This is a story that starts in the middle.
This month, Hebrew Union College, the seminary at which both my colleague, Rabbi Stephen Kahn, and I were ordained, published the results of a major investigative report by Morgan Lewis, a global law firm. It detailed decades of discriminatory behavior towards women, members of the LGBTQ community and students of color.
Some of the allegations are egregious abuses of power: sexual assault, misconduct and harassment. And some of the allegations are more insidious: regular policing of women’s bodies or clothing, refusal of professors and administrators to sign the ordination certificates of gay or lesbian students or mistaking students of color for support staff.
This year, we celebrate 50 years of women in the rabbinate. And we recognize that simultaneous to 50 years of progress there have also been 50 years of noticing, enduring and only just beginning to dismantle structures of discrimination and mistreatment.
Both Rabbi Kahn and I have our certificates of smicha, certificates of ordination, hanging in our offices at Congregation Beth Israel. We both received them the day that we each became a rabbi, after five years of intensive study and internships and dedication.
While our course of learning was not identical — he was ordained in New York in 1995 and I was ordained in Los Angeles in 2010 — they were certainly comparable. We both studied Torah, Talmud and Codes. We both studied history and pastoral counseling. We both had student pulpits and summer jobs at camp, and we both found mentors and colleagues who walked this road beside us.
But it wasn’t until 2016 — 44 years after Rabbi Sally Preisand became the first woman ordained as an American rabbi — that anyone spoke up to demand that ordination certificates of women and men be created equal.
Rabbi Kahn’s ordination certificate says: morenu harav, our rabbi, our teacher, just as every man’s certificate in the history of HUC has. Whereas mine, and that of every female rabbi ordained since Rabbi Sally Preisand in 1972, says: rav u’morah, or simply — rabbi and teacher.
The difference is so slight, so subtle. Rabbi Mary Zamore, executive director of the women’s rabbinic network explained the difference: “Our teacher [our] rabbi” is “auspicious and used since the first ordination at HUC, so it’s in the line of tradition. It speaks of the community. That’s the whole idea of a chain of tradition and ordaining, that the community is standing behind you saying ‘we believe in your authority.’”
In contrast, she said, “Rav u’morah [rabbi and teacher] is a nice statement of ordination. It’s just bland, pareve. The fact that it is different is problematic.”
Given the scope of discrimination and abuse that took place over the last 50 years, the wording on my ordination certificate is a small grievance. I was never hurt as a student. There were, of course, annoyances that my friends and I took as a hard truth of the territory. For example, the congregant at my student pulpit who introduced me to a new member, said, “She might not look like it, but she’s actually very smart.” And my friend was told she would be taken more seriously if she wore her beautiful curly hair up in a bun.
These isolated incidents feel small. A comment here, a quip there. Though I was offered the opportunity, I didn’t speak with investigators because the culture I endured paled in comparison to others. I wasn’t assaulted, though some women were. I wasn’t injured, though some people were. I loved my time at HUC. Like a fish who is used to swimming in cloudy water, I didn’t know it could or should look any other way.
It was powerful to see children in our preschool help to write a letter of our new Torah. There they were, boys and girls as equal participants fulfilling the mitzvah of scribing our sacred text. And when our centennial scholar in residence, Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, spoke of our founders, I knew they never could have imagined a rabbi like me. One hundred years ago, they never could have imagined little girls helping to write the Torah for the future. The water that they swam in looked different from the water today. So while we celebrate this progress, we also know this is the middle of the story. There are still tides that need to change.
We need look no further than a parshah like Vayishlach, the story of Dina, Jacob’s only daughter. We wonder which of us will hold the quill, to scribe these difficult words in the next generation’s Torah?
Vateitzei Dina bat-Leah asher yaldah l’ya’akov lirot bivnot ha’aretz
Now Dina, the daughter that Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land.
Vayar otah sh’chem ben-chamor ha’chivi n’si ha’aretz va’yakach otah vaish’kav otah vay’aneh’ha
Shechem, son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.
Dina is raped, and her story is told from the perspective of her brothers. Her story becomes a massacre committed as revenge, with violence. The description of the bloodshed in Dina’s honor is several verses longer than the story of her assault — and at no point in the text does she speak.
