Talking My Way In

Reflections on the Journey of a Lesbian Feminist Queer Rabbi

in European Judaism


In the lecture she gave at the Day of Celebration to mark twenty-five years of ordaining LGBT rabbis by Leo Baeck College on 23 June 2014, Rabbi Dr Rachel Adler spoke persuasively and encouragingly of ‘newcomers’ to the ongoing Jewish ‘conversation’, ‘affecting the tradition’ by teaching the tradition ‘to re-understand its own stories’, and also by telling ‘stories that the tradition does not know at all’. For most of my rabbinate, I was engaged in the first kind of storytelling. More recently, I have been doing more of the second kind. In my response to Rachel Adler’s lecture, I trace my journey, both within the context of the developing women’s rabbinate and as a particular journey taken by a lesbian feminist queer rabbi determined that the voices, perspectives and lives of LGBTQ Jews are included within and transform Jewish life and teaching.


I appreciate the opportunity to respond to Rabbi Dr Rachel Adler’s wonderful contribution to this issue, ‘Queer Jews Talking Their Way In’, first delivered as a lecture at the ‘Day of Celebration’ to mark twenty-five years of ordaining LGBT rabbis by Leo Baeck College on 23 June 2014.1 The day was an acknowledgement of the achievement of the college – and also of the two lesbian rabbis, Sheila Shulman, z’l, and myself, who had set LBC on a new path, not just twenty-five years ago, when we were ordained, but five years earlier, when we began our rabbinic studies.

Sadly, Sheila, who had already been very ill for two years, died on 25 October 2014, a week after her seventy-eighth birthday. It was a blessing that she was able to be present for a day that in a profound sense represented a moment of completion. Of course, I cannot speak for Sheila – merely acknowledge her contribution to the transformation of Jewish life in the UK and honour her memory. The inclusive congregation she founded with others in 1990, Beit Klal Yisrael, the work she did at Finchley Reform Synagogue over many years, her teaching at Leo Baeck College and mentoring of rabbinic students and her feminist and Jewish writing speak powerfully of her significant and enduring impact.

Talking My Way In

I can only speak for myself. The title of Rachel Adler’s article, ‘Queer Jews Talking Their Way In’, speaks directly to my experience. I feel that I, quite literally, talked my way in during the Leo Baeck College rabbinic programme interview process in February 1984. I began my journey into the rabbinate in the autumn of 1983 by visiting Leo Baeck College, and then going to Liberal Judaism’s Montagu Centre to learn to read Hebrew. I was motivated by my desire to bring all of who I was as a lesbian and a radical feminist into Jewish life and to make a difference. I had high hopes! But then, I was driven by hope – and also by despair. So far in my life, my primary experience had been that every time I found ways of connecting with other people and practising my formative values of justice and equality, I always found that I had to abandon part of my multi-dimensioned identity – as a lesbian/radical feminist/Jew – in order to belong.

Talking my way in. Rachel Adler speaks persuasively and encouragingly of ‘newcomers’ to the ongoing Jewish ‘conversation’, ‘affecting the tradition’ by teaching the tradition ‘to re-understand its own stories’, and also by telling ‘stories that the tradition does not know at all’. For most of my rabbinate, I have been engaged in the first kind of storytelling. More recently, I have been doing more of the second kind. This is not because I have run out of old stories to tell in new ways: ‘Turn it and turn it again’, Ben Bag Bag is reputed to have said, ‘because everything is in it’.2 Jewish texts are inexhaustible when it comes to finding new ways of interpreting them. The shift in emphasis for me represents the extent to which I now feel I had made a place for myself and my way of being and living as a Jew within an ever expanding multi-vocal Jewish universe.

