Eye on the Rabbi 

Some Salt Lake City Jews found a lesbian rabbi too modern for Orthodox tastes.

Today is Jacob Grodnik’s bar mitzvah at Congregation Kol Ami, a lofty brown-brick synagogue in Salt Lake County. The 13-year-old boy celebrates manhood by singing in Hebrew from the Torah scrolls for the congregation. Rabbi Tracee Rosen joins the boy on the “bima” pulpit to congratulate his family, crack jokes and offer him candy.


The service’s paper program, illustrated with blue and white stripes similar to those on the Israeli flag, offers the following invitation: “We welcome you to Kol Ami, our house of worship. We hope you will find peace and tranquility here as each of you worships in your own way.”


Just as puberty shoves boys into adulthood, Salt Lake City’s Jewish community is forced to grapple with its own changes. If the dawn of that change were audible, it would ring like Grodnik’s soprano.


Utah’s largest Jewish congregation hired Rabbi Rosen—a lesbian—in August. Her election angered some synagogue members, who left. Dissidents joined a Modern Orthodox synagogue and hired their own rabbi. While most Jews won’t cop to a conflict, they are contesting each other in the land of Zion.


Humanity’s first monotheistic faith—more than 3,000 years old and predecessor to Christianity and Islam—has, throughout its long history, made choices between tradition and reform. Do homosexuality, feminism and intermarriage threaten God’s “chosen people,” who have a covenant to keep his Torah? Or has God endowed his people with enough moral and ethical guidance to make decisions that, at first glance, don’t conform to the old ways?


True to the synagogue’s name—which means “all my people”—Congregation Kol Ami accepts all God’s human creation. Men and women sit together. Women participate in the service by reading from the Torah. Unlike Orthodox wings of Judaism, there’s no male quorum necessary for prayer. Though all dress nicely, some women wear slacks. No habits of dress identify either Jewish women or men, although some men wear yarmulkes.


Rosen conducts services in Hebrew and English, even giving a sermon about rites of passage from one community to another, and how that relates to modern-day Jews. Her sermon ties together a universal idea of leaving home and striking out for greener pastures, in the Jewish tradition of wandering lost in the wilderness.


Herself a journeyer, Rosen grew up inhaling the crisp air of Denver where she attended an Orthodox day school. She remembers her coming-of-age ceremony, or bat mitzvah, as a “welcome to womanhood, now get off the pulpit,” type of affair. She was only able to participate in her bat mitzvah because it was a token ritual.


“I was told I could no longer participate in services, and my father and grandfather were called to the Torah in my honor,” she said. “Things have changed dramatically in my lifetime.”


After graduating from high school, Rosen journeyed to Israel, a tradition for intellectual Jews of all affiliations. Later, she attended Washington University, earning a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies and a master’s in business administration. About 10 years into her banking career, Rosen changed horses midstream, heading for rabbinical school. After a stint in a Los Angeles synagogue, she heard about a Salt Lake City congregation in need of a rabbi.


“She’s deeply not judgmental,” said Maeera Shreiber, a Kol Ami board member. “That is really extraordinarily important for a strong spiritual leader. She takes people exactly where they are. She brings that compassion of struggling and [of] wrestling, herself, with Judaism.”


Kol Ami also wrestled a bit with the decision to hire Rosen, according to members of the search committee. Throughout the yearlong process, the committee sifted through countless résumés, interviewed more than 20 applicants by phone, then flew four applicants to Salt Lake City for interviews. Even before her first interview, Rosen disclosed a relationship with her lesbian partner. The committee discussed whether or not to pursue Rosen’s candidacy. During that exchange, an elderly member of the search committee, Joel Shapiro, spoke out.


“From the very beginning of its roots in America [the Jewish community] was at the forefront of social reform,” Shapiro recalls telling the board. “They were willing to work for the disenfranchised and the poverty-stricken. They were at the forefront creating interrelations, [among other communities as an] outreach community trying to bring people together. They were hot on education and pushed the public school system.


