On moths and lightbulbs
“Our small group sat around the table, some of us in tears, some of us, me mostly, really angry, asking each other bounty, ‘Where do you get it?’ By ‘it’ we meant the spirit, the energy, the courage to dredge up, from the so to speak dry wells we felt ourselves to be, some real sense of hope, some sense of potential renewal, not only for ourselves, but for those to whom we would shortly be speaking.”
The person talking is Rabbi Sheila Shulman zichrona livracha. It was 1997, and she was sitting with a group of female colleagues in the weeks running up to Rosh Hashanah. It had been a tough year, and they were tired.
“Where do you get it?- the hope, the energy, the potential for renewal?” She asks. “The short answer is, I don’t know… The slightly longer answer… is anger and love”
In the past few months as I started to prepare myself for a strange moment of transition from student to rabbi, I have found myself almost compulsively reading the sermons and reflections of the rabbis who have walked this road before. I scour their writing for clues, looking for insight into where they get ‘it’, how they made sense of this world, and themselves in it.
There’s something very raw about the conversation Sheila recounts:
“None of us were willing to settle for the platitude, the facile slide, at the conclusion of a sermon, or of any of our own thought processes, into a happy ending of any descriptions, or into uplift, as if we were talking about bras. None of us were willing to settle for convention.”
“None of us were willing to settle for convention”. There’s a line if ever there was one. It wasn’t very long ago, but what that sentence alludes to is enormous, not just in that moment gathered around a table, but in so many moments in these women’s journeys to the rabbinate.
Rabbi Sheila Shulman, was one of the first openly gay rabbis ordained by Leo Baeck College along with Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah, in 1989. When they were ordained, the Assembly of Rabbis held a special session to decide whether to admit them. Rabbi Dr Jackie Tabick was ordained 14 years before them, in 1975. When she, then Jackie Acker, applied to the college, the response to her application was sent to a Mr J Acker. She was accepted, but every step of the process was littered with obstacles. Writing about her experience, she recounts ‘‘Women at the college needed to be perfect and better than the men. I wanted to be the best I could and prove that I could do the job”. And do the job she could, once the rabbis in key positions of power agreed that it could be the case.
Before Jackie was admitted to Leo Baeck, the admissions board debated whether women could become rabbis. Eventually, it was decided that women could, on principle, become rabbis, but nobody would accept responsibility for placing them in jobs.
In response, Rabbi Arieh Dorfler, wrote a paper in the reform movement’s journal, Living Judaism, entitled ‘Open the Gates’, in it he wrote:
“Progressive Judaism has failed pathetically in the last hundred years, both in having neglected the intensive education of women in Judaism, in not having attracted them to the deeper study of Jewish sources, and in not having attracted them to the Ministry… Let us open the gates now, and…strengthen our ranks by recruiting gifted Jewish women to the Institutes of higher learning.”
Let us open the gates- Rabbi Dorfler is writing as someone in a position of power, to others who hold the keys.
The phrase, open the gates, is a reference to psalm 118, one of the psalms we sing as part of hallel. The psalmist, distressed, is surrounded by those who seek their harm, and calls out to God, keeper of the gates:
פִּתְחוּ־לִ֥י שַׁעֲרֵי־צֶ֑דֶק אָֽבֹא־בָ֝ם אוֹדֶ֥ה יָֽהּ׃
Open for me the gates of tzedek that I may enter them and praise God.
זֶֽה־הַשַּׁ֥עַר לַיהוָ֑ה צַ֝דִּיקִ֗ים יָבֹ֥אוּ בֽוֹ׃
This is the gateway to the LORD— the tzaddikim shall enter through it.
I deliberately haven’t translated tzedek, because there is some dispute as to how it should be read. Some translations interpret tzedek, not as justice or righteousness, as we might be accustomed to understand, but rather as victory.
Open for me the gates of victory. Let me in.
I wonder what the opening of the gates felt like to those who had previously been shut out, was it victory? Was it justice? What happened to the gatekeepers, have they gone away?
And what really is the difference between justice and victory? How is my generation of female rabbis to understand the moment that came before us? An opening of justice, or one of victory? We stand on ground opened up for us by those who came first, and I know my journey as a young woman to the rabbinate has been the way it has because of those who came before.I will be ordained by Rabbi Sybil Sheridan, one of the second women to be ordained in this country, she has been my tutor and mentor over the past 6 years. It’s so easy to take for granted how exceptional, in the perspective of history, it is to be in that position. When Amelie and I sat down to write her dvar torah and I asked her what she likes to read about and she answered ‘feminism’, there was no hesitation on either of our part that she could write the dvar torah she gave today. How quickly the exceptional has become the normal.
Victory is a place, it is static. It is reached and then resolved.
Justice, in Judaism, is a direction, it’s why we are told to pursue it, because it is not a stationary location.
The psalm continues with a vision of what the onward journey might look like, not just to a moment of victory, but to one of true justice.
אֶ֭בֶן מָאֲס֣וּ הַבּוֹנִ֑ים הָ֝יְתָ֗ה לְרֹ֣אשׁ פִּנָּֽה׃
The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
The psalm doesn’t just take us to a moment of open gates, and dismayed gatekeepers, but to an image where those who were once shut out are seen and valued and integrated in such a profound way that they become the cornerstones, the things that hold up the structures of community.
Anger and Love said Sheila Shulman. Anger and love was where she drew her energy from. Anger at what had been done to women, to the gay community, what continued to be done. And love, for others, for Judaism, for community. And from that, she said, came energy. Energy to “go on fighting” for a Judaism that wasn’t defined by exclusion, and doing what she called “this work of love.”
Amelie spoke earlier about how the work of each generation builds on the progress of those who came before, but that building relies on still being attuned to discomfort, understanding justice as an unfolding process rather than accepting the world handed down to us. It relies on a vision of what is possible that constantly moves beyond our grasp. It’s the image of the cornerstones, each bringing their vital differences and strengthening community by broadening it beyond anything that the gatekeepers could imagine, far off in the high reaches of the building, almost too far away to make out their details, beyond the grasp of any of us inside the temple gates.
The American Jewish Essayist Rebecca Solnit writes:
“Moths and other nocturnal insects navigate by the moon and stars. Those heavenly bodies are useful for them to find their way, even though they never get far from the surface of the earth. But lightbulbs and candles send them astray; they fly into the heat or the flame and die. For these creatures, to arrive is a calamity. When activists mistake [their vision] for some goal at which they must arrive, rather than an idea to navigate Earth by, they burn themselves out, or they set up a totalitarian utopia in which others are burned in the flames. Don’t mistake a lightbulb for the moon, and don’t believe that the moon is useless unless we land on it”
The gates are still not fully open, and in celebrating our progress and in looking around a community that to many might seem to have started to fill up its cornerstones, we must resist mistaking a lightbulb for the moon, being pulled off course by bright lights and achievements, even though they offer strength and confidence to see further and travel onwards.
Once inside the gates, it is all too easy to close them again, enjoying the sense of comfort and protection that they afforded those who sheltered within them when we were on the outside. My hope is that the call to open the gates doesn’t stop, but that it is heard anew by each of us in each generation, and that in doing so, we too draw deeply on love, on justice and on compassion.
This sermon concluded with this piece of music written by Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Kyle Rosen, and Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback
- Rabbi Sheila Shulman, A Kind of Submerged Continent, Rosh Hashannah 1997
- Rabbi Jackie Tabick, I Never Really Wanted to be First, in Hear Our Voice, by Rabbi Sybil Sheridan
- The 1985 JPS translation reads victory, for more see Robert Alter’s commentary on the psalm 118