Towards the Transformation of Jewish ife and Teaching

I am running ahead. I would now like to proceed stage by stage, because that feels the best way of approaching how Jewish life came to be more inclusive. The first stage of talking my way in was with language. When I approached Leo Baeck College, because of my experience as an editor,3 I was invited to be one of the proofreaders of the forthcoming Reform prayer book for the Days of Awe.4 As I marvelled at the spectacular integration of traditional liturgy and commentary with examples of Jewish and non-Jewish thought and poetry spanning hundreds of years up to the present day, I was also troubled as I read the English translations of the Hebrew prayers by what my feminist mentor and former colleague, Dale Spender, referred to as ‘He-Man’ language.5 ‘He’, ‘Mankind’, ‘King’, ‘Lord’, ‘Father’: How was I going to be able to recite any of it with integrity? Fortunately, I discovered when I started at the college that I was not the only one who felt that way – there was Sheila, of course, as well as the other female rabbinic students. But Sheila and I were the only female students in our year, and I recall that when we tackled our dear and revered teacher, Rabbi Dr John Rayner, z’l, about the issue in the midst of a second-year liturgy class, he was dismissive: did we not understand that ‘mankind’ was a generic term? That was in 1985. Ten years later, Rabbi Rayner presided over the publication of the first gender-inclusive Shabbat and daily prayer book, Siddur Lev Chadash.6 He also had the generosity and humility to acknowledge what he had learned from his female rabbinic students, when he spoke at the ordination service of Rabbis Elaina Rothman and Miri Lawrence in 1992.

When a feminist is talking her way in, it helps to be able to use gender-inclusive language. But that was only the beginning. When I began to study Jewish texts, I found women, some of them strong women – from biblical figures like Rebekah, Miriam, Deborah and Naomi, to exceptional female scholars of the early rabbinic period, like Beruriah. But, with the curious exceptions of Miriam and Deborah, they were mostly wives and mothers, and in the case of Beruriah, as I found when I researched her life and teaching, she was cruelly undermined by subsequent generations of commentators for daring to encroach on the exclusive male club of Jewish scholarship.7 Although her context was completely different, Rabbi Regina Jonas, whose story I explored in 1992, in her own words, ‘the first and only woman Rabbi’, ordained in 1935, provides us with a similar example of the difficulties of being a lone woman leader in a man’s world.8 Indeed, all the exceptional lone females prove the rule about the hegemony of male power. It was not until the first woman rabbis – in Britain, Jackie Tabick (1975) and Julia Neuberger (1977) – were joined by others that women rabbis as a group began to gather together and share our interpretations and generate our own teachings and practices; that change was on the way.

Barbara Borts (1981) was an early feminist pioneer in Progressive Judaism in Britain. Working in the Reform movement, she brought a small group of women together, including me, at that time a rabbinic student, to explore the growing phenomenon of women choosing to wear a Tallit. The result was a pamphlet published by the RSGB in 1987 that proved so popular a second edition was produced in 1997.9

So, Jewish women were on the move. Momentum gathered with the establishment in 1992 of the Half-Empty Bookcase, the brainchild of Rabbi Marcia Plumb (HUC, 1988), which involved the women rabbis as a collective running conferences and workshops, generating new resources and producing a newsletter. And then, Rabbi Sybil Sheridan (1981) took the initiative of inviting her female colleagues to put our interpretations and teachings into writing. Hear Our Voice, as the collection was called, was published in 1994.10 Subsequently she and Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild (1987) approached us for our examples of new rituals and ceremonies, which were collected together in another anthology, Taking up the Timbrel, published in 2000.11

The half-empty bookcase was filling. But the issue for me was not just about women’s contribution to Jewish life and teaching. I had found other Jewish lesbians outside the Jewish community. What about inside? Where were the lesbians? My study ‘Judaism and Lesbianism: A Tale of Life on the Margins of the Text’, first published in 1993,12 exploring the Jewish textual sources, told a very sorry tale, indeed.

What is a lesbian? An odd question? In the days of the women’s liberation movement and lesbian separatism, lesbians understood ourselves as ‘women-loving-women’ who were also ‘women-defined-women’. Who we were was not so much about whom we slept with, but rather, how we made sense of being women on our own terms and in relation to one another. But since when have women in any patriarchal society ever had the chance to do that? Well, there was the poet Sappho of Lesbos, with her circle of women in ancient Greece – hence, the adoption of the word ‘lesbian’ to describe a woman-loving-woman.

