Saying No in the Name of a Higher Yes

Saying No in the Name of a Higher Yes

Benay Lappe

Three days before ordination, the dean called me into his office at 9:00 p.m. and told me that an anonymous caller had phoned the Seminary to inform them that I was a lesbian. He said that if I told him it was true, I would not be ordained.  “What do you have to say?” he demanded.

This was a scenario I had carefully planned for and had played out in my mind over the previous six years of rabbinical school. Just in case. I knew I could be called in at any moment and had rehearsed what would be my instantaneous response the way soldiers are trained to react in battle without having to think, to automatically do what is necessary to save their lives and the lives of their fellow soldiers. It is a kind of learned instinct, and one never knows if it will actually stick until that moment when one is under attack. For me, that moment had arrived.

Just as that soldier’s first instinct may be to respond to fear by getting the hell out of there, but whose life may depend on short-circuiting that gut reaction and instead fighting back—it was now time to see whether I would listen to that voice deep inside of me that said, “Lying is wrong,” or instead act in self-defense and lie in order to do what was right. I sat there in the frozen but eerily calm silence of the proverbial deer-in-the-headlights for what was at least a full minute as I mentally fast-forwarded through each of the possible responses I could have given and their resulting outcomes.

I never set out to be a rabbi. I was simply looking for God. I wish someone had told me that rabbinical school was the last place a Jew was likely to find God. But then again I probably wouldn’t have listened. I had to find out for myself.

I figured every tradition had its Wise Men (I didn’t know of any that had Wise Women—except maybe Native American—but I figured the principle would be the same in either case), its keepers of the tribe’s wisdom. If anyone knew the Jewish way to God, I thought, it must be the wisdom-keepers of the Jewish tradition. And who were our wisdom-keepers? Rabbis! Well, OK, that’s what I thought, anyhow. So I decided to go where rabbis went to learn whatever it is that rabbis know:  rabbinical school. And that’s what I did. (One thing I learned along the way, and most painfully and disappointingly so in the two years of fallout since the dean’s little interrogation, was that rabbis, as a whole, are no wiser than the rest of us—they just know more Jewish “stuff,” because that’s what a rabbinic education is mostly about. And some rabbis turn that Jewish stuff into wisdom and some don’t. Some of the wiser people I encountered there, as it turned out, were not rabbis at all, but security guards and secretaries.)

I was born and raised in Skokie, Illinois, a predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago. We considered ourselves Conservative although we might more accurately have been described as  “unobservant Orthodox” (we knew what we were supposed to do, and though we didn’t do it most of the time, at least we felt guilty about it).

I loved Hebrew school and going up on the bimah to drink the grape juice kiddush at Friday night services.  But as I grew up and competing worldviews—feminism, gay rights and American you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do-ism—entered the picture, I dismissed Judaism as irrelevant.

It wasn’t so much that I ever actively rejected it, it just simply never came to mind when, at the age of twenty two, while living in Japan for what would turn into seven years, I went in search of a spiritual path. I still felt proudly and deeply Jewish, went to shul on the high holidays, fasted on Yom Kippur, attended family seders, wouldn’t think of eating chametz (leavened food) during Pesach, and lit Hanukkah candles every year (always in the right order and in the right direction). Judaism had just never popped up on my mental radar screen as having anything to do with the spiritual endeavor, and so, when I went looking for a way to find God, it never occurred to me to try the Jewish way, whatever that might have been.

I realized I was a lesbian at 18, in my sophomore year of college. Not having ever personally known a gay man or lesbian (that I was aware of), it was a lonely and scary experience. But at 19 I fell in love for the first time, with a woman, and realized that love is love, regardless of the gender of the ones doing the loving, and that I was going to be OK after all. In my early coming out years of the late 70’s and early 80’s, I was blessed with lovers and close lesbian friends for whom being gay was so natural that I absorbed their ease with it all and my early shame fell away as pride and a confident matter-of-factness took its place. I discovered a loving, exciting and intellectually challenging gay subculture in which I remained immersed for the next ten years. I lived in a gay world, disregarding the institutions and assumptions of the straight world “out there.” The larger world didn’t belong to me, but that was OK—I was the citizen of a privileged, special world that provided constant proof in the form of the outside world’s violence against us that it was we who “got it” and they whose behavior belied an obvious misjudgment.

This confidence in the rightness of my sexuality would prove indispensable when my lover [who was bisexual and had been quite at home in the larger heterosexual world up until the time of our relationship] convinced me that the larger world really did belong to me, too, and that I was cheating myself and it by living only in the sheltered world of the gay and lesbian community. My first act in claiming my rightful place in the larger world would be to apply to the Jewish Theological Seminary. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.