“The point is: We have a history of being on the cutting edge of social reform, of being accepting, not prejudicial in [our] capacity for doing work. Because of that, even though some of you may feel that there would be a problem having her, we certainly should go ahead with the interview.”


The committee applauded, then proceeded with the interview. Rosen impressed them. They presented her to the board of directors, who, in turn, presented her to the congregation. Kol Ami declined to provide the vote tally, though board member Beth Levine said a “very solid majority” voted in favor of Rosen.


As the old adage goes, “If you have two Jews in a room, you have 10 different opinions.” Viewpoints vary. But behind the light humor, another saying rings true: “The Jewish community votes with their feet,” says Rosen.


Well, Kol Ami won some feet and lost some feet. Before Rosen, of the estimated 1,500 Jews living in Utah, about 375 family units called Congregation Kol Ami their spiritual home. After Rosen arrived, five or six of those families left, according to board members. But since Rosen took over, they point out, 30 families have joined.


Michael Walton surfaces from a junk-filled garage. He wears black Converse high-tops and a yarmulke atop his head. A convert, first to Reform Judaism, then to Orthodoxy, Walton’s résumé boasts a Ph.D. in history, numerous published articles, fluency in four languages—German, Latin, Hebrew, Yiddish—and membership in the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry.


Walton co-founded Beit Midrash, a group that studied “Halakha,” or Jewish law. About a year ago, the group evolved into Salt Lake City’s first modern Orthodox Synagogue, Sha’arei Tefila—Hebrew for “Gates of Prayer.” They found a meeting place and an Orthodox rabbi from Montreal.


Like a literal gate, Sha’arei Tefila swings open and closed. Though everyone is welcome at synagogue regardless of practice, congregants adhere to strict Torah proscriptions that dictate dietary laws, intense study and traditional familial roles.


“In my kind of Judaism, [a lesbian] can’t be a rabbi,” said Walton. “In her kind of Judaism, she can be a rabbi. In the kind of Judaism she espouses, she’s fully a rabbi and competent to officiate in any way within that Judaism. Would she be recognized as a rabbi by Orthodoxy? No.”


Rabbi Ari Galandauer hails from Canada. He dropped anchor in Salt Lake City with his wife, Erin, their son, Ahron Shlomo, and month-old daughter, Adina, in late September. A poster family for Orthodoxy, the Galandauers praise their first congregation, Sha’arei Tefila. Ari, wearing a dark oversize suit and black hat, sports a beard. Erin covers her hair and wears a long, matronly skirt. Both have dark hair, speak with a Canadian lilt and affably offer food and drink inside their home.


“None of these things which are happening now in Salt Lake City are new to Judaism,” offers Galandauer. “I’m not even speaking [about] the last 10 years. I’m talking about since the very beginning of Judaism. In Judaism, you’ve always had the spectrum. You’ve always had people on the right, people in the middle, people on the left. It may be more apparent, more focused in Salt Lake City, but it’s nothing new.”


That may be due to Judaism’s penchant for compulsory learning. Unlike the sometimes-unquestioned doctrine of some Christian sects, debate and skepticism combust into holy fodder for Jewish religious fervor. Jewish law—the first five books of the Bible (Torah), oral law (Talmud) and commentary by rabbis (Rabbinic law)—is so extensive that a person could not learn it all in one lifetime. Many Jews speak multiple languages, including Hebrew, and show a natural affinity for intellectual careers such as law, psychology and education. Even the feminist movement saw its fair share of Jewish women, such as Gloria Steinem and co-founder of the National Organization for Women, Gene Boyer.


But feminism hasn’t made it all the way to Orthodoxy, wherein women do not read from the Torah, nor do they serve as clergy. They don’t wear “men’s clothing,” such as jeans. They don’t count toward the required number necessary for a prayer quorum. However, there are variations from these proscriptions, depending upon the Orthodox community.