But what Jewish teaching says and does not say on the subject is revealing. Since the laws regarding the sexual prohibitions outlined in Leviticus chapters 18 and 20 do not mention sex between women – because the active subject throughout is the male (with a curious exception of bestiality)13 – we have to look to Sifra, a work of halakhic Midrash, which comments on the Book of Leviticus, to find the first reference. Referring to the ‘laws’ of Egypt and Canaan which the Israelites are prohibited from following (Leviticus 18:3), Sifra Acharey Mot 9:8 explains the reason for the prohibition: ‘A man would marry (nosei) a man, and a woman would marry a woman’.

In his treatment of lesbianism in the Mishneh Torah, the mediaeval philosopher and commentator Maimonides summarized the halakhic position, and then added a very telling comment:14

For women to play around with one another is forbidden and belongs to ‘the practices of the Egyptians’ concerning which we have been warned, ‘You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt’ …. But though such conduct is forbidden, it is not punishable by lashing since there is no specific prohibition against it and in any case no sexual intercourse takes place at all. Consequently, such women are not forbidden to the priesthood, on account of unchastity; nor is a woman prohibited to her husband because of it, since this does not constitute unchastity. But it is appropriate to flog such women since they have done a forbidden thing. A man should be particularly strict with his wife in this matter, and should prevent women known to indulge in such practices from visiting her, and her from going to visit them.

So, according to Jewish teaching, sex is what men do to women through the act of penile penetration. Women are destined to be wives, and wives are destined to serve their husbands, not consort with one another. A lesbian sensibility, as distinct from lesbian sexuality or ‘sexual orientation’, is about how women-loving-women who are women-defined-women act in the world and make sense of the world without reference to men. In my haggadic treatment of Miriam,15 I read through a lesbian lens what the Torah tells us about ha-n’vi’ah – ‘the prophet’,16 who was the unmarried, childless, elder sister of Aaron and Moses. Numbers chapter 12 tells us that Moses took a second wife, and that Miriam objected.17 Perhaps this is because the ‘Cushite woman’ was Miriam’s woman. My midrash is as creative – and as plausible – as the early rabbis’ story of Miriam marrying Caleb.18

And so: to equal marriage. Turning my attention, first, to the wider issue of establishing an egalitarian, inclusive Jewish sexual ethic,19 I have been championing same-sex marriage since 1996, and initial treatment of the issue was published in Taking up the Timbrel in 2000.20 Talking my way into Jewish life and teaching is about being able to live my life – my life as a Jewish lesbian within the Jewish community. That means being able to marry, if I choose – and I did choose. As the quotation from Sifra cited earlier reveals, the sages were aware of same-sex marriages; they were what other peoples got up to – not Jews. But then centuries later, lesbian and gay Jews, who had hidden themselves, lived out their non-normative identity in a separate compartment, or simply lived outside the Jewish community completely, began to assert our need and our right to live openly and fully within Jewish life. Some Jewish lesbians and gay men have no interest in getting married – likewise some Jewish heterosexuals – but equal participation demands the right to equal access.

The struggle for equality by definition subverts a system rooted in male dominance and the subjection of women. In becoming rabbis, for example, women have not simply adopted a male role; we have been in the process of transforming the nature and practice of rabbinic authority. Similarly, the demand for equal marriage for same-sex partnerships is not about ‘aping heterosexuality’; it centres on challenging the fundamental binary gender assumptions at the heart of the presumption of heterosexual privilege. In Jewish-speak, if each human being is made ‘in the image of God’ – b’tzelem Elohim (Genesis 1:27) – and ‘it is not good for the human being to be alone’ – lo-tov heyot ha-adam l’vado (Gen. 2:18) – then those primary teachings apply to everyone, and not just to heterosexuals; to everyone, and not just to those who understand themselves in binary gender terms as ‘male’ or ‘female’.

