Why trouble should be a rabbi's middle name

We talk to the author of a new book at the cutting edge of egalitarianism.


Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah signing copies of her new book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul, £9.99)

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah signing copies of her new book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul, £9.99)

For more than 20 years, Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah has been at the forefront of the struggle for egalitarianism in Judaism - both as a feminist and as one of the first openly gay or lesbian rabbis to break through the heterosexual monopoly.

Her belief in challenging the status quo partly gives the title to her new collection of essays, Trouble-Making Judaism. "King Ahab, in the Book of Kings, says to Elijah, 'You're a troubler of Israel, ocheir Yisrael'. The prophets were trouble-makers, challenging the leadership and the people for their ethical misconduct, for their injustice and oppression."

But there are other aspects to the idea of "trouble". The rabbis who reinvented life after the loss of the Temple and Jewish sovereignty were "troublers of the text", grappling with the Torah to wrest new meaning out of its words. "The whole Jewish way is to be troubled, to ask questions, to interrogate the text, to interrogate the tradition," she said.

One of her most audacious pieces is to portray the prophetess Miriam as a lesbian (the Torah gives her no husband. "If people think it's outlandish, look at the tales the rabbis came out with," she said, referring to the imaginative licence of rabbinic midrash.

The exercise also demonstrates "what it is to bring a lesbian sensibility" to the sources. "That is going to produce new insights that somebody who is more normative doesn't necessarily bring," she said.

While some of the essays tackle issues of inclusiveness, others deal variously with Israel; with community-building as the rabbi now of a small but growing Liberal congregation in Brighton; and with Progressive thought. In one essay, she re-reads Leviticus to construct a modern sexual ethic: in another, she explores what the concept of mitzvah can mean for Progressive Jews.

She also writes of her own personal journey, growing up in a "slightly bohemian" Jewish home with little religious knowledge but a strong sense that being Jewish was "about fighting injustice". Having moved from Marxism to feminism, she scandalised some of her peers when she opted for the rabbinate.

She took her middle name "Sarah" as her surname rather than her Viennese father's name, Klempner. When she and Rabbi Sheila Shulman became the first openly lesbian graduates of the Leo Baeck College in 1989, the Assembly of Reform Rabbis actually held a special session to decide whether to admit them. "We were the first out lesbian, gay people altogether," she said. Rabbi Lionel Blue "didn't come out until he was retired".

The climate has changed since with more gay and lesbian rabbis entering the pulpit and first the Liberals, then Reform, embracing commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples. But she sees no room for complacency. If rabbis do not address issues of equality, "there's nothing automatic about people's attitudes being more open," she said. For example, "our synagogue leaflet makes it explicit we welcome lesbian and gay people."

Both the flagship Reform and Liberal synagogues and Leo Baeck today are headed by women. But she believes that the image of a rabbi many people have in their head is "still male. There are still loads of synagogues who have never experienced a female rabbi, even though half the progressive rabbinate is female, and resist it."

What shines through the book is her love of text study, which roots her ideas in close analysis of the language of Torah. It is a love she is keen to communicate. "Every month, one of my Shabbat services I call a beit midrash service. The liturgy is shortened, I do an extended Torah reading and study. People absolutely love it. It's the most popular service. My experience is that if you take enabling approach to text, then you excite people and they want to engage."

That underlines her final definition of trouble: encouraging people "to take the trouble with our tradition, not to dismiss it and say it is not relevant today or because it seems slow to change, they are not going to bother with it."

The next big subject on the inclusive agenda is to do with transgender issues, she believes. It's more than about people changing from female to male and vice versa but about the whole binary division of gender, the assumption people make "that you're either a boy or a girl, a male or a female, it's much more complex than that… Clearly it's not an issue for most Jews at this point of time. But it will be."

    Last updated: 11:55am, March 15 2012