Being “reformed”

Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler
December 15, 2011
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“I’m reformed,” I hear one student tell another by means of explaining his lack of Jewish observance. I cringe, thinking of the years of theological evolution and volumes of critical scholarship underlying the progressive movement of Reform Judaism, none of which inform this young man’s Jewish choices.

I remember my own upbringing in the Conservative Movement, where I ignored hypocrisies like the rule that girls could not lead services because they were not commanded, as were boys (even though girls were allowed to read from the Torah in our synagogue, which hung uncomfortably on the traditional end of the Conservative movement). I spent my Jewish adolescence learning the tradition but dreaming of the forbidden: over and over, I was reminded that becoming a rabbi as a woman was prohibited in the eyes of my mentor. Though my rabbi loved and respected me, he could not encourage me to follow in his footsteps: he could not advocate my becoming a rabbi. Other things were forbidden, too, like cheeseburgers and homosexuality (which my rabbi once mentioned together casually as temptations we must resist). I was a heterosexual vegetarian but the fact of my being female continued to nag at my increasing commitment to and observance of Jewish law.
By the age of thirteen, I knew I wanted to be a rabbi. Standing on the bimah for the first time, I felt an invisible pull as certain as the light filtering through the stained glass windows casting a rainbow on the plush carpeting beside the holy ark housing the Torah scrolls. There was a certainty to this calling I had never known before: I knew that this was God’s wish for me, to become a Jewish leader.
My first year of college, I took Jewish studies alongside Women’s studies courses. On school vacations, I returned home and attended services so that I might see my rabbi. By now, I was asking the kind of questions that made him smile (with pride?) and shift uncomfortably in his seat at the same time.
“Why can’t women serve as witnesses in the Talmud?”
“How is it ethical to forbid homosexuality if it’s not in a person’s power to choose to be gay or straight?”
“If the rabbis could find ways to locate loopholes in the text for other things deemed unethical to their modern sensibilities, why not these?”
I now knew that much of the resistance I felt at home was due not to Jewish law, but to politics in the synagogue. I learned the phrase, “where there’s a Rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way,” imploring my home congregation to simply find the way.
I initially chose a Conservative Rabbinical school, saying that change had to come from within the movement, planning to become a part of that change from within. But by the second year of my studies, the strict observances and rigidity of the Conservative movement began to erode my excitement. My classmates worried aloud whether their homes were kosher enough. I worried I was being swallowed by the rabbinic tradition.
The inconsistencies between my alleged beliefs and the reality of my religious practice flourished as I studied the tradition. I learned how liturgy had evolved over time, shaped by the politics and preferences of each era and I wondered why we did not make more changes to the seemingly unchangeable tradition. I scowled at the refusal to allow openly gay students to enroll in my school and began to say, “if some people are in the closet, then everyone is in the closet”.
In the middle of my fourth semester of school, the accumulation of seemingly small compromises made me feel like a liar. Conservative theology had taught me the language of religious obligation, of righteous prayer being rewarded, of walking humbly with God. I walked away. In the spring of 2002, I transferred to the Reform rabbinical school in town, moved away from my predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson, and learned to read Tarot cards. I moved to Venice Beach, where I joked that “all the Jews are yoga teachers”.
I anticipated the start of a new semester in a new school, but I never said aloud that I was comfortable becoming a Reform Rabbi. I imagined myself randomly repeating empty phrases like, “wonderful” and “beautiful”, systematically watering down my tradition into bite-sized pieces. I imagined Reform rabbis singing and playing guitars (neither of which I could do); catering to the unaffiliated, disaffected Jews who wanted a stamp saying, “kosher” on their ham-and-cheese lives, prioritizing soccer practice over synagogue attendance.
But during that first semester of Reform rabbinical school, I fell in love with my courses, my teachers, and myself. I learned that the holiness of the Torah does not make it immune to modern critique and found that my new teachers saw value in my questions, creativity, and intellectual curiosity. My classmates asked questions about feminist interpretation, and I settled into my skin as a liberal Jew attending a reform rabbinical school. I pictured the giant wooden doors of the synagogue of my childhood closing before me, leaving me standing forever Outside. My heart ached and laughed.

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Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler works at the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She also serves as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism. She received master’s degrees from the University of Judaism and from Harvard Graduate School of Education and was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in 2006, where she found deep meaning writing and researching her Rabbinic Thesis on the Book of Job: "Talk to Me: (Or, When More Bad Things Happen to Good People)." She is married to Rabbi Amitai Adler (also an S Blog contributor) and this year became Michael Zachary Joel Adler's mother.

1 Comment

  1. Awesome, Rabbi Pelc – absolutely awesome. Very deep and thought provoking. I miss learning from you.

    Posted by
    chana weiss
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