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Rabbi Miriam Berger

Shabbat T'tzavveh

You can listen to Rabbi Miriam's sermon here or read below.



Rabbi Jackie Tabick tells the most wonderful story which she told Rabbis Debbie and Robyn and me while we were recording a “Rabbiting On” podcast that will be out in a couple of weeks. All of us were blown away by the fact we didn’t know how this huge cultural shift had come about. 

We knew that in the 1840s a small group of families who had previously attended Bevis Marks Synagogue set out to create a new synagogue enabling them to worship nearer to their own homes in the West End of London. “They were also anxious to provide in their religious services a stronger level of decorum, a sermon in English, provision for the teaching of Hebrew and of Judaism, and a coming together of both branches of English Jews, the Sephardim (Spanish and Portuguese) and Ashkenazim (predominantly German).”  That is how the West London Synagogue of British Jews was born. After various temporary premises, in 1870 they moved into the building we know today.   We are told in the history of West London that they used the term ‘Reform’, from German and American influence, to describe their worship and beliefs.

What we hadn’t realised until talking to Jackie was that in 1975 when Jackie was ordained as the first Reform woman rabbi in this country and was given a tiny section of the High Holy Day services to lead that something subtle and yet momentous had happened. 

If you have been to a service at WLS you will have seen that it has a balcony seating area. In 1975, more than 100 years after this breakaway group of Jews began describing their worship style and beliefs as “Reform”, a term which has so many connotations attached to it today, that still in 1975 that balcony seating was used as a “women’s gallery”. Over the High Holy Days, as Jackie explained, seating was reserved, people bought their seat in the main sanctuary and only after half an hour into the service could you move to sit in someone else’s seat if they hadn’t yet arrived for the service.

It was during those first High Holy Days while Jackie was working at WLS, and although ordained she was working as a director of Education, having not actually been employed as a rabbi, she was designated a very small and insignificant tiny section of the service to lead.  Yet as she stood on the bimah, some of the women who were sitting up in the women’s gallery started to make their way downstairs to sit among the men. The second year this happened a little more and by the third year the seating was fully mixed. I was totally gobsmacked.  No long-drawn-out discussions in committee meetings. No teaching on equality or arguing into the night, just a quiet but definitive action which not only changed culture but leaves such a lasting legacy that not only did we not even know how it had come about but had assumed it had happened much earlier and makes her ordination even more miraculous.  From the women’s gallery to the pulpit is a really long metaphorical journey. 

I wonder if Miriam Lorie’s appointment at Borehamwood’s Partnership Minyan will in years to come be remembered as such a seminal moment or whether it too will one day be taken for granted within a new normal. She hasn’t waged war with the United Synagogue to try and implement systemic change. She has set up her own community in Borehamwood. She brought like-minded people together and has created a community where her leadership is a completely natural next step. ““It doesn’t feel radical to me,” Miriam told the JC. “It feels like a very natural progression from work I was already doing in a community which welcomes it.”

It seems to be how the most powerful change is brought about. Creating a pocket with its own cultural norms.  Not imposing change on the reluctant but demonstrating what’s possible with allies and becoming a role model for others. I recognise that the change that Miriam along with her wonderful colleagues such as Rabba Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz are undertaking comes from a very different starting point to ours.  As Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers reminded me, it’s so far from the egalitarian communities we take for granted. I know I would still be riddled with the frustrations of a place led by a woman but based on the inequalities of traditional orthodoxy; still waiting for 10 men to arrive for her to be allowed to start a service because she doesn’t count in a minyan raises more than an eyebrow for me but thanks to Rabbi Jackie Tabick and all the rabbis that have made their own cultural shifts since she started the journey, my starting point and therefore my tolerance is very very different.  What I am interested to see is what Miriam calls, “the ripples”, and what I do know really well is there is a huge difference between the girls born into a community with no female leadership and what they think is possible in their lives, to those born into a community with women on the bimah and what we think possible for us to achieve.

This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, gives us two of the most wonderful blue-prints for leadership, neither are about radical change but about how we create the right culture as leaders.

The first comes in Exodus 28:29

כט  וְנָשָׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת-שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּחֹשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט, עַל-לִבּוֹ--בְּבֹאוֹ אֶל-הַקֹּדֶשׁ:  לְזִכָּרֹן לִפְנֵי-יְהוָה, תָּמִיד.  

 29 And Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment worn upon his heart, when he goes into the holy place, for a continual memorial before the Eternal.
What Jackie Tabick demonstrated 50 years ago and what Miriam Lorie brings to her community today is a complete lack of ego.  They have a love of Judaism, a love of teaching and a love of community emblazoned on their hearts, they truly wear the breastplate of the priests with why or who they are doing this for at the fore.  Not to make headlines, not to be a first, just a true prophetical calling.

The second call for leadership comes just one chapter later while the ordination of the Cohanim is taking place.  Animal sacrifices are made, and we are told in Exodus 29:19

יט  וְלָקַחְתָּ, אֵת הָאַיִל הַשֵּׁנִי; וְסָמַךְ אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו אֶת-יְדֵיהֶם, עַל-רֹאשׁ הָאָיִל.    

19    And you shalt take the other ram; and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands upon the head of the ram.

כ  וְשָׁחַטְתָּ אֶת-הָאַיִל, וְלָקַחְתָּ מִדָּמוֹ וְנָתַתָּה עַל-תְּנוּךְ אֹזֶן אַהֲרֹן וְעַל-תְּנוּךְ אֹזֶן בָּנָיו הַיְמָנִית, וְעַל-בֹּהֶן יָדָם הַיְמָנִית, וְעַל-בֹּהֶן רַגְלָם הַיְמָנִית...    

20   Then you shall kill the ram, and take of its blood, and put it upon the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and upon the tip of the right ear of his sons, and upon the thumb of their right hand, and upon the big toe of their right foot…

The midrashim fill in the explanation for this bizarre ritual.  You dab the blood on the ear, thumb and toe as a reminder that the Cohanim needed to listen to the people (the ear), act on their behalf (the thumb) and walk among them (the foot).  When leaders are in their roles because they have wanted their leadership for themselves, they put their needs above those they are meant to be serving, act for their own self-interest and rather than walking among them, put themselves on a pedestal above them.

What I see Miriam doing is truly the actions of the Cohen Gadol, although luckily for her without so much of the blood, entrails and smoke smell in her hair.  She is doing for a small minority enclave of the orthodox world that which Jackie did for us all those years ago.  Just shunting the goalposts, giving a new optic for the cultural norm and leaving other people to decide what move they make in response, whether it is to move from behind the mechitza, redefine their minyan counting or find other existing Orthodox communities feeling they have permission to make space for women at their helm.
It isn’t my community so I look on from a far with admiration and I wonder what young Orthodox women, not yet born, will be rabitting on to Rabba Miriam Lorie about in 50 years’ time, gobsmacked that they didn’t realise all that they take for granted is simply part of the ripple of this momentous moment.

Sat, 21 May 2022 20 Iyar 5782