I had gone to Japan after graduate school and encountered, for the first time in my life, sincere seekers of every sort—mostly Westerners born Protestant or Catholic or Jewish who were searching for God and following spiritual practices of one kind or another in traditions other than the ones they’d grown up in. These young people had, like me, found themselves far from home for any number of reasons—mostly sad, some mundane—and while wandering in exile in a country in which they were profoundly “other,” were moved to search for a kind of meaning that had eluded them in their own homelands, within their own families, or their religions of birth.

This very Jewish paradigm of one who is called to leave home or is in exile for fear of his or her life and finds God in the wilderness did not occur to me then as I did not even know my own Jewish story well enough to see how thoroughly I was typecast within it. That which I did know, I didn’t dare imagine applied to me as a lesbian, so alienated did I feel from its message. Had I been able to see my own life within the mythic stories of my tradition, I might have been better able to navigate my way through, or at least feel less crazy, in my process of searching for God, for a sense of wholeness, meaning, and contentment in my life.

 As I felt my own “otherness” as a caucasian lesbian woman in a male-dominated, fiercely heterosexual Japanese culture—and by no small accident living half a world away from my family who was having a very hard time adjusting to the reality of having a lesbian in it—I realized that, like the seekers I saw around me, my own life’s questions were in serious need of some new answers. I soon stopped laughing cynically at the word “spirituality” and before I knew it, was on a spiritual search of my own.

Buddhism—specifically Vipassana meditation—became my path and my practice. Buddhism was accessible, made sense, seemed true, presented no theological conflict nor compelled any Jewishly forbidden behavior and, quite simply, just worked for me. Probably equally important, it had no Leviticus. Or, more accurately, its “Leviticus” was not my Leviticus, so it was easier for me to take the good and not be so personally hurt by the bad. I sat in cross-legged silence in Buddhist temples for several weeks each year, learned to see the world in Buddhist terms, meditated every morning and evening and was, quite honestly, a perfectly happy Buddhist.

Until that pintele yid popped up. That little, often dormant Jewish consciousness that most Jews have (at least those raised with or who acquire on their own a strong Jewish consciousness). The more I meditated, the more aware I became of thoughts and emotions that might otherwise have gotten lost in the background noise of life. And slowly I began to sense my own discomfort at having “unfinished business” with my Jewishness.

Here I was, a Jew, living as a Buddhist, having learned Buddhism with an adult mind, and having rejected Judaism which I’d stopped learning at the age of thirteen! I was simply no longer comfortable with that arrangement. I realized I had to go back and learn about Judaism with my adult mind, and give it the same chance I’d given Buddhism. I fully expected, even hoped, to confirm my suspicions: that Judaism was as simple-minded and juvenile as my recollections and current practice of it reflected. I would read a few books, I figured, put my mind at ease at having rightfully ignored such a “pediatric” religion, and return to being a Buddhist, but this time in good conscience.

I went to the rabbi of the synagogue in Tokyo, told him my story, and he gave me a book I’d never heard of before: Pirke Avot (The Ethics of Our Ancestors). It was a tiny volume packed with the kind of accessible Zen-like wisdom I’d found in Buddhist writings, and I started to realize that the Jews might just be as smart as the Buddhists after all, and were, in fact, on to the same truths that the Buddhists were on to. Then he gave me an anthology of essays written by rabbis of the various movements, including Reconstructionism, which I hadn’t heard of at the time. I then realized that the Judaism that I grew up with was only one of many authentic Judaisms, and that what I believed about God and the way the world worked did not make me a bad Jew, just a bad Orthodox Jew. I saw that the circle containing authentic Judaism was much bigger than I’d thought previously and that I actually fell quite squarely within it, and not at all way outside of it, as I’d imagined.

All of a sudden, the prospect that I was actually still “a good Jew” drew me back into the Jewish game as a player who hadn’t fouled out, and I was now ready to play even harder.  I realized that although Buddhist truths were very easy to understand and accessible, Jewish truths were simply more deeply encoded in ritual and required extra work to decipher. But they’re there!

