Rabbi Rachel Adler, Ph.D., David Ellenson Professor of Modern Jewish Thought at HUC-JIR’s Skirball Campus in Los Angeles, has retired after 36 years of association with the HUC-JIR Skirball Campus in Los Angeles, beginning as a teaching assistant in 1986-95, then as the only joint professor between HUC-JIR and University of Southern California, and exclusively as a member of the HUC-JIR faculty as of 2002. In this interview, she reflected on her years of distinguished scholarship, teaching, and feminist activism that have transformed contemporary Jewish theology and ethics, as well as her mentorship of her students and her love for HUC-JIR.
What brought you to HUC-JIR?
I arrived in Los Angeles in 1986 to embark on a doctoral program in Religion and Social Ethics at the University of Southern California in which Hebrew Union College participated. Truthfully, I chose this program principally because I wanted to study with Rabbi David Ellenson. I had already published at least three much reprinted articles on Jewish feminist theological issues. I was already recognized as a feminist theologian, but I wanted to be a better feminist theologian and a more accomplished scholar. Because David Ellenson had read a lot of feminist theology already, I didn’t have to educate him, nor did he ever get the deer-in-the-headlights look many male scholars got when feminist issues emerged. He was a challenging yet supportive dialogue partner throughout the process. The other reason I chose this program was that it allowed its students many electives. I used mine on work in advanced Talmud and Rishonim, Rambam, commentaries with Professor Michael Signer, z’l, and Professor Lewis Barth, and legal theory with Professor Ronald Garet at USC Law School. As soon as I arrived, I established a beginning Talmud Class for women in the community. Many synagogues held classes, but only for men. Women could only learn Talmud if they were rabbinical students. I also established a class for women rabbinical students who wanted to learn in a nurturing environment. In addition, Rabbi Laura Geller and I began learning Talmud together at a more advanced level for ourselves. Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell soon joined us. That group for women rabbis and scholars continued to expand and evolve. Thirty years later it is now meeting on Zoom.
What was the impetus for your work as the pioneering feminist theologian and ethicist?
I cannot claim to have embarked on this project knowing where it would take me. Aron Hirt-Mannheimer, later to be editor of Reform Judaism, was then editing a small West Coast Jewish magazine called Davka. He proposed to publish an issue devoted to Jewish women and asked me to write. I piled the dining room table with my then husband’s volumes of Talmud and Codes. All my questions and concerns poured out. After I gave Aron the result, it hit me that I had said some very subversive things, and I asked Aron to return this article, “The Jew Who Wasn’t There” so I could destroy it. He refused. The issue sold out and had to be reprinted. Suddenly women’s groups far from Los Angeles were discussing my article, and every rabbi I encountered was scolding me. Oddly, instead of making me remorseful, that convinced me that what I had said was true, and that I was never going to chicken out again. I have tried to behave with integrity since then, and I have always used my multidisciplinary methodology, piecing together all I knew from various academic disciplines to make sense of the Jewish issues I was confronting. Until my friend Rabbi Dr. Michael Goldberg explained it to me, I did not understand that what I was writing was theology. How would I? Women did not write theology nor did Jewish theology ever deal with women as Jews, rather than as enablers of male Jewish behavior.
Of which academic achievements are you most proud?
I am most proud of whatever writing was difficult that I finished and published anyway. And I am proud when something I have written has an impact on how Jews act. For me theology is always linked to ethics. If a theology does not affect how people behave, it is nothing but hot air. Engendering Judaism was the first book by a woman theologian to win the National Jewish Book Award in Jewish Thought. It won several other awards too, but I am proudest that it still offers a way to change the real world, especially in the B’rit Ahuvim wedding ceremony I propose. Unlike the Kiddushin ceremony, its legal basis is in partnership law rather than property law. Making the wife an equal partner instead of a chattel allows her to dissolve unilaterally the partnership, if necessary.
Why did you decide to become ordained at HUC-JIR in 2012?
Oddly, it was Reb Mimi Feigelson, the first female Orthodox rabbi ordained in Israel, who talked me into it. When she was in LA teaching at American Jewish University, she and I used to meet for dinner every week. I confided that as a teenager I had wished to become a rabbi. There was a rumor that HUC-JIR might ordain a woman. But by the time I was old enough to take advantage of the policy change, I was an Orthodox rebbitzen. Post-Orthodoxy, I decided that the Jewish people needed me to be an academically respectable theologian/ethicist much more than they needed me to be a rabbi. But Reb Mimi, who is famous for her persuasiveness, talked me into it. The process was idyllic. I got to study with each of my colleagues. My study partners in the LA Women’s Chevra Shas loyally joined me in studying the Talmud chapter on which I was examined, though only I had to pass the exam. I sometimes call myself “the lunatic fringe of Reform Judaism.” I’m an odd sort of Reform rabbi, keeping kashrut and Shabbat rather strictly, and taking Jewish law very seriously, although more traditional legal authorities find my thinking quite troublesome.
What has your time at HUC-JIR meant to you?
I enjoyed my teaching at USC in HUC-JIR’s Louchheim School of Judaic Studies, but HUC-JIR is the institution where my loyalties lie. I want to help influence Reform rabbis who will shape the Judaism of the future. I hope I have done so. I have loved all of my students who approached their learning with integrity, and most of them did. There is a famous Midrash (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:6) that describes God as a coiner. But while human coiners can only produce a batch of coins imprinted with one countenance – and I suspect they were thinking of the unlovely visages of some of the Caesars – God coins each human in the image of Adam and yet each face is different! In my relations with students, I try to honor each distinctive face, each unique mind. I also honor and learn from my colleagues. I will miss my contacts with them.
What will you be doing during this next chapter of your life?
I will be teaching one cross-course per semester on Zoom from Pittsburgh, where I am relocating as a Professor Emerita. By the end of the year, I am hoping to submit my book manuscript tentatively titled Pour Out Your Heart Like Water: Jewish Perspectives on Suffering to Oxford University Press, where it is under contract. I am also close to finishing a collection on Judaism and Gender, which I am co-editing with Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath-Beit Halachmi. Possibly my cat Nechamaleh will get a collection of cat-tales of her own. She is not a jealous girl, but she is just as learned as Dagesh, for whose memoir, Tales of the Holy Mysticat, I received a Benjamin Franklin Silver Medal award this last May.