Yesterday, October 26, 2014, I attended an inspiring and historic event—the inauguration of Rabbi Deborah Waxman as the sixth president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities. Reconstructionist Judaism is the smallest of the four major Jewish denominations in North America, but it is usually counted as one of the four nevertheless. It has a history of breaking new ground that is then followed by others—the introduction of the bat mitzvah ceremony for thirteen-year-old girls in 1922, counting women in a prayer quorum in the early 1950s, publishing a covenantal naming ceremony for baby girls in 1974, ordaining out lesbian and gay rabbis in 1983. It is thus no accident that Rabbi Waxman is the first woman and the first out lesbian to head a rabbinical school and a Jewish denomination in Jewish history.
While this leap forward is not surprising, it is significant nevertheless. We often try to imagine what the world would be like if it were run by women, and Waxman’s inaugural address yesterday provided a clear taste of how gender can make a difference. She did not try to lead like her male predecessors led. She began by musically chanting a verse from the Book of Exodus and ended by leading the assembled hundreds in song. Her words were erudite, but she embodied experientially her message. She spoke about the contemporary meanings of redemption and modeled in her person what the experience of redemption might be like. She was emotionally accessible. She was not afraid to cry tears of joy or to communicate her feelings nonverbally throughout the program. She was warm, delighted, inspired, emotional, and passionate. Not that a man could not do the same; he just wouldn’t. Or at least, he hasn’t.
As a member of the RRC faculty, I can attest to a change in the RRC culture since Waxman began her work as president in January—more collaborative, more transparent, less hierarchical. Time will tell how this will affect the success of the Reconstructionist movement. It is clear that having a woman representing a seminary and a movement will have a lasting impact of all North American Jews.
I was honored to be invited to write a poem to read at the inauguration ceremony. Here it is:
Rejoice, O women of Judah.
Sing the song of autumn leaves,
arrayed in a shuk of color
proclaiming the dramatic change of seasons.
Inhale the hint of jasmine to come
in the yet unimagined spring.
Exhale in joyful expectation
of wonders–morning, noon and night—
frosts and thaws, downpours, sunshine.
Catch the whiff of adventure,
of working arm-in-arm, of celebrating
unanticipated connections, of strangers
no longer strange, joining in community,
of eyes opened, of chains unbound,
of precious love released.
For a leader has arisen,
a daughter in Israel has stepped forward.
And let her name be called:
She who ventures into uncharted territory with courage and prudence.
She who does not shrink from hard facts.
She who imagines the future, and sees that it is good.
Dance, O women and men of Judah!
Dance the redemption
of trust and nurture,
of openheartedness and courage,
of inspiration and wisdom and peace.
Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.
This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at http://firstdaypress.org/daughters-of-judah.
Image: “Palm branch” by Kevin Dooley via Flickr.