My next experiment would be Shabbos, and though my lover at the time wasn’t Jewish, she agreed that, one day a week, without exception, no matter what, no phone, no electricity, no money, no shopping, no trains, no work, an immaculately clean house, fresh clothes, a beautiful dinner, telling stories, reading, leisurely walks, singing and lovemaking—was a pretty good idea. The magic we felt from the moment we lit those first shabbos candles taught me that God could be found in what appeared, on the page, to be a restrictive, even oppressive ritual. I realized then and there that if Judaism could come up with something like shabbos, then it had to have come up with lots of other places where God would be just sitting and waiting, like God was in shabbos. I knew I would never again be able to casually dismiss out of hand what appeared to be archaic texts or rituals. I had experienced God in what happened when the shabbos that I had learned about on the page as a child, was lived out. Who knew where other seemingly archaic texts would lead me?

After seven years of combining Vipassana meditation and shabbos, bamboo sukkahs and sanskrit chanting, I realized that when I did Jewish things I felt more Jewish, and when I felt more Jewish, I felt more whole, and feeling more whole felt good. Like the wholeness and truths I found in the exploration and integration of my identity as a lesbian, I was now finding more wholeness and truths in my identity as a Jew. Although I didn’t completely understand it at the time, Shabbos was the first Jewish “place” where I felt that I was completely present—as a woman, as a lesbian, and as a Jew. There was enough room in shabbos for all of us and during those 25 hours I felt that all the parts of me were one integrated whole. Shabbos was about a way of shaping time, and appreciating life, and doing so as a lesbian, with my lover, allowed it to work. It couldn’t have otherwise. Shabbos wanted—needed—me to bring my whole self, sexuality included, to it. Shabbos was my first inkling that there was a path of wholeness for me—as a Jew, and as a lesbian. I was determined—passionately—to pursue this path to wholeness, to God, and would let nothing stop me.

It looked like if I was going to get my whole self to God, I was going to have to do it in a Jewish way, doing Jewish things, in the Jewish “spiritual vernacular,” as it were. Now I had to figure out what exactly that might be. What was the Jewish way to God?  I knew shabbos was part of it. But what else was there? I figured the answers were in Jewish text—the same texts that held the secrets of shabbos—and I would let nothing and no one keep me from learning them.

I had no interest in the rabbinate as a career, but figured that if I did in fact find something useful in those texts, as a rabbi I might be able to teach whatever it was that I found to other people. I also knew it was conceivable that my hunch was wrong and that I might find, after six years of rabbinical school, that shabbos was all there was. But that was OK, I figured; it would still be worth it, because then at the very least, I’d know a bunch more places where God wasn’t and I could check those off my list of places to look.

I felt pretty confident that the Jewish Theological Seminary was the place I’d get the best text education.  And I believed the map that would lay out the Jewish path to God was in Jewish texts. Of all the rabbinical schools, it required of its students more semesters of study in Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, codes and halachah than any of the other rabbinical schools that accepted women.  I also knew I would come out of there “knowing my stuff”—I wouldn’t ever have to feel insecure when confronted by anyone to my “right” who claimed to be more real a Jew than I. I would be able to hold my own when challenged, and as a woman and a lesbian I had good reason to expect that my knowledge and authenticity probably would be challenged quite a bit.

If I went to JTS, I imagined, I would never have to worry about being religiously railroaded out of access to God because I didn’t know enough to know that I was being lied to as I’d been as a child when I was told that “Girls can’t touch the Torah because they get their periods” or “Women aren’t allowed to read from the Torah.” When I learned enough to know that these were simply lies, I understood the truth to the claim that “Knowledge is power,” and vowed to gain the knowledge that would at the very least keep me from losing whatever power the tradition actually gave me, and might even show me how to gain the power that the tradition had not yet given me but could.

I have always had a profound respect for tradition and “mess with it” only very, very carefully, only where absolutely necessary, and only then after spending a great deal of time in debate, having given it a second, third, fourth, fifth, even tenth chance before I allow my gut to trump it. If nothing else, I feel very strongly that you have to know what you’re messing with before you mess with it. With a few obvious and glaring exceptions, overall I trusted the Seminary to be as cautious as I was in dismissing parts of the tradition as “No, no God here,” without very, very careful study, struggle and reflection first. Their beliefs about gays and lesbians notwithstanding, I was, deep down, a true Conservative Jew, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America was the rabbinical school of my movement. On a simple emotional level, the Seminary felt, of all the rabbinical schools, the most familiar and most comfortable in some very hard-to-quantify way. It was simply the place I felt most religiously “at home.”

I truly thought I would find the Jewish way to God in that place and that I would have to conceal my sexuality to take up residence in this “home” of mine for the next six years seemed at the time like a relatively small price to pay. (Though this may sound supremely naïve, and perhaps even silly, probably no student should apply to any rabbinical if they do not feel that they will find a way to God there.)

