married Fred 36 years ago, we attended a rabbis’ meeting in Atlanta, where the only activities for rabbis’ wives were shopping and a tea and tour of Atlanta.
It was 1973. My former roommate, Sally Priesand, had been ordained but was not married. There were no other women rabbis. It was a million years ago!
Dissatisfied with what I perceived to be a stereotyped program, I urged the Central Conference of American Rabbis to introduce substantive options. In true organizational fashion, the rabbis said, “You want it? You do it.” Fortunately, the sympathetic executive vice president of the CCAR, the late Rabbi Joe Glaser, gave me a little budget and some clerical help.
I surveyed the wives; the results were enthusiastic, and we were off! The first program included Dr. Helen Glueck, a renowned research physician – incidentally married to the president of Hebrew Union College – who talked about Jewish genetic diseases.
It also included several panels of wives speaking frankly about issues that troubled them: from congregants’ unrealistic expectations to rabbis’ lack of time off. We had tapped a deep and overflowing well, and rabbis skipped their own sessions and came to ours.
Wisely, the CCAR established a Task Force on Rabbinic Family Relationships, a hotline, and other resources to help rabbis and their families deal with what so many clearly felt were heavy burdens.
Society evolved, and the Jewish community evolved. It took a longer time and a lot more pain than I can reflect in these few minutes. Most strikingly, as more women entered the rabbinate and the cantorate, the emphasis shifted in many ways. The women rabbis made more of a point of carving out time for their families, and their husbands made it clear they were not going to be judged by the same standards as were rabbis’ wives.
The effect was that finally most congregants became more sensitive to the demands on both female and male rabbis, and in most situations, the concept of judging a rabbi by the behavior of the rabbi’s spouse – or partner – or children – became verboten.
Despite the dramatic changes that women rabbis brought to the profession and the congregations, however, I must report to you that rabbis and their families continue to feel external and internal pressure.
The pressure remains because over the centuries, what has not changed is that we – you and I – set high standards for rabbis, and rabbis set high standards for themselves. Some people want them to be God, or at least God-like. (Some rabbis think they are God, but I would not have married – or reared – one of those!)
We want rabbis to be able to heal us when we are sick, forgive us when we make a terrible error, save our marriage, reconcile us with our children. Though we know on some level they cannot perform miracles, we are disappointed when they do not.
We want them to be without blemish, like the priests in Emor. When a rabbi is less than honest, or deceptive, or engages in behaviors that are ethically or morally wrong – or even a little sketchy – we feel ashamed and betrayed. The stain on them justifiably feels like a stain on us.
There are other expectations, however, that are less dramatic and perhaps a little more common. Let me give you an example.
A couple of years after we moved to Washington, when David was about 7 years old, I took him and two friends to a children’s play at Glen Echo on a Saturday morning and afterward, to lunch at McDonald’s. While I was sitting there having lunch with the children, a woman from our neighborhood came in. “The rebbetzin is eating at McDonald’s on Shabbat!” she announced to the entire restaurant.
“Everybody has to eat somewhere,” I said.
The fact that she, a Conservative Jew, was at McDonald’s on Shabbat was not the issue for her, of course. She clearly expected our family to be different – more observant and holier, perhaps – than hers.
Early in our marriage, I recognized that I would need to find a way to navigate this “holiness gap.”
How do you live a daily life that is exemplary in the significant ways while ensuring that you and your spouse and your family are seen as normal human beings, accessible and approachable and worthy of being good friends?
Some say it cannot be done, but I’ve always believed it can, and Fred and I have been so fortunate to have Essie and the late Gene Lipman as our own examples and predecessors.
First and foremost, it requires a thick skin and a sense of humor.
I also believe that Emor begins to show us a way to bridge this “holiness gap.”
In his Introduction to Leviticus in our Plaut Torah Commentary, Bernard Bamberger comments on the evolution of the role of the priests in Leviticus and in Deuteronomy. Originally, priestly obligations and responsibilities – sacrifices and sanctifying – that is, giving a blessing – were entirely in the hands of the priests.
The Torah, however, is aimed at everyone: the priestly laws are not “professional secrets.” Rather, carrying out the responsibilities incumbent upon priests is an obligation of all the people. While some of God’s instructions in Emor are directed to Aaron, others are directed to all the Israelites.
Explains Bamberger, “The concept of a complete Torah, which all may study who have the will to do so, expresses a new democratic spirit (644).”
The Torah tells us, Bamberger says, and Emor emphasizes, that we are all capable of holiness; we are all responsible for meeting the same high standards – making the same ethical and moral choices – that once were exclusively the obligation of the priests.
A message of Emor, then, is that every individual has the potential to be holy. One attains holiness not by birth – as the priests did – but by engaging in acts of personal and social righteousness. Each of us has the power to be exemplary Jews and human beings and to engage in holy acts.
In other words: we can be the kind of people that we hope and want and expect our rabbis to be:
• We can be students of Torah, not necessarily experts but seekers of meaning and value in our texts.
• We can build a better world by giving ourselves, and our time, to individuals and programs that need us.
• We can always speak positively and never harshly of one another. We can be patient with those who tax our patience, who interrupt us, who cut us off, who don’t listen.
• We can forgive those who find fault with us.
• We can look for and find the good in every person; approach all with an open mind and an open heart and respond to all with compassion.
• We can focus on people’s talents and strengths and help them utilize their abilities for the good of the community.
• We can appreciate the work that people do and the risks they take on our behalf, and show our appreciation.
• We can help others heal by being present for them in times of illness, in times of loss, in times of terror and the darkest nights of the soul.
• We can lead by encouraging and helping others to join us on our sacred journey.
If we can fulfill these mitzvot, as we expect our rabbis and our cantors and their families to fulfill them, then we can bless one another. AMEN.