This brings me to the transgender arena. On lesbian and gay pride demonstrations in the 1970s and early 1980s, the most common badge on display was the ‘pink triangle’ – in memory of the persecution of gay men by the Nazis.21 And then, by the late 1980s, the ‘rainbow flag’ had become the dominant emblem, proclaiming an alliance of solidarity encompassing ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘transgender’ people – hence: LGBT.22 While ‘bisexual’ challenges binary assumptions concerning ‘sexual orientation’, the inclusion of ‘transgender’ acknowledges the more fundamental issue of gender. Indeed, while specifically recognizing those who choose to transition from the gender assigned to them at birth to their chosen gender, ‘transgender’ also acknowledges that gender may not be fixed – for anyone. Gender and queer theorists have been saying for decades that gender is a construct, which reflects how we act in the world – that is, what we do, rather than who we are.23 The era of the celebration of LGBT diversity represented by the rainbow flag – expanding to encompass ‘Q’ (queer), ‘I’ (intersex) and another ‘Q’ (questioning)24 – has enabled me, as it has others, to transcend binary notions of gender and embrace myself as gender queer.

When transgender and gender-queer Jews bring our voices into what Rachel Adler calls the Jewish ‘conversation’, we read old texts in new ways25 and pose new challenges to Jewish life. Meeting these challenges requires, for example, practical responses like non-gendered toilet facilities in synagogues and other Jewish venues26, and a willingness to broaden ‘gender-inclusive language’ to encompass gender-neutral personal pronouns – like, for example, ‘they’ or ‘zie’ alongside ‘she’ and ‘he’, and ‘hir’ or ‘zir’ alongside ‘his’ and ‘her’.27 More broadly, when Jews who transgress binary gender categorization make our presence felt, individuals and communities are challenged to acknowledge the binary gender assumptions that underpin so much of Jewish life and teaching.


There is already evidence of positive responses to these challenges. The process undergone, for example, by Liberal Judaism in Britain since 2000, which has included advocacy, first of civil partnership and then of equal marriage, and has been expressed in support of the Heritage Lottery-funded Rainbow Jews project and subsequent related initiatives, testifies to a willingness in some quarters to engage with and change in response to ‘queer Jews’ talking our way into Jewish life.28 And this willingness is not only of benefit to queer Jews. Ultimately, the emergence of diversity in Jewish life and teaching and of plural voices is also a blessing to everyone – in particular, to young Jews, who will grow up knowing that Jewish life offers them myriad possibilities for meaning-making.

I am grateful to Rachel Adler for her timely lecture. I will always feel a deep sense of gratitude to Leo Baeck College and to all those who nourished and guided me on my journey to becoming a rabbi. Defined by my quest for equality and inclusion, my rabbinate has been very demanding. I am very thankful – not least to my beloved and wonderfully diverse congregation, Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, with whom I have worked since December 2000 – that I have had the opportunity to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of my ordination.


The day also included the awarding of Leo Baeck College (LBC) Fellowships to all five members of the class of 1989: Rabbis Francis Berry, David Hulbert, Danny Rich, Sheila Shulman and me.


Mishnah Nezikin, Pirkei Avot 5:22.


In 1979 I became Assistant Editor of Women’s Studies International Quarterly, edited by Dale Spender, which was renamed Women’s Studies International Forum when it was published six times a year. During this time I edited Reassessments of First-Wave Feminism (1982). I also co-edited Learning to Lose: Sexism and Education (1980), with Dale Spender, and On the Problem of Men (1982), with Scarlet Friedman.


RSGB, Days of Awe: Forms of Prayer for Jewish Worship, Volume 3, London 1985.


Dale Spender, Man Made Language, London 1980.


Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, Siddur Lev Chadash, London 1995.


Elizabeth Sarah, ‘Beruria: A Suitable Case for Mistreatment’London, in Hear Our Voice: Women Rabbis Tell Their Stories, ed. Sybil Sheridan, London 1994. (First published in European Judaism 93, vol. 2, 1993. Included in Elli Tikvah Sarah, Trouble-Making Judaism, London 2012.).


