Forty is a powerful number. The Torah tells the story that it rained and rained for forty days. Moses was up on Mount Sinai alone for forty days. There are forty weeks of gestation. A mikveh has forty se’ah of water. Our ancestors wandered in the wilderness for forty years, and just as the wandering ended Moses told them: “God has not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, until this day” (Deut. 29:3–4). Forty suggests renewal, clarity, rebirth, the conclusion of one phase of a journey and the beginning of the next. And if you are lucky, after forty years you have a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear.
I was ordained forty years ago. Hard to believe. Over those forty years, I have come to believe that all theology is autobiography. There is a Torah of our lives as well as the Torah of tradition. The Torah of our lives transforms the Torah of tradition, pushing us to ask different questions and enabling us to uncover different voices in the Torah of tradition. The Torah of tradition gives us master narratives like yetziat mitzrayim (coming out of Egypt), matan Torah (giving Torah), and tikun olam (repairing the broken world) that help us see our own stories through the lens of Jewish memory and propel us to reach beyond our own narrow concerns into a wider universe.
My first “sermon” was the valedictory address I gave when I graduated from Brown University in 1971. It was called “Chantilly Lace and a Pretty Face,” a name borrowed from the rock song released by the Big Bopper in 1958. It was a fiery and pretentious challenge to the ways women were viewed in the early ’70s. It ended with these words:
When women demand to be treated as human beings, they are threatening the fabric of a society which objectifies all of its people. It is not sufficient to “liberate” women into such a society; in fact, true liberation, in these terms, is impossible. The women’s movement, the black movement, and the antiwar movement are all part of the same struggle—the struggle to reshape our society so as to make people whole. This is the world we are graduating into; this is the world we have to change.
Fifteen years later, I was invited back to Brown to give the baccalaureate address. I quoted that last paragraph and reflected: “The graduation sermon (I didn’t know it was a sermon then) was too long and too strident. The word ‘incredibly’ appeared too many times. Someone in the dean’s office had a problem with the title but didn’t seem to object to all those ‘incrediblys.’ Looking back, I realize I have been giving versions of the same sermon ever since. Maybe it’s true that we each have only one sermon to give. But now the dean’s office doesn’t get to approve the title!”
My one sermon, the Torah of my life, begins with my earliest Jewish memory. It was not of candle lighting or Kiddush or even the Four Questions. It is rather a memory of sneaking down to the living room after I had been put to bed and overhearing my mother and father discuss with members of our Temple’s social action committee the propriety of buying a house as a straw. I was five or six. To me a straw was something you drank chocolate milk with. The next morning my parents explained to me about racism and segregation, saying that black families couldn’t buy houses in certain neighborhoods. Buying a house as a straw meant buying a house in a segregated neighborhood to sell it to a black family. I said, “But I thought it was a Temple meeting. What does that have to do with being Jewish?” My dad responded, “That is what it means to be Jewish.”
Like many of my generation, my years in college were caught up with the political struggles of civil rights and antiwar activities. Freshman year I joined a sit-in for fair housing in the State Capitol building. It was during the week of Passover. I didn’t eat the donuts that were being passed around. I remember thinking that not eating chametz and civil disobedience were both good ways to celebrate Passover, that ritual and ethical behaviors support each other. The following summer I went to Memphis to a convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The convention was very Christian and very black; I felt acutely out of place. My discomfort was obvious enough for our local organizer to take me aside and (gently) say, “You’re right. You don’t belong here. Go home and work in your own community.”
So I went home—to the Jewish community. I organized through the local synagogues, canvassed door to door in the Jewish neighborhoods, and did draft counseling for Jewish young men. I also began to study religion. I majored in ethics. I wanted to understand the connection between ethics and theology, to explore whether one must postulate a God to be good.
I dropped out of college, and though I wanted to travel around the world alone, exploring alternative communities, my parents didn’t think it was a good idea—at all! So we compromised, and I ended up living on a kibbutz in Israel. The friends I made in Israel encouraged me to stay. If being Jewish matters to you, they said, make aliyah. I knew that I was American and that I wanted to be engaged in the work of making a difference here in the United States, but I also knew that that work, whatever it would turn out to be, had something to do with my being Jewish. So I went back to college, took my first Jewish studies class—and then I went to rabbinical school to try to figure it out.
The first year of the program, at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, was not an easy one for me. I was the only woman in my class of fifty students. For the first time I encountered traditional Judaism and its attitude toward women. I went with my classmates to Mea Shearim on Simchat Torah and watched them dance. I wrestled with a Torah that was on the one hand exhilarating and on the other hand excruciating, texts of liberation and texts of terror. I felt like I was sinking in quicksand, that I would have to choose between my sense of self as a woman and my evolving Jewish commitment.