“[Women’s] primary role and the highest value that Judaism puts on them is the preservation of the people. Therefore, that most important role is given to women,” Galandauer said. “Basically, in Orthodox Jewish law, women generally do not fulfill public positions that are time-consuming and essentially take away from their other role,” he continued. But in Orthodoxy, women define Judaism: A person is considered Jewish if he or she has a Jewish mother, though converting is an option.


Erin Galandauer offers justification: “I love my life. I love being a mother. I love being a wife. I didn’t grow up Orthodox, but I always did want to be both those things. I don’t find it oppressive. You can’t say it’s oppressive, because it’s a different role.” Gender roles within Orthodoxy are separate, but equal, she adds. Granted, that’s what Southern segregationists said, but the rabbi’s wife is talking about gender, not race.


Men don’t have it much easier. Orthodoxy expects a lot from devoted Jews. Rabbis encourage Jews to marry young, live within walking distance of their synagogue (it’s forbidden to drive on the Sabbath), dress modestly, avoid birth control and observe “kashrut,” or dietary laws.


As for homosexuality, Orthodox Judaism unequivocally forbids its practice. “The goal is to do our best to try to keep as many of the commandments as possible. So, of course, one of the commandments is not to be a homosexual, so that would fall within the categories of things not to do,” says Galandauer. But people are not excluded from the Jewish community simply for breaking a commandment, he says, offering Jews an assurance that they will always be Jewish.


“Judaism is not a blind-faith religion,” says Galandauer. “Everything is based on fact, understanding and knowledge. Questions and debates are always happening. We want [congregants] to debate. We want them to think about it.”


Judaism’s tradition of debate goes all the way back to Moses’ trip to Mount Sinai. Jews bantered over whether Moses would ever come back. Some, who partied in the wilderness with a golden calf, said he was long gone. Centuries ago, rabbis wondered whether or not the Book of Job was fiction, concluding that Satan was probably just a metaphor. Finally and most recently, the whole of Judaism split in thirds approximately 200 years ago, when the reform movement on the scene.


Rosen moves from behind her desk to a round table in the middle of a study crammed with books. She has the look of a humanities professor, ample-bodied with brown, shoulder-length hair. She wears conservative clothing, a long skirt and glasses. She launches into a ready explanation of the differences between Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism with all the flair of a natural teacher. That, after all, is what a rabbi is.


Reform and Conservative synagogues, like Congregation Kol Ami, diverged from communal Judaism during the Enlightenment of the 18th century. After Napoleon’s emancipation of the Jews in 1804, they began to move from the ghettos into mainstream European communities. Opportunities for secularization, and for leaving the Jewish community altogether, caused a cataclysmic change for some Jews, who sought to modernize their religion, ditch tradition and integrate into the gentile society. They kept the ethical ideas at the basis of Judaism, but abandoned or redefined some dietary laws and other complex customs.


“In point of fact, whatever labels we give ourselves or each other, probably 99 percent of Jews in the world today, by that identification, are Reform Jews in that we all pick and choose,” said Rosen.


The Conservative movement soon followed asserting that Reform had gone too far. Worried that abandoning traditions would compromise Jewish culture, and therefore Judaism, Conservatives sought the middle ground between Reform and Orthodoxy. Conservative Jews, like Rosen, are more likely to keep kosher, dress modestly and observe the Sabbath, yet they adapt certain Jewish laws, such as women’s roles, to the realities of modern life.


The Conservative movement began ordaning women rabbis in 1985, but hasn’t yet decided whether to appoint gays and lesbians as rabbis. Rosen hadn’t yet realized and accepted her sexuality.


Orthodoxy only came about when Reform and Conservative movements crashed the party. “Orthodoxy, from my perspective, says that the laws of the Torah are immutable; that they were dictated by God at Mount Sinai; and, therefore, we have no authority in our generation to change them. But in the meantime, if you look at Orthodox practice now versus 30 years ago, you’ll see radical differences,” said Rosen.


