Parshat Bechukotai 5779: Beards and Belonging

There are many experience I have had here at Nehar Shalom that have changed my life. Bustling Souly Shabboses, teaching children with Rabbi Victor at Family Learning Circle, running a SVARA-style Beit Midrash in this very room. I have been changed by all of these, forever. There is one small moment, in addition to these bigger more obvious ones, that shook me up in a way that was completely unexpected and totally life altering. I walked in the shtibl one Friday night in the fall as the monthly children’s service was ending. A mom and her little boy (around 4 years old) were getting their coats on in the foyer as I was taking mine off. I waved hello and as I made my way into the shtibl, he looked up at his mom and said, “Is she a Rabbi?” Such a sweet and earnest question that made me pause and realize that such a question had seldom been asked of me. All of a sudden, countless memories flashed before my eyes, in Lyft or Uber rides, on the T, or on a bus in Jerusalem (all somehow in various modes of transportation) when some form of the question, “Women can do that?” or the comment, “You don’t look like a Rabbi,” has been presented to me like a heavy gift that I never wanted, being passed from generation to generation. It got so bad that I had a standard comeback. “Don’t worry,” I’d say, “At our ordination ceremony, once they put the prayer shawl on our backs, we sprout an instant full-length beard.  Kind of like a chia pet!”

Obviously, I didn’t make up this joke. Or the image of a Rabbi with a beard. The Hebrew word for beard, zakan, is almost identical to the word zaken, elder or wise person (let’s be real, wise man). And, there is the famous story of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria who, at the age of 18, grew a full beard over night and was finally taken seriously by his colleagues. It almost need not be said that if I were to ask a random person on the street to close their eyes and envision a Rabbi, a beard would likely be involved. My chia-pet beard joke, and the defensiveness that lay underneath it, showed me that these images had gotten to me. And there was and still is a part of me that doesn’t believe that a Rabbi can really look like me. I’m embarrassed that this is still a struggle for me, that the echoes of history still ring in my mind.

The other day, Lizzie and I were sitting on the couch to plan our upcoming move when she looked at me with a particular curiosity. “What is that?” she said. I reached and found a two inch white hair growing right out of my neck. If I had been hoping for a beard, this would have been awesome. But, in that moment I worried that all the time spent joking about the chia pet beard had created a reality that I wasn’t ready for.

In this week’s parsha, Bechukotai, G!d says to the Israelites:

אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם׃

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments

How does a law differ from a commandment? The word for law, chok, can also mean engraving. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains, “There is an aspect of Torah that is ‘inked’ on our soul: we understand it, our emotions are roused by it; it becomes our lifestyle or even our personality; but it remains something additional to ourselves. But there is a dimension of Torah that is chok, engraved in our being.” The pieces of Torah that are engraved within our souls transcend gender. And, the particular pieces that we carry with us determine how the Torah is carried forward. The Torah changes in our hands. But first, we need to claim it as ours.

The Talmud in Kiddushin 32b tries to figure out what happens if a Rabbi says to their students, “You know what?  I don’t want to be honored anymore.” Does it take effect? In order to find the answer, they ask: הכא תורה דיליה היא? Does the Torah really belong to him (the Rabbi)? I realize the irony in bringing a highly gendered Talmud passage to a dvar torah about gender and the rabbinate, but just try to bear with me as I translate it as it’s written (with all male pronouns) and feel free to change them in your head as we go. Why does it matter if the Torah belongs to the Rabbi? If the Torah belongs only to God and the rabbi doesn’t really own any piece of it, then the obligation to honor the Rabbi would be akin to honoring the Torah or God, which the Rabbi can’t renounce with words or actions. But, does the Torah actually belong to the Rabbi? Rava chimes in with a resounding “אין” “yes!” The Torah does belong to the Rabbi. Bringing the verse from psalms, ובתורתו יהגה יומם ולילה, and in his Torah he meditates day and night. The object of the word torato, his Torah, is usually assumed to be God. Here, Rava is making a radical jump, proving that the Torah does belong to the Rabbi with this verse--in his (the Rabbi’s) Torah, he meditates day and night. But, at what point does it become his or her or their Torah? Our buddy Rashi helps us understand this by explaining:

בתחילה היא נקראת תורת השם ומשלמדה וגרסה היא נקראת תורתו

At the beginning, she (the Torah) is called God’s Torah. And when one learns it and integrates it into oneself, it is then called his (their own) Torah.

It’s up to all of us, not just Rabbis, to claim and integrate Torah into ourselves. To engrave it into our souls, to carry it with us wherever we walk. In this way, the Torah is transformed in our hands.

Back in the shtibl that autumn Shabbos with the little boy and his mom, I realized that something was changing. It turned out that during the service, when Rabbi Victor introduced himself, the same boy spoke up saying, “Boys can be Rabbis too!?”

I may have a beard eventually, given the TMI story I shared earlier, and I am okay with that. But, it gives me extreme comfort to know that I may not need one in order to be recognizable as a Rabbi. It gives me comfort to know that our tradition is changing, and it’s changing in our hands.

May we be blessed with the knowledge that the Torah truly belongs to us and that we belong to her.