In the first few weeks of Rachel Adler’s rabbinic internship at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), Rabbi Lisa Edwards had a hard time introducing Adler. For decades, Edwards had quoted Adler; she had taken classes with Adler and had been deeply influenced by Adler’s acclaimed works on Jewish feminism and feminist theology.
“It felt ridiculous to be introducing Rachel as a ‘student’ rabbi,” Edwards said. “I couldn’t do it without laughing, and I would have to explain why I was laughing. So, somewhere along the way, ‘scholar-in-residence’ evolved as a secondary title.”
Adler, who is 68 and a professor of Jewish religious thought and feminist studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), will be ordained as a Reform rabbi at the college on May 13.
David Ellenson, president of HUC-JIR who served as Adler’s advisor when she earned a doctorate in religion in 1997, calls Adler “arguably the leading feminist theologian in the entire world.”
“She has taught the Jewish community in virtually an unparalleled way for almost 40 years, from the time of her earliest writings in the 1970s to the present day. … Many of the changes that have occurred in Jewish life that have allowed the community to be inclusive of women have been a result of Rachel Adler’s efforts,” he said.
“Rachel will now officially become what she has been and was destined to be — a rabbi among the Jewish people,” Ellenson said.
Adler has no plans to change her career path once she earns the title of rabbi. But she said that becoming a rabbi finally closes a circle that began for her at Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin in 1960, when a visiting scholar told her the Reform movement would soon begin ordaining women and he thought she would make a good rabbi (HUC admitted the first female rabbinic students in 1968). Adler liked the idea, but by the time she graduated from Northwestern University in 1965 with a degree in English literature, she had become more observant and was married to an Orthodox rabbi.
“I just kind of put that to the side and said, ‘well, that is something you don’t get to do,’ ” Adler said in an interview recently at her Pico-Robertson-area apartment.
But she continued to study Jewish thought, and she evolved as an important Jewish feminist thinker, gaining international attention with her 1971 publication of “The Jew Who Wasn’t There: Halakhah and the Jewish Woman,” in Davka magazine, as well as her 1972 publication for “The Jewish Catalog” of “Tum’ah and Taharah: Ends and Beginnings,” a treatise on family purity laws that she later recanted.
While Adler began her critical studies from within an Orthodox framework, she soon moved leftward and outside of Orthodoxy, though she has always maintained that halachah, Jewish law, could not be ignored.
Adler divorced in 1984, and in 1986 she enrolled at HUC-JIR to work on a doctorate.
“I thought about becoming a rabbi, but I decided the Jewish people needed me to become a theologian and didn’t really need me to become a rabbi,” she said. Her book, “Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics” (Jewish Publication Society, 1998) based on her doctoral thesis, won the 1998 National Jewish Book award in Jewish thought.
Over the years Adler has taught countless students in both formal and informal settings, with Talmud classes still taking place at the dining room table where she now sits, stroking her cat, a blue tabby named Dagesh.
“For a while I’ve been kind of a half-rabbi — a shadow rabbi — and I thought it would be a nice completion to become a rabbi for real,” Adler said.
Tall with multihued gray hair swept back from her face and large silver earrings, Adler appears to be by nature shy and introverted, and she answers questions about herself haltingly. But she takes any opening to digress into tales of midrash, Talmud or Jewish thought, becoming engaged and amused with the sources as they unfold into the conversation.
Her son, a Conservative rabbi in Chicago, is married to a Reform rabbi, and Adler plans to help her daughter-in-law, who is pregnant, lead services over the High Holy Days. Adler remarried in 1987 and divorced in 2005.
She was raised in Chicago and has master’s degrees in English literature and social work, which fulfilled her chaplaincy requirements as she studied for ordination.
The fact that she has long taught many of the classes rabbis are required to take to complete ordination helped her complete her coursework in two years, rather than five. She also completed a number of classes through independent study and continued to teach for most of that time, with one semester off as a sabbatical.
For her required internship, Adler chose to work at BCC, a congregation of 225 members located on Pico Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue that serves the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.
“It was one of those experiences that makes you less arrogant, because you realize that everyone has a story and a set of experiences, and everyone has a portion of Torah to teach,” Adler said. “I learned that there are so many different lives and so many different contexts, that I can’t just take out a premade set of expectations and lay stuff on people. I have to think about how people can learn something, and what is something that is crying out to be learned by those particular people.”
Edwards admits that, at first, she wondered how much time Adler would be able to offer to the congregation, but she said she was quickly amazed at how invested Adler became in synagogue life, teaching classes, but also leading services and delivering sermons that were both deep and peppered with humor.
Since her internship began last May, Adler has been attending Shabbat services at BCC nearly every week so she could get to know congregants.
In turn, the congregants soon learned that beyond being a formidable intellect, Adler is approachable and cares deeply about them. Edwards said Adler often picked up on needs or nuances that she had missed, and she empowered congregants to develop religiously.
“People are often struggling with the existence of God, or at least with their own relationship with God, and Rachel makes that very approachable. She gives you permission to struggle, and yet you have this sense that she is strong in her belief,” Edwards said.
On a recent Monday afternoon, Adler taught a Talmud class at BCC to about a dozen students. They studied a text that dealt with demons, doves, Elijah, and the purpose and context of prayer. As they studied together, Adler adeptly elicited questions on the text and honored the students’ thoughts by citing rabbinic sources that echoed their ideas.
Her strength as a teacher flows not from charisma or animation — she speaks slowly and evenly, carefully choosing each word and taking time to respond — but rather from her vast knowledge, which she employs to make points that touch on her students’ lives. The discussion turned to questions of who has been demonized, and who is to say who may pray where, questions pertinent to LGBT Jews.
“I think dealing with an LGBT congregation, there is an immense need for hopefulness, and there is an immense need for teaching people the possibility of redemption, because for some people the world has been very evil indeed,” Adler said.
It is that sort of insight, and the ability to connect traditional sources to contemporary needs, that has given Adler the power to influence so many. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, a professor of Bible at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and editor of “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary” (URJ Press: 2007), said she came to HUC in Los Angeles in part because she knew Adler was here. A talk by Adler in the early 1980s in Denver was the first to awaken Eskenazi to the idea of revealing women’s voices in Jewish texts.
“Women moved from being absent to be being empowered to find our voices. We discovered that in rabbinic literature we do have a voice, and in the Bible we do have a voice. People were not paying attention to it, but Rachel was paying attention, and she got all of us to pay attention.”
Eskenazi, who is older than Adler, is also working toward ordination.
“When you are an academic, the expectation is that you are intellectually and scholarly savvy, and an expert in your field,” Eskenazi said. “But I feel that teaching Torah or teaching Tanach [Bible] is part of living a certain kind of life and needs to be part of a larger sphere of application, and the role of a rabbi really speaks to that integration.”
Dvora Weisberg, director of HUC-JIR’s rabbinical school in Los Angeles and an associate professor of rabbinic literature, was ordained last year. She said she had wanted to be a rabbi since she was a teen, but at the time the Conservative movement was not yet ordaining women. She instead got her doctorate in Talmud and rabbinics, and, like Adler, now felt ready to be a rabbi.
“For a long time, for women like us, there were issues that were beyond our control — such as which schools were ordaining women — and then family issues, responsibility to children. Or you have career issues, like trying to get tenure and the need to be publishing,” Weisberg said.
“I think Rachel and Tamar and I have come to a place in our lives where we want to do this, and we don’t want to wait any longer.”