Contrast Reform Judaism’s proud tradition of advocating civil rights with the dichotomy epitomized by Israel, where the Orthodox branch controls marriage to the extent that Israelis don’t recognize civil divorce. According to Jewish law, only a man can grant a divorce to a woman, not vice versa. Yet, the Israeli Constitution guarantees equality between men and women. The comparisons illustrate how far Judaism’s gate sometimes can swing.


Through the gates of Sha’rei Tefila on Shabbos (Sabbath), Galandauer rocks back and forth singing Hebrew prayers in a sort of call-and-response manner during a worship service. Traditionally, Orthodox Jews chant the prayers softly, but the rabbi sings out so that everyone can learn Hebrew.


The humble synagogue consists of a plain room with dingy mango-colored walls, florescent lights and a “mehitza,” or partition made of wood and white cloth, standing about 6 feet high, separating men from women. Galandauer conducts the service in Hebrew, though some follow along in Hebrew-English prayer books that are read from right to left. About 30 people regularly attend Sha’arei Tefila services.


Walton wears his Chuck Taylors to services. The men wear white “talit” prayer shawls over their street clothes and yarmulkes, or “kippot.”


Women show up late. They don’t have to come at all, as Orthodox Judaism leaves the religious requirements to men. Women wear modest dresses that fall almost to the floor and extend to mid-forearm. Some women wear wigs to cover their hair, a tradition for married Orthodox women. Others wear hats, like Cynthia Melenson, a former member of Kol Ami, whose khaki-green hat boasts a feather.


An older woman with a child’s curiosity and energy, Melenson’s excited demeanor is contagious as she peeks from behind the mehitza to watch the men take the Torah scrolls from a wooden cupboard, or “ark.” She whispers a lot, softly announcing when it’s time to stand up or sit down.


Melenson admits it’s difficult to see from behind the mehitza, because it cordons off women into the far corner of the room. Synagogues vary, she says. Lavish synagogues place women in a balcony, where they can see everything. Some separate the women via an aisle, with no partition.


Though she doesn’t like being unable to see, Melenson doesn’t mind the divider. “You know, I don’t mind being separated and, in fact, when I’ve gone to Kol Ami, I always sit away from [my husband],” she said. “I need my privacy to pray.” She explains that the separation allows widows and spinsters to sit with other women, instead of by themselves.


Michael Walton jokingly gives another reason for the mehitza: “You’ve been around men more than once in your life, haven’t you? What do you think men think about when they see a pretty woman? Do you think that would deflect them from prayer? Men are easily deflected from prayer,” he said.


Later, some women complained about Sha’arei Tefila’s mehitza. Subsequently, the congregation experimented with dividing the room vertically, enabling all to see the service. Before, the women sat behind the men when it was situated horizontally.


Walton won’t say he left Kol Ami because of Rabbi Rosen, but fellow congregants Richard and Cynthia Melenson freely admit that’s the reason for their departure.


“I strongly believe that the rabbi, as the spiritual leader of a congregation, must exemplify in both their professional and their private life the spiritual principles promulgated by the Torah. [But the reason we left] has nothing to do with her [gender] at all, and it has nothing to do with her competence as a rabbi,” says Richard.


Cynthia added that she does take issue with homosexuality. “The stress in Judaism is the family unit,” she says. “So, for example, we don’t have priests. We don’t ask people to be celibate. We encourage them to be married and have children and be good examples for the community. In the Bible, it does say that homosexuality is an abomination. I don’t think we feel like that. It’s the way people were born, like if they were born nearsighted. We don’t consider that these are bad people in any way. But we feel that a homosexual cannot fulfill that role of a traditional family, and we believe that the rabbi should be the role model for the norm.


“We are actually still struggling with this because we feel that Rabbi Rosen is a fine person, a capable person, an excellent teacher and very learned. So this is a real struggle with us to be true to our principles of belief in Torah Judaism [Orthodoxy] within a modern world.”


