In the span of her career, Rabbi Rachel Adler has gone from a self-identifying Orthodox Jew to a Reform rabbi teaching at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. She’s swung from being a rabbi who once argued the value of family purity rituals to speaking against them.
The author and teacher is now working to erase the gendered practices that are a part of Judaism while finding a home at a Conservative congregation in the heart of Jewish Pittsburgh.
Adler garnered national attention in 1971, while still identifying as an Orthodox Jew, when she published the article “The Jew Who Wasn’t There: Halacha and the Jewish Woman.” Fifty-one years later, the piece is acknowledged to be the first work of Jewish feminist theology/ethics.
Adler earned a Ph.D. in religion and social ethics from the University of Southern California with a conjoint certificate in Judaica from Hebrew College and a master’s in English literature from Northwestern University, and a master’s in social work from the University of Minnesota.
In 2012, Adler was ordained as a rabbi by the Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary institution where she is a professor of modern Jewish thought, emerita.
Adler left the sunny weather of Los Angeles for Pittsburgh in 2020 to be near her sister, Laurel Coppersmith.
“We had a great year of being in the same place, and then she developed a very fast-moving metastatic cancer and, seven weeks after the diagnosis, she was dead,” Adler shared.
After her sister’s death, Adler decided that Pittsburgh was her community, and she would stay and do what she could “to make myself useful.”
Adler is beginning to make connections in her new city, but COVID hasn’t ended for the rabbi, who is immunocompromised and is wary of joining large groups and careful about social distancing.
One place Adler is comfortable is the Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom. It was Adler’s sister who suggested she try the congregation — and she now attends the daily minyan there, saying Kaddish for her sister.
“Halachically, legally, a sibling is obligated for 30 days, but Laurel’s husband is dead,” Adler said. “There is no one else to say Kaddish for Laurel. I decided Laurel deserved the full 11 months, and that’s what she’s getting.”
That type of thinking is a hallmark for the rabbi — tradition mixed with personal interpretation. For example, Adler taught classic liturgy at HUC.
“The thing I taught my students was that a healthy shul has nonconforming daveners,” she said.
Of course, she explained, being a nonconforming davener doesn’t mean doing whatever you’d like.
“There are times when you have to stop and do what the congregation is doing. Other times, you get to do it the way you want to do it,” she said before explaining that individualism should take place in the back of the shul so as not to be a distraction to others.
Adler followed these rules in her early days at HUC, she said, when she was one of the few women who wrapped tefillin.
“By the time I left, there were plenty of women putting it on,” she said.
The author of several books on Judaism and feminism including “Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics” and numerous articles, Adler is an expert on gender and Judaism. She said she thinks beyond the two-gender paradigm.
“There are a lot of ways of doing gender equality,” she said. “Gender blindness is a policy of ignoring gender. It can result in a subtle slippage in which we notice only those things about women that they have in common with men. That’s not a good idea. I started thinking early on about real gender justice and letting everyone be who they are. That’s an evolving thing because a human being is an evolving creature. There are kinds of genders now that didn’t exist when I was writing ‘Engendering Judaism.’ So, it’s my obligation to inform myself about that and try to get to know those people and understand them.”
Adler takes that obligation seriously. She uses multiple pronouns for God when praying and is learning a nonbinary form of Hebrew.
“I talked about it in ‘Engendering Judaism’ a long time ago because it’s a complicated problem,” she said. “The liturgical language that we internalize is our gateway to kavanah (intention).”
It will take someone more than a year, she said, to go through the liturgy and alter the prayers to make them non-gendered.
“It’s a hard sell,” Adler said, but she’s used to hard sells. When she first got involved with congregational life, women didn’t want to lift the Torah out of fear of dropping it. She reassured them that if they could carry a squirming baby, they could lift a Torah. The metaphor worked.
When she’s not rubbing up against traditional Judaism or spending time as a nonconformist davener, Adler is learning her new adopted city and enjoying the Squirrel Hill neighborhood she calls home. She still teaches and is in the initial stages of a project with Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Seth Adelson.
“There’s a lot I like about this city,” she said. “I love living in Squirrel Hill and having everything Jewish so accessible. I love that there are shuls in walking distance and that you can see all kinds of Jews walking on Shabbat or Yom Tov. Those things are very precious to me. This is a kind city and I like that so much.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.