After spending most of my youth-until age 18-in a Modem Orthodox Yeshivah, I left Judaism. My rebellion led me far afield. I went as far as to declare myself an atheist-believing that religion was simply “the opiate of the masses. ” Subsequently, however, I felt lonely for my religion-for some system of meaning-and I returned. In my return I at first went back to Modern Orthodoxy and then moved to a traditional egalitarianism-which is where I find myself now.
Wanting to immerse my life in studying and teaching Judaism, I became a Conservative rabbi. There I found a “room of my own” in which I could struggle to integrate my Judaism and being a woman. It was the movement in which, essentially, I did not have to cut off one of those pieces of myself for the other. There I found the most traditional expression of Judaism which still gave women the opportunity to be rabbis-an opportunity I could not have imagined as a child for myself nor, for that matter, for anybody else. Most of the Syrian Jewish community where I grew up saw and still sees non-Orthodox Judaism as invalid; the female rabbinate symbolizes the pinnacle of its heresy.
Now, an ordained rabbi, I often shake my head in disbelief. I-a rabbi? I-count in a minyan? I-called upon to give divrei torah and lectures? I-called rabbi by my students? These are the blessings and gifts made possible for me by the movement which I chose to become part of. They are all the more so blessings because they were not gifts bestowed upon me at birth. Rather, to become a Conservative rabbi was a choice-a choice that cost me much discomfort regarding my family and the community of my youth.
With this gift, however, came much loss. Not only was it difficult because it was a choice not easily understood by my family and community, but because to leave a traditional community for liberal Judaism comes at a high price. Never again will I live in a community where Judaism is so naturally, so unself-consciously, an integral part of people’s lives. While “meaning” was rarely a subject for discussion, so much of life was naturally imbued with religious meaning. Never again will I live in a community where it can be assumed that most of its members are observant-that a Jewish life rich in halakhic observance will be transmitted to most of the next generation.
I remember a moment when it was clear to me I was on a crossroads, shutting the door on a way of life that would be permanently cut off to me. When I began my first year of rabbinical school at JTS, I befriended a woman who was in her preparatory year for entering rabbinical school. In search of a more intensive text experience she took the next year and attended Drisha. At the end of that year we met for coffee and she told me of her decision to become Orthodox and not to return to JTS. Of course it was a decision that initially I was quite threatened by. How could you abandon me?-I thought. How can you abandon this fight of women to be counted?
The Road Not Taken
But I did not utter these words aloud. Instead I continued to listen. And so did she. While she was not betraying me, I felt betrayed by her choice. At some point I came to a different conclusion: we were both choosing our losses. They were very different losses but losses nevertheless. I was jealous that she could be part of a life that I could never return to. I was in the midst of mourning the community I left behind. I missed the passion of its religious life and its naturalness. She was giving up the possibility of becoming a rabbi, of counting in a minyan, of a freer hand in the play of theology.
When she acknowledged what I said-that we were both choosing our losses, I felt deeply gratified. While making the decision to become Orthodox she did not feel the need to invalidate the choice she was leaving behind; she did not feel the need to denigrate my Jewish way-the room I chose. I’ve made my bed in the Conservative room of the house, thankful for its gifts and blessings. But still I dream of the room I moved out of. I still hope that some of its gifts will find its way to where I live now.
RABBI DIANNE ESSES, a Steinhardt Fellow at CLAL, Is the first Syrian
Jewish woman to become a rabbi. She was ordained at the Jewish
Theological Seminary of America In 1995.
(CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, May 10, 1996