Though I try to approach the tradition’s claims with humility and generally give them the benefit of the doubt until I’ve dug thoroughly into the texts and my own conscience, I have never seriously doubted my own gut on the issue of the rightness of one’s sexual identity, whatever one feels it to be. I know, with my body, with my life, that being a lesbian is good and right. So I  have always seen the Seminary’s refusal to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis as profoundly silly, obviously rooted in homophobia, and certainly not a prejudice that should be honored. I never hid my views on the issue (a handful of my heterosexual classmates were also vocal in their disagreement with the Seminary’s policy) and for a number of months in my first year of rabbinical school, Rabbi Danny Gordis, then assistant dean in Los Angeles, and I had a standing weekly meeting to expolore “the gay issue” together. He was sincerely struggling with the Movement’s policies and his own stance on the issue, and during those months I allowed myself to be open to the possibility that I was wrong, that there was some reason, even if I couldn’t understand it, for maintaining the heterosexism of the tradition. We debated the ability of the halachah to change as profoundly as would be necessary to uproot those verses in Leviticus which have been seen to prohibit homosexuality. In the end we came to the conclusion that, in fact, halachah had the built-in mechanisms to allow it to make such a radical change and in fact had utilized these mechanisms numerous times before on other issues. But we differed on whether or not we felt it should in this case. I concluded that it should. And, though I could not tell him why, it was because I simply knew it from my life’s experience. His gut sent him no such overwhelmingly convincing messages. I realized that what really separated me from those in the Movement who advocated for continued exclusion of gays from the rabbinate was not whether or not Jewish law could legitimately change on this issue, but whether or not one believed deeply enough in the full humanity of gays and lesbians to think that it should.

I have every confidence that most of those who uphold the Movement’s current policy will one day realize their mistake; they will one day feel the rightness of Jewish gays and lesbians being accorded the same rights and privileges as other Jews and Jewish law will change as effortlessly as darkness leaving a room when the light switch is turned on.  I very simply did not see any reason to allow them to live out their temporary ignorance on me I certainly was not about to suffer from their ignorance in the meantime or to sit in the back of their rabbinic bus. I would seek admission to JTS and not reveal my sexuality to them for the next six years. If, as the tradition claims, we all stood at Mount Sinai, then those texts are the rightful inheritance of every Jew, I figured, gays and lesbians included. The Seminary’s motivation for keeping gays and lesbians from being interpreters and transmitters of those texts has always seemed to me to be rather transparent as just another form of good ol’ American apple-pie homophobia.

Their claim that “Gays and lesbians can’t be rabbis” is a lie as halachically unfounded and sociologically motivated as the “Women can’t touch the Torah” lie of my youth. (Tellingly, the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards which determines halakhah for the Movement recently voted to allow access, for the first time ever, to lay Conservative Jews of the Movement’s responsa, including their legal rationales, textual sources, etc., on any issue dealt with by the Law Committee, in order to encourage an informed and halachically literate laity—with one exception: no layperson will be allowed to request any responsum on any topic related to gays and lesbians!)

I had no illusions about nor interest in obtaining a rabbinic position once I was ordained. I was fairly certain that I would be kicked out of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative rabbis, but didn’t care much about that since I never saw myself ever actually working in the Movement anyhow.

Although I had felt certain of the rightness of my decision to go into the closet at the beginning of the entire process, I had vastly underestimated the emotional price that six years of living there would exact. I tried to maintain my resolve by imagining myself a hidden Jew, forced to hide my identity in order to protect myself from those who would unjustly persecute me merely because of who I was.  I tried to maintain a sense of dignity by seeing myself as unjustly persecuted by Jews for being a lesbian, as Jews were by the Christians for simply being Jews.

Even still, slowly, imperceptibly, over the years I absorbed from the Seminary atmosphere and from my own silence and hiding a sense of shame and guilt. My self-confidence and trust in my own perceptions eroded. Without realizing it, I started, not to believe exactly, but to be spiritually infiltrated by the heterosexist assumptions of the Seminary and the tradition it conveyed in its own image. I began to lose the sharpness of my political and analytical voice. It was nearly impossible to keep my lesbian head above water, so to speak, with such an enormous tide of homophobia and sexism washing over me every day.

Social situations at school—even the few minutes spent waiting with classmates for a class to begin, or sharing a table with classmates in the cafeteria—were excruciating for me. There was so much I had to edit from conversation, so much life experience I couldn’t refer to or  convey in the most general terms. I had to be constantly vigilant of what I was saying, always steering clear of conversational landmines that seemed more numerous than the safe spaces around them. I, of course, could never refer to any personal relationship nor attend Seminary functions with my partner, and I must surely have come to be perceived as asexual, aloof, and private. None of which is true of me.