And we barely notice. Because when we swim in the waters of Torah, we rarely hear the voices of women. We become accustomed to our female characters as silent drivers of the story. Women are the people around whom the narrative happens, the people without whom the story cannot go on. We have to twist and turn the text to actually hear their voices. Many of us have taken to writing them in ourselves.
Eve comes forth from Adam’s rib. And Sarah is silent when Abraham hears God’s call to “go.” We can only guess how Rachel feels when Jacob marries not her, as promised, but her sister, Leah. And it is Leah’s daughter, Dina, whose silence screams out as we read this text of terror.
Nowhere does the Torah tell us who gently wiped Dina’s tears, or who compassionately sewed her clothes back together. Torah doesn’t tell us who bathed her broken body or who cradled her gently and said: I’m ready to listen, Dina. Begin at the beginning. Tell us your story. And let’s not stop until we finally get to the end.
Now, we are in the middle. We stand in between past and future and we hold up this heavy truth: There has been tragedy and abuse. Women and members of the LGBTQ community and people of color have been silenced, for generations.
Both our deepest traumas and our smallest grievances deserve a voice. And so, we do not look away. We read Dina’s story. We read the stories of the teachers who groomed and gaslit and groped their female students, while giving undeserved preference to the men who looked like them.
And we shine a light, too, on the comments, and the quips, and the looks so trivial that we don’t even notice ourselves brushing them off again, and again, and again.
This is not unique to the Jewish community or to Hebrew Union College. We are not the only ones who have endured abuse of power, nor the only ones who have stood idly by while bad behavior was tolerated. This is not just a Jewish story.
I’ve read reports of tech conferences where women need to cover their cocktails so they don’t get drugged. There is still an astounding gender pay gap in essentially every profession. We all remember the #MeToo stories that flooded the news as Harvey Weinstein’s disgusting behavior came to light. We are all swimming in this water. And while it is clearer than it may have been 50 years ago, we cannot yet say it is sparkling.
As a Jewish intuition, Hebrew Union College is taking to heart the call to be or l’goyim, a light to the nations. The school that trains Jewish leaders worldwide is holding itself accountable to the highest moral standard. We are, today, in the middle of the story. And the only way we come to the end is with a willingness to do better, to do t’shuvah, to change. We shine a light on the darkest parts of ourselves and our stories, and we keep that light turned on.
In 2016, the college adjusted the ordination certificates, and gave female ordinees the option to choose language that is constant with the language that has appeared on men’s certificates since the founding of the school. But my smicha still hangs on my wall, as is. I sit beneath it at my desk, doing the work of a rabbi and a teacher. As your rabbi, and your teacher, I tell my congregation.
If given the option, would I change it? Would I mail it back for a fresh copy?
Several professors signed my smicha certificate. Some of them are the mentors and teachers whose Torah I carry in my heart each day. Some of them suffered their own story of abuse at the college. Some of them are the pioneers who showed us the water was cloudy when we were in too deep to see. And at least one of them is an abuser, a man whose transgressions are now, finally, exposed by the light.
A fresh smicha with different wording wouldn’t tell this story. It wouldn’t serve as a reminder of both how far we have come, and how far we still have to go.
We are hurtling forward, writing new chapters every day. We grasp that quill and write a chapter for the women who are insulted for reading Torah at the kotel, and a chapter for the women who are passed over for deserved promotions. We dip into the ink again and include a chapter for the non-conforming individuals who show us how wide the Jewish umbrella should be, and a chapter for the ways that we fold in the folks on the margins. We scribe a chapter for the times when wipe each other’s tears. A chapter for Dina. A chapter for her pain. A chapter for ours.
The middle of the story is long. But as we bravely turn each difficult page we come ever closer to the book we want to read, the waters we want to swim in. As or l’goyim we shine a light on our darkest stories. And in the clearest water, the brightest time of day, we come closer to saying, finally, “The End.” JN
Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is one of two rabbis at Congregation Beth Israel, where she first delivered these words in a sermon. This is an edited version.