Elizabeth Sarah, ‘Rabbi Regina Jonas, 1902–1944: Missing Link in a Broken Chain’ in Hear Our Voice: Women Rabbis Tell Their Stories, ed. Sybil Sheridan, London 1994. See also Elizabeth Sarah, ‘The Discovery of Fraulein Rabbiner Regina Jonas: Making Sense of Our Inheritance’, European Judaism 95, vol. 2, 1995. Included in Ei Tikvah Sarah, Trouble-Making Judaism, London 2012.


Elizabeth Sarah and Dee Eimer, eds, Women and Tallit: Jewish Women and the Ritual of Prayer, 2nd edn, 1997. (First published in 1987.).


Sheridan, Hear Our Voice. London, 1994.


Sylvia Rothschild and Sybil Sheridan, eds, Taking up the Timbrel, London 2000. Included in Jonathan Magonet, ed. Jewish Explorations of Sexuality. Oxford, 1995 and in Elli Tikvah Sarah, Trouble-Making Judaism, London, 2012.


Elizabeth Sarah, ‘Judaism and Lesbianism: A Tale of Life on the Margins of the Text’, The Jewish Quarterly 40, no. 3, 1993.


Leviticus 18:23.


Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Issurey Bi’ah, 21:8.


See: Sarah, Trouble-Making Judaism, Chapter 2, ‘Why Miriam Spoke against Moses: An Untold Story’.


Exodus 15:20.


Numbers 12:1.


See Babylonian Talmud, Sota 12a. Also Shemot Rabbah 1:17.


Elizabeth Sarah, ‘Towards a New Jewish Sexual Ethic’ in Renewing the Vision: Rabbis Speak Out on Modern Jewish Issues, ed. Jonathan A. Romain, London 1996. Included in Elli Tikvah Sarah, Trouble-Making Judaism, London, 2012


Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, ‘“Marriage” by any Other Name: Lesbian and Gay “Commitment Ceremonies”’ in Rothschild and Sheridan, eds, Taking up the Timbrel. Updated version included in Elli Tikvah Sarah, Trouble-Making Judaism, Londonn, 2012


The rainbow flag was first designed in 1978 by Gilbert Baker of San Francisco. See


See, for example, Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London 1990.


Formerly a term of abuse, ‘queer’ has been reclaimed by those who do not wish to identify themselves within the rigid framework of binary gender. Although the varieties of ‘intersex’ variations cover a broad spectrum, simply put, ‘intersex’ refers to those born with genitalia and/or secondary characteristics that are neither exclusively male nor female – that is, one in every two thousand births (see the Intersex Society of North America, ‘Questioning’ refers to those who are uncertain or questioning about their gender identity or sexual orientation.


In a chapter on gender in my forthcoming book, Beyond Binary Tyranny, I reread Joseph through a gender-queer lens. For queer rereadings, see, for example, Andrew Ramer, Queering the Text: Biblical, Mediaeval and Modern Jewish Stories, 2010; or Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser and David Shneer, eds, Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, New York 2009.


For example, in the new building of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, the accessible toilet on the ground floor and the single toilet upstairs are both designated with an all-gender sign.


The quest for usable non-gendered binary pronouns is ongoing. See for example: or


In 2000, Liberal Judaism (LJ)’s Rabbinic Conference established a rabbinic working party on same-sex ceremonies on which I served. In 2005, LJ published a booklet of ceremonies for same-sex Kiddushin entitled Covenant of Love, prepared by the rabbinic working party to coincide with the Civil Partnership Act. In 2011, LJ’s Rabbinic Conference got behind the Equal Marriage campaign. In 2012, LJ provided a home for the Heritage Lottery-funded Rainbow Jews project, which was completed by the coordinator Surat Knan in 2013 and which with the support of crowd-funding is now touring the UK. ‘For Rainbow Jews, see: More recently, Liberal Judaism has hosted two further LGBT projects: Rituals Reconstructed, which focuses on the engagement of LGBT Jews: – and Twilight People, an interfaith transgender initiative:

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Contributor Notes

Elli Tikvah Sarah is Rabbi of Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue. Elli is the author of Trouble-Making Judaism (2012) and co-edited (with Barbara Borts) Women Rabbis in the Pulpit (2015).