Launching My Journey: From Orthodox Feminist to Reform Rabbi

Inside Leadership

Launching My Journey: From Orthodox Feminist to Reform Rabbi

Red and white striped sneakers and jean-clad legs at the starting line as seen from overhead

This week I did something really new. I began my journey to become a Reform rabbi. For the next four years I will be studying at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. And I am positively ecstatic. 

You probably have questions. The most common question I've received so far is, why Reform and not Conservative? There are several ways I can answer this question. My primary answer is that the Reform Movement is the only place where I think a woman can truly be free to be a whole person. And as a woman, I place that high on my list of priorities!

There are all kinds of people serving as Reform rabbis – with all kinds of identities, cultural backgrounds, and practices. During my first conversations about taking this path with Rabbi Alona Lisitsa, a beautiful rabbi who actively combines compassion and scholarship, Rabbi Lisitsa described HUC as the ultimate “big tent,” the only place in Judaism where everyone truly can belong. She also showed me how many Reform rabbis keep Jewish practice with no visible distinction to Orthodox Jews.

They keep Shabbat, kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), and ritual immersion practices, and engage with Jewish law. One of my most esteemed mentors, Rabbi Professor Rachel Adler, is a brilliant scholar whose commitment to halachah (Jewish law) is unquestioned, and deeply compelling. Everyone has a place, and that is a powerful vision. This is a place where nobody is judging your practice. It is where you are fully embraced for being who you are. That is so refreshing, so new, and so healing for me. 

The other question that I get is about abandoning Orthodoxy. Most of my Orthodox feminist friends have been loving and accepting, and I keep hearing from them that it is clear that this is exactly where I belong. That has been a beautifully validating experience. I feel like I have been fighting for a long time to find or create a suitable spiritual home. And it seems clear that this is it.

Still, other people have been less generous. One Orthodox friend told me that this will delegitimize me. Yes, of course it will, in the eyes of certain Orthodox self-assigned gate-keepers. I have been called “Reform” for much of my adult life, in a way that uses the word as a slur. Orthodox feminists in general are called “Reform” as a way to delegitimize them all the time. Most of the time, the response is, “I am not!” But now, my response is, “I take that as a compliment!”

To be Reform means to place human compassion before all else, to understand that we must be human beings before we are Jews. I am so excited about the idea of really living that way, and being surrounded by people who also live that way. And rather than internalize the notion of delegitimizing the other, we should figure out ways to truly see one another, to understand what is the ethnical force driving each other. Rather than internalizing the hate, we need to develop tools to resist it and dismantle it. I have much more to say on this, and will come back to this in future posts. 

The Reform Movement is a place of healing – for me and for others. It is where who I am as a person comes before how long my sleeves are or how clean my Shabbat table is. Even though this is the place of the big tent, I am no longer interested in making “commitment to halachah” the be-all and end-all of my Jewish identification. I don't believe that the discussion about how to be Jewish should be about law. I think it should be about ethics, morality, and spirituality. I want to talk about relationships between people. In fact, I want to build relationships between people, rather than spend my time judging other people. This is the right place for that. People first. Compassion first. Everything else a distant second. 

To be clear, this decision has nothing to do with my own religious practice. So far, it has not changed the particulars of my observance in any noticeable way. But it is about finding a home where I can share values with the people around me, where I don't have to explain myself all the time, where I don't feel like I have to apologize for putting the real needs of women in the equation. That is incredibly liberating, and healing. 

One question that I have not been getting – except maybe during the interview process – is, why do I want to be a rabbi at all? That's a great question!  Here, too, I have a bunch of answers. The main one is spiritual. We are given this life, and we should use it well. I want to bring more light into this world. I try to do this in many ways, and this feels like a really powerful and exciting way to walk that path. 

I will be writing more, as I chronicle this journey from Orthodox feminist to Reform rabbi. I would like to use this time to explore issues of what it means to be a Jewish woman, and what it means to be a human being. I hope it can also be a place for dialogue – especially between feminist thought leaders across denominations. Some of my best friends are Orthodox feminists, and even though I understand that this can be a difficult decision for them, I truly hope that it becomes an opportunity for building bridges and strengthening community and identity. And for bringing more women's light into the world. 

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Elana Sztokman, an award-winning writer and former executive director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, she is the author of The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World and Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools among others. She writes frequently at The Forward, Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, Lilith, and on her blog, JewFem.com.

Elana Sztokman
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