Sally Priesand Enters the Twilight Zone

As I mark the fortieth anniversary of my ordination, I am honored to kick-off the new WRN blog. In some ways, I feel a unique connection to our ancestors who wandered in the wilderness for forty years with the hope of entering the promised land. I too have spent forty years looking forward to that land of promise, a Jewish community that welcomes the spiritual leadership of women, ensuring that both women and men have equal opportunities and equal pay. With each decade, we have made enormous progress, but we are not there yet.

The fact that Moses, our greatest leader, did not get to enter the promised land reminds me that no one ever does. We do the best we can to move things forward in a positive way, and then like Moses who took comfort in knowing that Joshua would follow in his footsteps, we are strengthened by the knowledge that those who come after us will carry on the legacy we leave behind.

I have spent my entire career advocating for women’s rights, not only in the Jewish community but also in the larger community of which we are a part.  A strong supporter of Planned Parenthood, I have been especially involved in the area of reproductive freedom. Roe v. Wade became the law of the land the year after I was ordained, and I have had the privilege of sharing the stage with Sarah Weddington more than once, but sometimes I feel like I live in the twilight zone, caught in the past and struggling to get back to what I thought was our future This is especially true today as the pendulum swings backward and politicians debate once again whether or not a woman has the right to control her own body and make her own decisions in the significant moments of her life.

At a time when America is overwhelmed with challenges – unemployment, economic distress, lack of educational opportunity, gun violence and poverty, to name but a few – too many of our elected officials spend their time trying to find ways to restrict a woman’s right to choose. As I see it, the issue is not really about abortion or birth control. It is about the value of women in society and the freedom that we as Americans have to make decisions within the context of our own religious beliefs and according to the dictates of our own conscience. The current war against women is shameful, and I have no doubt that we as rabbis are leading the way in our own communities to ensure that women are treated with dignity and allowed to make up their own minds when confronting the challenges that are part of every life.

Because I know we would never hesitate to speak up against this kind of injustice, I sometimes wonder why we are so slow to raise our voices when we see injustice in our own Reform community. The fact that no female rabbis were included in the new senior management team of the Union for Reform Judaism troubles me greatly. Not to be given a seat at the table or a voice in the conversation at this critical moment in the history of our movement belittles the progress that we as women have made in the last forty years – and our silence in the face of being overlooked, both as individuals and as a group, is puzzling to me.

Was this slight on the part of our leaders intentional? I doubt it. But then that means no one realized our presence would be missed. That is even more upsetting, especially since we are so often led to believe that the old boys’ network ended long ago. And even when the error was brought to their attention, no attempt was made to right the wrong. Women rabbis still have no seat at the table and no voice in the conversation.

As we celebrate this fortieth anniversary, the progress made regarding women by HUC-JIR and the CCAR is tangible. The Union for Reform Judaism lags behind, and it will continue to do so as long as we remain silent.  One of the lessons I learned early in my rabbinate comes from the story of the daughters of Zelophechad: change comes about only when those who are being discriminated against demand it. It is time to speak up, and open yet another door.

Rabbi Sally Priesand

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2 thoughts on “Sally Priesand Enters the Twilight Zone

    • We were thinking of you as we will be at the Jewish Museum NY where the original Kennicott Bible is on display. You bought our facsimile for your congregation many years ago. It would be lovely to meet you there if you are free in the evening of October 3rd, 6-7.30pm
      Gmar hatima tova,
      Linda and Michael Falter

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