Achieving that belief is no easy feat. Hanging out with the modern Orthodox community feels like finding a cultural gem that, when held up to the light, refracts preconceived notions. Sha’arei Tefila congregants aren’t your fundamentalist “God hates fags” folks. They’re more like, “We’re not quite ready for them as rabbis, but we’ll talk about it” folks. They readily philosophize, while expressing curiosity and diverse opinions.


Micha Barach—a bearded patriarch, lawyer and president of Sha’arei Tefila—sits beneath the sukkah. A temporary shelter usually built near the home during October, the sukkah signifies the Jews’ 40-year wandering in the desert before they made it to Israel, the Promised Land.


It’s like going to camp. Jews are supposed to live in the shelter during the duration of the festival Sukkot, or about one week. This is Galandauer’s hut. Sha’arei Tefila congregants crowd the table, sitting together, eating kosher food and merrily batting about conversation.


From across the table, Barach jumps into the conversation on hearing the question, “Is feminism a threat to Orthodox Judaism?” He answers: “Is Orthodox Judaism a threat to feminism?” He tells a parable about his own daughter, who worked as a sergeant in a co-ed combat unit of the Israeli army.


“So, evidently, I must have oppressed her and suppressed any type of independent view of her capability to do whatever she wants,” Barach says. “But now, she’s married, and quite happily, and she’s pregnant. She, of her own volition, has decided that she’s most comfortable in what we call a traditional role of an Orthodox woman.”


Later, Barach reveals hard feelings about Rosen’s comments to the media. In a recent Salt Lake Tribune article, Rosen told a reporter “… no one should have to choose between religion and anything, ‘not politics, gender or sexuality.’”


Barach says the statement misrepresents Judaism. “That seems to me to be a mistake in reading, not just Judaism, but any religion, because religion by its very nature is about choice,” he says. “It’s about moral choices. It’s about personal choices. It’s about drawing a demarcation in terms of how you wish to conduct your life. And so if you choose one thing, then, by necessity, it’s no different than any other choice. … A whole life is choices. To make that type of statement seems to me rather self-serving and inappropriate. I think it’s not a very mature and sophisticated view of, not just Judaism, but anything in general.”


The debate over how to place gays and lesbians in a religious context is nothing new for Christianity either, as evidenced by the current rage over ordination of an openly gay Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire, a move that threatens a schism in the American Episcopal Church, and maybe even Anglican Communion worldwide.


Rosen countered Barach’s statement regarding choices: “My point was that one should not have to choose between one’s internal essence and one’s religious commitment. Yes, religion is a guide to people in life about how one should behave and one should act. To have a religion that completely invalidates the essence of who you are, whether that’s as a woman, whether that’s as a gay person, whether that’s as a single mother, to be told that you are an invalid nonentity within your community is a deeply immoral act.”


Here’s the meat: In Orthodoxy, the prohibition against homosexuality comes from three places, all sourced to the Bible. In the book of Leviticus, God says men shouldn’t lie with other men as they would with a woman, calling it an “abomination.” The Oral Law, which God gave to Moses at Mount Sinai along with the Ten Commandments (but that was not written down until the sixth century), states that the prohibition against same-sex unions applies to all people. One of Judaism’s 613 commandments, derived from the Ten Commandments, decrees that Jews not have homosexual relations.


Even most Christians and Mormons accept celibate gays.


Rosen begs to differ: “The entire foundation of Judaism is built around family life and community life, and to say now we’re going to identify a class of people who have to remain by themselves? No. 1, it’s cruel. No. 2, it wouldn’t work in practicality.”


First of all, she says, the Bible doesn’t mention lesbianism. The prohibition against same-sex unions for women came later, through rabbinical interpretation—those spoilsports. Furthermore, it’s all up to interpretation.


Rosen delves deeper, cross-referencing Leviticus with two other biblical examples of men who want to have sex with men.