Davenning (praying) with the Seminary community became impossible for me and I soon had to accept the fact that my attempt to find God in prayer would have to be aborted. I realized that one needs to feel safe and relaxed in a prayer setting to have any hope of connecting with one’s God-voice. Standing in a room surrounded by people who I knew would do everything in their power to see that I got kicked out of school if they knew who I really was, was hardly conducive to prayer. (I got into the habit of davenning standing up in the back of the room while my classmates sat in the pews or chairs in front of me to minimize contact with them.)

When I moved with my classmates from campus to campus (L.A., Jerusalem, New York), I made sure I did not live in the “Jewish neighborhood” where the majority of students and professors lived. Living too far away to walk to their homes afforded me some privacy and gave me the perfect excuse for not accepting invitations to shabbos lunches, a social situation which was always very difficult to negotiate given all the things I couldn’t talk about. This process of constant conversational vigilance made me self-conscious, nervous, and awkward in social encounters.  If I were a private person by nature, it may have been easier, but I am not.

In my second year, I came out to my chevruta, my study partner Eddie, who became my soulmate, sanctuary, and lifeline to sanity. The chevruta relationship is an intense and very intimate one. For six years we spent four to six hours a day, three days a week, over Talmud volumes, sharing our personal and spiritual struggles—which, of course, are ultimately the same thing. Our study table became the one place where I did find God. Looking back on it now, I shouldn’t have been surprised. It had all the necessary ingredients: an intense personal relationship with someone whom I loved and who loved me, a place where I could be completely myself, and a sacred text. Of course God would be there! I had now found a second Jewish “place” where I was whole, as a lesbian and as a Jew. That the texts themselves rarely reflected my experience as a woman never made that much difference to me. It was in the process of learning the texts that I was able to be fully present—as a woman, as a lesbian, as a Jew—and that was more than enough for me. For me, God is in the process of learning Talmud even more than in the content of the texts themselves.

Perhaps the only thing that got in the way of our being of even more helpful to each other was the fact that each of us was in a different place in our figuring out the two questions: “How does this Jewish thing fit into my life as a queer?” and “How does this queer thing fit into my life as a Jew?”  I had been an out gay activist for ten years before even applying to rabbinical school and had that whole issue figured out. What I didn’t know was how I was going to integrate Judaism into that life. I had no illusions about getting a job as a rabbi in the Conservative Movement so the question of how to do so was of no concern to me. Most of my gay and lesbian classmates came out during rabbinical school and, in addition to having to come to a positive understanding of themselves as gay or lesbian in such a hostile environment, had to deal with the enormous loss of knowing that their professional dreams would never come true if they were to ever come fully out of the closet. In the end, they all chose to remain closeted in their professional lives to achieve some semblance of the rabbinate they’d always dreamed of. I look forward to the day when none of us has to make such terrible choices.

In my first few years of rabbinical school, it was nearly impossible to take advantage of even the immense support offered by the Jewish gay and lesbian community. It was painful to let down my guard in those situations, because it only highlighted the necessity of my putting it back up afterward. Soon I also realized that I could not casually mention that I was a rabbinic student even at the local gay shul because, the Jewish world being what it is, word was likely to get around, albeit innocently. So I found myself in the unfortunate position of having to be in the closet as a lesbian in the straight Jewish world, and in the closet as a rabbinical student in the gay Jewish world.

In my fourth year, I came out to one professor whom, word on the street had it, was safe. His advice to me was to “Stay as far away from this building as you possibly can. Be here as little as possible for your own mental health. Just get yourself to ordination day.” And that’s what I did. With the exception of learning Talmud with my study partner Eddie, it was very difficult to learn any longer in that environment, so shut down did I have to be to merely be physically present in that environment, which was heartbreaking for me as the whole point of my suffering through being in the closet was to be able to learn. Now, I remained in the closet without even gaining that for which I was making the sacrifice. But by that point, preserving my mental health was my primary concern. I was no longer even sure why I was continuing to persevere toward ordination. But I knew that there was some reason, even though I didn’t know what it was. I knew that, one day, I would know why I had done this and what greater purpose it served. I was sure that, some day, my being a rabbi was going to make a difference somehow, to someone. And that someday I would know it had all been worthwhile. It was a blind faith in this “someday” that kept me going.

