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Reviewed by:
  • Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation
  • Rachel Adler
Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation, edited by Rebecca T. Alpert, Sue Levi Elwell, and Shirley Idelson. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001. 252 pp. $24.00.

When seminaries began to ordain women rabbis, they also began to ordain lesbian rabbis. Some of these rabbis had not acknowledged even to themselves that they were lesbian. Others had always known, but made their way through rabbinical school carefully closeted. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Hebrew Union College have admitted openly lesbian and gay rabbis since 1984 for RRC and 1989 for HUC. The Conservative Jewish Theological [End Page 209] Seminary does not admit or ordain students it knows to be lesbian or gay. The other Conservative seminary, the Los Angeles-based University of Judaism, has a "don't ask, don't tell policy " and makes valiant attempts at obliviousness.

The absorbing first-hand accounts of lesbian rabbis' educations and careers which this book comprises are set in their broader sociohistorical context in a solid scholarly introduction. This introduction traces how the feminist movement's challenge to gender ideology and masculine privilege, its concern with questions of inclusion and exclusion from social power and social benefits, paved the way for lesbian feminists to challenge heterosexual ideology and their own exclusions from benefits and power within the Jewish community. For congregations, the lesbian rabbi sharpens the question already given new relevance by the appearance of women rabbis. As the editors put it. "What does it mean to acknowledge the sexuality of a role model and guide?" (p. 16).

The late Rabbi Julie Spitzer relates a tale of the closet from the early days. Spitzer's senior colleague told her after her hiring that he had been told a rumor about her personal life which he chose not to believe. This signaled that she had better remain closeted (p. 59). Leaving her next job, Spitzer was determined at last to be completely open. She wrote to the congregational leaders and rabbis with whom she worked explaining that she was relocating because her partner had a wonderful career offer in New York. One obtuse recipient misunderstood the term "partner" and remarked, "I didn't know you were in business!" (p. 61).

For pregnant rabbis sexuality is no theoretical issue. It is a very concrete bulging belly on the bima. These encounters are full of ironies. Rabbi Karen Bender remarks, "The congregation was not only supportive but excited. . . . If the wedding had made me into a lesbian, the pregnancy made me into a woman. It was almost as if they had said, 'I thought she was a lesbian, but apparently, she is a woman'" (p. 129). Rabbi Julie Greenberg, on the other hand, recalls a shocked male mentor in rabbinical school pleading, "You've got to help me with this pregnancy." "I've always felt family was important," she responds demurely, and he says, "Well, as long as you aren't going to make a political statement out of it" (p. 185).

Integrity is a touchstone for many of the writers. They talk about the need to bring a complete self to their work and their worship, not to be fragmented or hidden or disguised. "The only thing you bring to others is your self," writes Rabbi Nancy Weiner, a professor of pastoral counseling. "You are a religious being, an intellectual being, a social being, a sexual being. And so are the people with whom you interact. How do you acknowledge this? How do you nurture it?" (p. 55) Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell exemplifies this integrity in her account of finding her truth while directing the Los Angeles Jewish Feminist Center. "I [End Page 210] was finally able to name my hunger as a hunger for wholeness, a wholeness I hoped would lead to holiness. . . . My truth was a deep truth of my body and soul, for as Judaism is my home, my body is my home" (p. 71).

The most wrenching tale of how difficult it is for a lesbian rabbi to retain integrity is Rabbi Benay Lappe's ordeal at Jewish Theological Seminary. For six years, Lappe remained closeted in the unfriendly atmosphere of the Seminary...


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