Religion & Beliefs
Talking Torah with Rabbi Rebecca Alpert
Zeek's Editor-in-chief, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, talks with Rabbi Rebecca Alpert about social justice, feminism and her book, Whose Torah? Zeek: When people hear your name, Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, they tend to think, "Jewish feminist lesbian." Has that label been … Read More
Zeek: When people hear your name, Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, they tend to think, "Jewish feminist lesbian." Has that label been useful or helpful for you?
Rabbi Rebecca Alpert: All labels are problematic, but I don't mind taking on this label, and people do think of me that way – though they are often shocked that my current work is on Jews and baseball, or that my earlier work was on Reform rabbis developing an understanding of healing in the early part of the twentieth century. The label, though, was helpful back in the 1970s and 1980s when the idea of a lesbian rabbi was shocking. I was perfectly happy to stand up and confuse people.
Zeek: I was impressed to learn in your new book,Whose Torah, that you have deep experience in peace and poverty work.
RA: I do see feminism and gay rights work as part of a larger progressive agenda, both within the Jewish community and in the world at large. I have always understood feminism as being about more than just equal rights for women. Feminism opened my eyes so I realized that if you make life better for women, you make life better for everybody. Social justice is the grounding for the movement. Coming out of Reform Judaism, I believed social justice was the main way we Jews could make a contribution.
Zeek: How do you see social justice and spirituality connected within Judaism?
RA: I am very moved by Arthur Waskow's vision linking social justice to spirituality. That connection has not been the main impetus for me. The older I've gotten the more secular I've become, but I really see the importance of people seeing that there is a religious vision for social justice. There are so many people in the Jewish world today for whom spirituality is the center of their Jewishness: it's great when they make that connection to social justice.
Zeek: In your book, you frame Judaism as a kinship network as well as a spiritual source of faith. One element we lack in contemporary America is strong community, and you need strong community for justice work.
RA: I'm with you 100%. We see ourselves as Jews, fundamentally, as both a cultural network and a religious community. They are intertwined. That understanding that Jewishness is not only about spirituality throws people sometimes. People are surprised that religious people don't think you are any less a Jew because you are not spiritual. I am a post-Zionist, but I am always deeply moved by the Israeli world, the way they need to deal with the secular-religious connection. For instance being gay in secular Israel – as long as you are not in the chareidi camp – people say 'they are our brothers because they are Jews, they deserve rights.' Of course, it's a problem if our community is limited only to Jews.
Zeek: If the social justice impetus comes from Judaism as an ethnic tradition, why not just do social justice work from a purely secular position, or from another community that one is part of-for example, you talk about African-American Jews, Arab Jews. If you are a Jew with that kind of dual community, why not do social justice from an African-American position as opposed to a Jewish one?
RA: I guess it's the "as opposed to" that I don't agree with. People find a place from which they do their work. I don't think one place is better than another. I am a Reconstructionist Jew, which means I don't believe Jews are the chosen people. Every group has something to contribute. If doing the work from the Jewish perspective is meaningful, then great. If doing it from a different perspective is meaningful, then great. The connections are more important to me than the divisions.
Zeek: I can hear people saying, "Oy vey! This rabbi is saying we don't have to believe in God and we don't have to be Jewish just because Judaism is better, so why bother? Why bother learning Torah? It's too difficult! Why would anyone be Jewish! This will kill Judaism!" You must get this sometimes.
RA: I wish I was so powerful, that I singlehandedly could kill Judaism. I would have to be a bit careful about what I ever said to anybody.
RA: Seriously, I don't do this because I believe in God or because it's the best way, but because it's my way. I see great wisdom and beauty and truth in Judaism. If I didn't find Judaism a tremendous source of wonderful ideas I wouldn't be a rabbi. I think Judaism holds up to rational scrutiny. It holds up to my questions. I feel I am in the tradition of Abraham arguing with God. You know, God in the Bible does not get along so well with the Jewish people, and the Jews didn't get along so well with God. There is always an argument, always questioning. That is the most wonderful part of the Judaism I grew up with.