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Black Hat and Beard Optional: What Makes a Jew?

Black Hat and Beard Optional: What Makes a Jew?

Reform Judaism offers many opportunities to build connections to make a difference in the world. At a recent event on Jewish youth engagement and collaboration, Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, director of youth engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke about how for our youth wanting to make a difference in the world, movement is more important than membership.

It’s not just young people who are looking beyond the walls of their home – whether that means where they live or pray – for their Judaism.

Reform Jews have long been at the forefront of breaking down barriers to social justice and building connections. Today, though, one of the biggest remaining barriers to Jews connecting with other Jews is the role of women in Judaism. It’s a division that run deep in the broader global Jewish community.

I recently read Lessons in Leadership, A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In talking about women as leaders, Rabbi Sacks writes,

“Yokheved, Miriam, Shifra, Puah, Tzippora, and Bitya were leaders not because of any official position they held (in the case of Bitya she was a leader despite her official title as princess of Egypt). They were leaders because they had courage and conscience. They refused to be intimidated by power or defeated by circumstance. They were the real heroes of the Exodus. Their courage is still a source of inspiration today.”

It used to be that the word “rabbi” exclusively brought to mind an image of a male with a black hat and beard. Though this is still the case in some communities, this is another area where Reform Judaism has again been ahead of the curve for decades, ordaining women as rabbis since 1972. Other streams of Judaism have come to equality at a slower pace: As recently as the 1980s, the Jewish Theological Seminary was still debating whether to ordain women as Conservative rabbis.

Lila Kagedan, a 2015 graduate of the New York seminary Yeshivat Maharat, was the first Orthodox woman to take the title of rabbi. In the past, most graduates of the seminary took the title of maharat, which roughly translates to “female spiritual leader.” As Rabbi Kagedan writes,

“Misogyny is alive and well in the Jewish community. This is a challenge that will require a radical culture and philosophical shift in order to be solved. It isn’t easy to reconcile ancient philosophy with contemporary values.”

There’s probably no other place in Judaism where the lines of ancient/contemporary and male/female are drawn stronger than at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site where Jews are permitted to pray. The activist prayer group Women of the Wall has long been working, as their mission states, to “achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.”

The Israeli government recently came to an historic agreement regarding the creation of a pluralistic, egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall. Like the women who Rabbi Sacks wrote about, the Women of the Wall refused to be intimidated by power or defeated by circumstance. Their courage is a source of inspiration today.

A rabbi with a black hat and beard once told me that a black hat and beard don’t make a Chassid, a pious Jew who goes beyond the law in fulfilling their duties toward others and God – and a specific gender doesn’t, either.

Each person has his or her own understanding of what it means to be Jewish, whether it’s family background, synagogue membership, holiday and festival observance, keeping Shabbat, studying Torah, keeping kosher, giving charity, affixing a mezuzah to a doorpost, going to Israel, wrapping tefillin, being involved in social justice, going to a Jewish summer camp… the list goes on and on.

At our core, we are all sparks of holiness. Being connected to Reform Judaism has reinforced my understanding of being a Jew – that it’s who we are and what we do, every day of our lives, to bring about a world where more people lead lives of wholeness, justice, and compassion.

Bruce Josephy is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism's North American Board, vice chair of URJ Community – Southern New England, and past president of Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, CT.

Bruce Josephy
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