Ironically, being in the closet presented an additional unexpected and painful experience: that of benefiting from the “heterosexual assumption” and all the privileges that come along with it (awards, prizes, speaking engagements, job offers, professional connections)—all of which I came to enjoy in the most bittersweet way (never having experienced the world as a presumed heterosexual “insider” before), knowing all along that “if they really knew me…” they would withdraw them, and I knew that that day would inevitably come.

In my last semester of rabbinical school I began to plan the ordination party that I’d been fantasizing about for six years, the evening that would symbolize my return to freedom. I hired a caterer, a DJ, a klezmer band, an Israeli folk-dance teacher, rented the hall, and sent out the printed invitations in fancy plastic tubes. I was in the final stretch and was certain I would make it to the finish line now.

Then came that Monday night before ordination.  I had just three days to go. Ordination was to be Thursday morning. The dean called me in and told me that he had something important to talk to me about. He said that someone had called the Seminary, had spoken to several members of the administration, and had informed them that “they”  [he didn’t tell me if it was a man or a woman] a) knew me to be in a lesbian relationship, b) knew that I had had a commitment ceremony with my partner, c) knew that I was having my ordination party at the gay and lesbian synagogue (to which they had received an invitation!), and wasn’t it true that the Seminary didn’t ordain gay people?! “What do you have to say?” he asked firmly.

I had had no idea how hard it would actually be to look someone in the eye and deny who I was. I couldn’t bring myself to say, as I’d made up my mind to should it ever be necessary, “Of course I’m not a lesbian!” I sat there in silence, processing all of my possible alternatives. I obviously could not bring myself to say that I was not a lesbian, and I knew (because he said so) that if I admitted that I was that I would not be ordained. I had only one option left, it seemed: I would refuse to answer him at all.

 Though I reminded him that it was not the Seminary’s practice to ask students to reveal their sexual orientation, I did not have the wherewithal as I sat there being interrogated to actually remember the exact words of the Seminary’s written policy which, it turns out, explicitly forbids “instigating witch hunts” against students or members of the RA, the Rabbinical Assembly. As Rabbi Elliot Dorff, author of the policy and vice chairman of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards later wrote, in my defense, “…the whole point of the language forbidding witch hunts among rabbinical students or members of the RA was that we would not ask such people about their sexual orientation in the first place. Any questions posed by authorities in either the rabbinical schools of the Movement or the RA that would ask a student or member in good standing to divulge his or her sexual orientation would thus violate the explicit policy established by the Law Committee then.”

“Benay, if you tell me this isn’t true, this will be the end of it, and you will be ordained on Thursday,” he offered. It was an offer I couldn’t bear to accept. I was still hoping my strategy would work and that I would make it out of his office without having to inflict another, much more serious wound into a soul already ailing from six years of hiding.

Over the course of the next two hours, as calmly as possible, I made every argument I could think of to defend my right to refuse to answer. He resorted over and over to the “this-hurts-me-more-than-it-hurts-you” thing, and hid behind the old “you-know-I-think-this-policy-is-wrong-but-as-long-as-it’s-the-policy-I-have-to-follow-it” defense, as he persisted in pushing me to give him an answer to the clearly implied but never actually articulated question: “Are you a lesbian?”

I couldn’t afford to feel anything as I sat there. I had to think. And think clearly. Any show of emotion, I thought, would belie the truth and I would be expelled. And though my motivation had never been to become a rabbi at all, but simply to learn, at some point during the six years the title became important to me. I wanted the same recognition, the same access, that the title would afford my classmates once I was out of school. I not only wanted to learn the Jewish way to God; I wanted others to be able to teach it to others, and I knew the title would help me do that.

I offered Talmudic passages to defend my position and offered others the dean could lean on to support what I had hoped would be his decision to end the interrogation. He wasn’t interested. Finally he went even further and told me that he would not ordain me if I continued to refuse to answer him. Though such a coercive threat was even more indefensible than his first question, I was too frightened to realize it at the time, and figured I had to say something.

It was obvious to me at this point that he knew the truth. As a friend of mine later put it, “It doesn’t take a straight woman two hours to deny that she’s a lesbian.” In fact, I assumed he had suspected long before the night of the interrogation. He obviously just wanted me to be the one doing the lying and not he, so he continued to push me to answer him. I knew I had to say something. So I tried answering those parts that I could answer truthfully: “I have never had a commitment ceremony with anyone,” (I hadn’t) “and, yes, I am having my ordination party at the gay and lesbian synagogue. So? That’s where I daven. It has gay and straight members, as I’m sure you know, and besides the Seminary itself has a student there as an intern! My renting their hall for my ordination party is neither here nor there!” I hoped he’d leave it at that, and allow me not to address the third accusation. But he didn’t. “The central question still remains,” he said gravely.