Some classmates thought I was in rabbinical school to find a husband; others seemed to think I was there to prove the point that women could be rabbis. But most were friendly and supportive. Still, it was lonely. In retrospect, what kept me in school was an informal study group I formed with some of the wives of my fellow students. They, like me, had the same challenge: how to honor the Torah of their lives and, at the same time, find their place within the Torah of tradition. We studied together all year, and then, at the end of the semester, we prayed together. It was the first time I had ever prayed with only women. I don’t think I will ever forget the moment we unlocked the doors to the HUC Chapel, and each of us, without having talked about it first, ran to the ark to see if we could lift the Torah. We had prepared every detail of the Shabbat afternoon services—the davening, the Torah reading, the Havdalah that would follow with its meal. We knew we were ready—but deep down there still was the feeling that the Torah didn’t really belong to us.
We discovered that it did.
In my second year at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, in New York City, rabbinical students began the study of Talmud with Tractate Berakhot. I had never learned about all the occasions for a blessing—new clothes, new fruit, seeing the ocean, seeing a rainbow, being in the presence of a scholar, hearing good news or even bad news—I was exhilarated! God is present at every moment; it is up to us to acknowledge God’s presence. We do it through saying blessings. Our teacher, Rabbi Julius Kravitz, said, “There is no important moment in the lifetime of a Jew for which there is no blessing.” I remember thinking, “Yes! There is no important moment in the lifetime of a Jew for which there is no blessing.” And then I realized that it was not true.
There had been important moments in my lifetime for which there was no blessing—like when I got my first period. Suddenly I became again the thirteen-year-old girl running to tell her mother she had just gotten her period. And I heard my mother tell me that when she got her first period my grandmother slapped her. I could almost feel the force of my grandmother’s hand on my mother’s face, the shame, the confusion, the anger. I remembered my grandmother’s explanation when I asked her why; she answered, “Your mother was losing blood, she was pale, she needed color in her cheek, the evil eye, poo poo poo.” And as I thought back to that time, I understood that there should have been a blessing—she-asani ishah or the Shehecheyanu (Thank you, God, for having made me a woman, thank you, God, for bringing us to this moment)—because holiness was indeed present at that moment.
A blessing would have gently taught me what it means to be a woman, would have invisibly instructed me how miraculous the human body is, would have drawn me closer to my mother, my grandmothers, and all the women whose lives made mine possible. A blessing would have named the divinity present in this moment of transformation, this moment of connection. In that class I realized that my experience is a Jewish experience and I understood for the first time that there is a Torah of our lives, as well as the Torah that was written down.
Another memory has shaped the Torah of my life, but it was deeply buried until recently. My sister Meggie died of cancer before I was born. She was two. My mother found out she was pregnant with me on the day of her funeral. We never talked too much about her, but there were always pictures of her in my parents’ bedroom. It wasn’t until I had a baby of my own that I was ready to hear the story. I learned that my parents mourned her death very differently; my mom turned to family and friends for support. My dad was more private; it was very difficult for him to find solace. And then he went to talk to his rabbi, a man I never knew, who told him this story:
Once there was a caterpillar who noticed that every so often a lot of caterpillars would disappear. He became determined to find out where they went and he promised that if it ever happened to him, he would come back and let all the other caterpillars know. So, of course, eventually he spun himself into a chrysalis and emerged a butterfly. True to his word, he returned to the caterpillars, flapped his wings, and tried to get their attention. But they never looked up because they could never imagine that they had any connection to this beautiful creature.
That story comforted my dad. To him Meggie was somehow always a part of his life, as a beautiful butterfly. Years later, as I sat in meditation, my mind wandered to that memory—and in a kind of epiphany, I realized that his sharing that story with me might have been central in my calling to become a rabbi. I felt the power that a rabbi had to bring comfort to my father in such a dark time. Maybe I could do that with other people. I hope that I have done that.
After forty years in the rabbinate (and still counting), I can begin to look back over the Torah of my life as well as the Torah of tradition. And maybe, after all these years, I do have a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear.
Rabbi Laura Geller, emerita rabbi of Temple Emanuel where she was Senior Rabbi for 22 years, was the third Reform woman to be ordained and the first to be selected to be Senior Rabbi of a major metropolitan congregation. Currently she is working on a groundbreaking initiative for baby boomers and beyond called ChaiVillageLA (chaivillagela.org) and writing a book with her husband, Richard Siegel, called Getting Good at Getting Older.