First, in the tale of Sodom, Lot welcomes two visiting angels into his home. The men of Sodom surround Lot’s house, demanding that Lot hand over the two angels so that they can fornicate with them. To protect the angels, Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the mob.


Second, the book of Judges relates a far more gruesome tale. A man traveling with his concubine through the town of Gibeah is taken in for the evening by town hosts. Men from the tribe of Benjamin surround the host’s home, then demand that the host hand over his male visitor so that the mob can have sex with him. The host offers his virgin daughter to the mob instead. But before the host brings his plan to fruition, the traveler shoves his concubine out the door. The mob rapes and abuses the concubine all night. At dawn, her body falls dead onto the host’s doorstep. The traveler cuts her body into 12 parts, then disperses one part to each of Israel’s 12 tribes. The action brings about a civil war.


Both stories parable “rape that is coercive, that is a way of showing inhospitality and dominance and power over a guest. In both cases, the substitute that is offered is a woman,” says Rosen. “When you contrast that text with Leviticus, that says you shall not lie with a man as with a woman, [you find that] these people didn’t care whether the person they had sex with was a man or a woman, they wanted to use it as a way of showing dominance and power.”


These sordid stories are the only two examples the Old Testament offers on homosexuality. “The verse in Leviticus is not as broad as people want to say, that it includes all homosexuality, because those aren’t the examples that we’re given,” Rosen says, concluding that you should not have coercive sex with men or women.


As for “abomination,” Rosen says, “For many of these people, the same exact term is used in connection with not eating anything abominable, including, according to that definition, pork and shellfish. There are an awful lot of people in the Christian community and the Jewish community who pick and choose what they decide is abominable … [yet] they’re perfectly happy having a ham and cheese sandwich or eating a shrimp cocktail and thinking nothing of it. If we’re going to read the Bible literally, let’s at least be consistent with that literal reading of the Bible.”


Furthermore, look at what the Bible approves, yet society discourages: According to the Torah, if parents have a rebellious son, they can stone him to death before the elders of the community. By the end of a rabbinical debate, they decide that stoning kids to death just wasn’t going to fly. Same goes for polygamy and slavery.


“Once society at large abolished slavery, there aren’t Jews going around saying, ‘I want to own slaves,’” says Rosen. “Human society has evolved beyond that point, so we have adapted and adjusted in that way.”


Rosen’s lesbian epiphany dawned after her ordination, a fact that an Orthodox customer at a kosher deli, Kosher On The Go, quickly points out when talk turns to Rosen.


But restaurant owner Israel Lefler counters, “If they think a woman rabbi helps them do what they want to do, I don’t see a problem with that. Now, being lesbian is just a personal way of life she chooses and doesn’t represent anything. I don’t know why people are jumping on that wagon. She’s lesbian, so what?”


Lefler is a member of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, a Hasidic synagogue in Salt Lake City. Hasidic-Jewish males wear traditional black hats, long beards, side curls and “tzitzit,” or undergarments with fringes. They consider themselves Orthodox (and sometimes ultra-Orthodox).


Hasidism, an 18th-century Romantic-era movement, stresses enjoyment and enthusiasm during worship. The founder, “Baal Shem Tov,” stressed ideas similar to those envisioned by the American poet Walt Whitman: imagination, emotion, nature and exaltation of the common man. Though Whitman, along with his song-of-my-gay-self, might be a pariah among certain modern-day Hasidic Jews.


“The way I look at it, even if I belong to the Hasidic group, I think that diversity is good and it’s healthy, and I don’t see a problem with it,” says Lefler. “Some people do see a problem with it. Those people see a problem with anything. They’re the same people who don’t come to buy from me because they have a problem with Orthodox. They don’t like modern Orthodoxy because they don’t like [someone] different than they are.”


If two Jews can have 10 different opinions, and Jews vote with their feet, then the idea of peace as a constant struggle isn’t such a strange notion.

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Kristy Davis

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