I paused, knowing I’d have to answer his unspoken question and searched for the words with which to answer him in a way that didn’t feel like an outright lie. Slowly I let the words come out of my mouth. “The answer to the central question is no.” Those were my exact words. He looked at me for a moment and then said, “OK.”

“So, is this the end of the matter?” I asked. “I don’t know.  I don’t know if the caller is going to continue to pursue this. We’ll have to see.” That my fate should be determined by whether a vindictive homophobe was going to go to the newspapers or be more vocal did not even strike me as outrageous at the time. I simply prayed that he or she would let it go.

I left the dean’s office at 11:00 p.m. and walked the three flights down to Eddie’s dorm room in a fugue state. “It happened,” I said. “I can’t believe it. Someone outed me.” For the first time that evening, I could let the feelings come, and I started to cry. I was scared. I was hurt. I was ashamed. Somewhere deep down, I know I was also angry, but I couldn’t feel the anger, so full of shame was I at my own lying. I could only think of what I’d just done, not what the dean had just done to me

I told Eddie the whole story and he vowed, as he’d done many times before, to refuse his own ordination in protest if they denied me mine. I knew he would do it, too, though I would never have let him go through with it. The world needed people like him to be rabbis, not martyrs. But it was comforting to hear him say it again, just the same.

People ask me if I ever found out who the caller was. It may seem odd, but I’ve never been the least bit curious. The caller was not any one person. The caller was millions of people out there who hate and fear what gays and lesbians symbolize for them. It could have been any one of them. It makes little difference to me which one.

The next morning, I called Sharon Kleinbaum, my rabbi. I needed guidance, I needed perspective, I needed to know that they were the bad guys not me, and I needed to hear her say that I had done the right thing. I’ll always be grateful to her for being there for me then. She was outraged and helped me find some of my own rage. She talked me out of as much shame as I could manage to let go of. I spoke to other rabbi friends to get counsel and comfort. One of my gay Orthodox rabbi friends said, “You now understand more about what it means to be a Jew than that dean ever will.” Those words meant a tremendous amount to me. And still do.

I realized that evening that even if I made it to ordination day, and crossed that dais to receive my tallis, I would still not have my diploma, the ordination certificate that declared, in black and white, that I was a rabbi. And suddenly that piece of paper became very important to me. If they should ever revoke my ordination, I thought, I at least wanted a physical reminder that, on one day, they thought I was qualified to be a rabbi, and the next they said I wasn’t—only because I was a lesbian. Somehow, with that piece of paper framed on my wall, I thought it would be easier to remember, myself, that I was really a rabbi, regardless of what anyone said. The diplomas had to be hand calligraphed and were never handed out on ordination day, but were mailed out only months later. I cancelled my ordination party for fear that the caller would show up and make trouble, they would revoke my ordination, and I would never get that piece of paper.

On Wednesday afternoon the dean called me at home. “Come see me in my office at 9:00 sharp tomorrow morning.” The ordination ceremony was to start at 10:00.

My entire extended family had come from Chicago and St. Louis to attend my ordination and my parents had arranged a fancy dinner in my honor the evening before. My heart was heavy as I sat there, not knowing for sure if I would even be ordained, and trying not to worry my family with the terrible possibility. I was too scared to be angry that, at a time when I should’ve felt so proud of my accomplishment, I felt like a criminal.

The next morning at nine I went to the dean’s office, terrified. “Did you turn in all your papers?” “Yes, I did.” “Is your family here?” “Yes, they are.” “OK, I’ll see you out there.” Still too scared to feel much of anything but relief, I left his office to line up in alphabetical order with my classmates outside the auditorium doors. I was ordained an hour later, between the K’s and the M’s.

Once my diploma came in the mail, I was finally free to come out, but I did so quietly, without the fanfare I’d fantasized about. And though my classmates have long since hung their diplomas proudly in their offices, mine sits in a drawer, still rolled up in the cardboard tube it came in.

After ordination, I accepted a coveted position as a Fellow at CLAL—the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a trans denominational Jewish think tank, and joined their faculty the following year. I was out from day one and traveled around the country teaching the leaders of the American Jewish community as an out lesbian Conservative rabbi, with the full support of CLAL’s courageous leadership. I also took a part-time position as Director of Education at my synagogue, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the gay and lesbian synagogue in New York City under the leadership of Sharon Kleinbaum. At CLAL I healed intellectually from my Seminary experience, and it was at CBST that I healed emotionally.

