As I checked in to the Florida hotel the day before Rosh HaShanah, the manager looked suspiciously at the large, spiral shofar in my bag. I explained what it was, told him I was a rabbinical student there to lead High Holy Day services at the local temple and mentioned that I would need to practice. He was quick to suggest that I use the golf course behind the hotel. Maimonides teaches that the shofar is intended as an alarm, to wake us from the slumber of our sins. For the hotel manager, though, this wasn’t quite the wake-up call he had in mind for his other guests.
So it was that bright and early on Rosh HaShanah morning, I stood on the golf course and raised the shofar to my lips. At precisely that moment, a golf ball hit me on the head.
When I could open my eyes, the first thing I could see was a puff of white chest hair, adorned with a large gold chai. Both the hair and the chai belonged to Morris, my assailant. He apologized profusely and helped me up, and as I started to recover he told me his story.
“I’m not a good Jew,” he said. “I haven’t been to temple in years.” The reason soon became clear: Morris was on the golf course instead of at temple because his son, who had also been his golf buddy, and more important, his best friend, had died years before. Not surprisingly, he had a lot of issues with God.
Morris is in good company. When we talk about what it means to be Other in the Jewish community, it is essential to look at the first Other: Elisha ben Abuyah, the first/second-century rabbi who becomes known as Acher, or Other, because of his apostasy. There are many stories about why he lost his faith, but the most powerful one describes the incident that may have pushed him to reject the central tenets of the Judaism of his time:
For it was taught: R. Jacob said … in connection with honoring parents it is written, “that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you” (Deut 5:16). In reference to the dismissal of the nest it is written, “that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days” (Deut 22:6). Now, if one’s father said to him, ’Ascend to the loft and bring me young birds,’ and he ascends to the loft, dismisses the dam and takes the young, and on his return falls and is killed, where is this man’s happiness and where is this man’s prolonging of days? … Now, what happened with Acher? Some say, he saw something of this nature. (B. Kid.39b)
Like Morris, Elisha ben Abuyah had a problem of theodicy: the question of how God can exist if there is evil in the world. His experience led him away from the Jewish community; he went from being a respected scholar to an apostate. After this break with the tradition, his name was no longer cited in the Talmud.
How do we interact with the Achers in our midst, with those who turn away from the community as a result of their difficulties with God? Some have no interest in returning. In these cases, I think of the biblical phrase, b’asher hu sham, which teaches us to meet people where they are. Sometimes that means simply leaving them be. If we push too hard, it may be a sign that we’re doing it for our own sake and our own self-image, rather than in response to the person who wants to be left alone. Elisha ben Abuyah’s student, Rabbi Meir, continues to engage him in conversation even after his apostasy, and it is worth asking why he is so adamant about trying to bring his teacher back into the fold.
Sometimes, though, those who have become Acher have an openness to coming back in, or at least to having a conversation. In these cases, I envision the role of the rabbi as a sherpa, not a shepherd. “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1) — not me. Rather, the rabbi’s task is to care for the person who is in need. So many rabbis and cantors do a beautiful job simply of caring for their congregants. They might not make “Top 50 Lists,” but they do the critical work of transforming lives every day. They let people know that there is room for them within the communal conversation. The perspective of the Other is invaluable; it’s a voice we need to have at the table. As with the Mikra’ot Gedolot, a collection of Torah commentaries, the most important comments sometimes are written in the margins.
As a rabbi who tries to open the door to “others,” my task is made easier because I am not the stereotype of how rabbis are imagined. I am a woman, a lesbian and a convert. Despite all these characteristics, which might be seen to make me Other within the Jewish community, Judaism is my home. And the fact that I don’t look like your parents’ rabbi sometimes helps people find their way back in. I am always amazed by how many unaffiliated families, when they need a rabbi for a funeral or some other lifecycle event, specifically ask for a woman. Of course, there are many others who insist that their rabbi be a man. But for some of the Achers of our generation, it helps to have a reminder that Judaism is open to change.
Each of us has an Acher inside us, shaped by deep theological questioning, alienating experiences or profound loss. Writing this article reminded me of my own inner Acher. In researching Elisha ben Abuyah, I rediscovered an article on Acher that was written by Sara Duker, of blessed memory. Sara’s fiancé Matt Eisenfeld, also of blessed memory, cherished the tractate of Kiddushin, which is quoted above. It is fitting that their learning be brought together in this way. Matt and Sara were my friends, and they were killed in a terrorist attack on an Israeli bus in 1996. Their deaths shook me to the core, and they still shape me in profound ways. For a time, it was very difficult for me to feel connected to Judaism or God. This article is offered in their memory, and writing it reminds me how difficult it can be to stay part of a religious community and stay open to a relationship with God when you have experienced loss. I know what it is to feel distanced, and I know what it is to find a way forward.
The more we as clergy can acknowledge our own experiences of brokenness and speak about them in our lives, we can show that there is a place within our communities — even for those who feel farthest away. Bad things happen to good people; they happen to all people, spiritual leaders and congregants and communities alike. The most important question is not why these things happen, but how we find resilience and how we respond. It is precisely at these painful moments that we are most in need of connection.
Recently, I had the privilege of teaching a conversion student who had grappled for many years with the loss of her father at a young age. The religion of her youth had been no comfort to her when her father died; in her moment of need, she felt angry and pushed away. It would have been understandable had she stayed away from religion for the rest of her life. But she found her way to Judaism, in large part attracted by the concept of Yisrael as the one who struggles with God. She realized that Judaism could be a place to bring her questions, and therefore it was a place she could build her home.
Our community is strengthened by honest conversation with the internal and external Achers who have suffered and lost hold of their faith. We are enriched by contact with those who see themselves as Other, even when the contact comes in the form of a golf ball to the head.
Rabbi Andrea Myers is the author of “The Choosing: A Rabbi’s Journey from Silent Nights to High Holy Days” (Rutgers University Press, 2011). Ordained at the Academy for Jewish Religion, she has led congregations from the Rocky Mountains to the Borscht Belt, is a member of the New York Board of Rabbis, and now teaches and writes in New York City.