I have regained my voice as a lesbian and begun to integrate my identities as a lesbian, a Jew, and a rabbi. As I teach Jewish texts and Jewish law to gay and lesbian Jews, I am consistently overcome with gratitude toward the Seminary for teaching me the text skills and giving me the tools of halachic change which I can now bring to this community which has been so long barred from learning them, tools which we can now use to change the rules of the game that keeps us out.

A year after ordination,  a full-page article appeared in the Jewish press about me and the Gay and Lesbian Lehrhaus Judaica, a program of gay and Jewish studies I’d helped create at CBST, with the headline “Out of the Closet and Into the Classroom.” The next morning, I received a call from the head of the Rabbinical Assembly. “Are you a homosexual?” he wanted to know. “What are the implications of this question?” I asked.  “If this is true, you will most likely be expelled from the RA,” he responded. “If you’re threatening to take away my livelihood, this sounds like a pretty serious matter,” I said, “so I’m going to ask you to put this question in writing and I’ll be glad to respond to you.” I knew they’d be very hesitant to do that. Especially since their policy didn’t allow them to do any such thing. If they were going to act despicably, I decided, they would have to do so formally, and on the public record. And I told them that. I refused to allow them to expel me quietly, without subjecting themselves to public scrutiny for their actions. And I would not allow myself to be pressured into resigning.

Six months later, I received a letter from the RA’s Ethics Committee charging me with violations of standards of ethics and honesty in “entering the Seminary under false pretenses,”  and “making intentionally false statements to the dean.” With a tremendous amount of support from Rabbi Kleinbaum, a number of my Conservative colleagues, and numerous members of the feminist and gay and lesbian communities, for which I am deeply grateful, I have fought off the RA’s attacks and threats of expulsion for the past two years. They have finally withdrawn all charges against me, though they continue to refuse to state so in writing. The struggle goes on and I continue to push for a permanent changes in policy so that, at least until gays and lesbians can be out in the application process, no gay or lesbian rabbinical student at JTS will have to fear being called in to the dean’s office and confronted with the horrible dilemma: be forced to lie or give up your career.

  The Conservative Movement is clearly in a bind. The world is changing around them and they are slowly losing support for their position on gays and lesbians in the rabbinate. They cling to it tenaciously, I think, because it is a political issue. It is, according to the Chancellor himself, not primarily a halachic issue but a boundary issue. It is what distinguishes them, in the eyes of those on their right, from those on their left. It is the final remaining issue which keeps them from being lumped together with the Reform Movement. It is what allows them to continue to enjoy whatever legitimacy they are granted by the rabbinate in Israel.

But they will not be able to morally defend their position to Jews here at home much longer. Their constituency is quickly realizing that there is no one behind the halachic curtain except a small, impotent man trying desperately to push and pull the levers which create an illusion of God mouthing their own will. They themselves can no longer even bring themselves to make their arguments publicly because they know how hollow they ring and how transparently homophobic they are.

Though I certainly do not recommend that any gay or lesbian person follow in my footsteps—the price is enormously high emotionally, and in retrospect, I frankly wish I had not been so fervently compelled to follow the voice that led me into that particular wilderness—I do not believe that concealing my sexuality in order to attend the seminary was morally or ethically wrong. Injustice, even injustice masquerading as halachah, must be confronted and resisted. In either case, I reject the fiction that the Seminary’s policy on gays and lesbians has one iota to do with halachah. If it did, the administration would be compelled to disbelieve even the confession of one’s own homosexuality based on the halachic prohibition of self-incrimination, among other things.

I refused to walk away from the Conservative Movement and pretend to be a Reform or Reconstructionist Jew. I chose to respond to the Seminary with a form of peaceful halachic civil disobedience. What has upset them most is not that I purposely went into the closet to go to rabbinical school, but that I had the audacity to come out once I was ordained. (They don’t bother the gay and lesbian Conservative rabbis—of whose existence they are admittedly aware—who continue to remain in the closet.)

I was asked to write this essay three years ago, but could not.  It has taken me these three years to purge their shame which I’ve carried around as my own. This essay is my first attempt to write about my experience at the Seminary and I know that I am still way too close to it all to see it clearly. But now I can finally begin to write. This is what I am able to write today. I know that, with the passage of time, I will be able to write about it with more perspective.

In the meantime, I think I’ll take that diploma out of its cardboard tube and frame it.

The title of this essay was taken from a line by Abraham Joshua Heschel, “To say no in the name of a higher yes,” which appears in his book Man’s Quest for God.