(JTA) — When I was growing up in New York, I wanted to become a rabbi. This would not have been a problem, except for two factors. I was a woman, and I was Orthodox.
This was 30 years ago, when I was in my early twenties and this notion was more radical than it is today. I applied to Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, and my application was not even acknowledged. Instead, I went to the Drisha Institute’s Scholar’s Circle program, where we studied what our male counterparts were studying at Yeshiva, but we were not ordained.
Then I moved to Jerusalem, where I met Rabbi Arie Strikovsky — a native Israeli who was teaching at various religious educational institutions. He invited me to study with him for rabbinic ordination. Ten years later, when I also received my doctorate from Bar-Ilan University (writing about the menstrual purity laws and mikveh, or ritual bath), he granted me his personal semicha, or ordination, despite the backlash he knew he would inevitably receive from his Orthodox rabbinic colleagues.
My teacher liked to be called by his first name only, Arie. Although physically slight, he was strong, fit and nimble, both a wrestler and mountain goat-like hiker. He had a white beard (which made him look older than he was) and very thick glasses.
His students felt comfortable addressing him by his first name because although he did not demand respect, he earned it — not only because he carried the entire Talmud and other rabbinic and kabbalistic literature in his head (one could open the Talmud to any page and he could recite it from memory), but because he manifested his understanding of what that knowledge was about — divine lovingkindness — into the world in such an unassuming way.
When Rabbi Arie died in Jerusalem May 21 at age 80, he was remembered as an iconoclast. Born and raised in Israel, he received his Ph.D. in Bible studies from Yeshiva University. He was among the founding faculty of Pardes, Jerusalem’s inclusive, non-denominational yeshiva, and served as the rabbi of the Nahal Eshkol congregation in Jerusalem.
He was a prize student of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the famed head rabbi of Y.U., yet he went against the institution to ordain me. He did not believe in gatekeepers. He believed in open doors. He taught with no agenda. He did not try to convince his students — most of whom were not Orthodox — to become Orthodox. He spread divine light in the container he experienced it, Torah, but left its application and interpretation to the person receiving it. That does not mean he shied away from discussing theology or philosophy, however. He was just not dogmatic about either.
One of his students, Rabbi Eric Michael Solomon, suggested why Rabbi Arie chose to teach at the English-language Pardes, which attracts students with a range of religious observances and theologies. “He could learn Torah with any of the best talmidim [students] in Jerusalem, but his intellect was too broad and too outside of the box,” wrote Solomon, a Conservative rabbi. “He felt more at home with us.”
Rabbi Arie was extremely vision-impaired, so he could not drive; he got around on buses. He could read only with the page right up against his eyes. But because he knew so much of the text by heart, he had no need to look inside the book, except to double check a word here or there.
He was also a mystic, a kabbalist. As another of his students, Patricia Eszter Margit, put it, he could not see what most others saw in the physical realm, but saw things in their essence. When he looked at a glass of water, he saw the divine letters that made up the water and the glass. That was the way he saw the world and everything in it — including all human beings. He saw them as human souls made up of divine sparks, vessels of divine energy on earth.
For those 10 years we studied together, I participated in his Friday morning Talmud class at an institution called Machanaim, a yeshiva for Russian immigrants. Rabbi Arie held a special place in his heart for Eastern European Jews and converts to Judaism. He believed some born in Eastern Europe after the Holocaust were endowed with “bigger souls” with a larger capacity for influence. He was always willing to help those whose Jewish status was being challenged by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. It was not unusual for him to interrupt class to conduct weddings of Russian immigrants other Orthodox rabbis refused to marry. He even flew to other countries, using his own personal funds, to help students having trouble with their conversions.
Rabbi Arie cherished adopted children and adoptive parents. Three of his four children were adopted. He believed there was a greater divine plan to how souls find their families, as do I. When my husband Jacob and I were in the process of adopting one of our children through the Israeli child welfare system, he wrote a letter to the Rabbinate attesting to our religiosity, although he knew that our approach to being religious did not align with that of the Rabbinate. His letter was crucial for our son’s conversion through the Rabbinate and thus for his adoption to be approved.
I was not in close contact with my teacher for the last years of his life. I left Jerusalem and Orthodoxy (calling myself a post-denominational rabbi) and received a second ordination from an interfaith seminary. My Judaism is no longer rooted in Jewish law but rather spiritually centered. I distanced myself from him so people would not use my choices against him. Although I know denominational labels and politics were not important to him, I want people to remember him as, among other things, the Orthodox rabbi brave enough to pave the way for other Orthodox rabbis to openly ordain women (as other rabbis did in secret before him) and with the institutional backing he did not receive — which they are, indeed, doing today.
Rabbi Arie did give me his blessing for the mikveh I founded on Kibbutz Hannaton. Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, is the only ritual bath in Israel open to all to immerse how and when they please — a mission in line with his outlook. I feel his energy there daily, as well as in the work I do with clients (including many rabbinical students) as a spiritual companion and dreamworker, helping others understand the messages in their dreams. I know he believed as I do in dreams being a portal to the divine.
My teacher died on a Shabbat, but I only found out Sunday morning shortly before the burial. That Saturday night, however, I had this dream: I am in my bed asleep and open my eyes. I look around and everything I see is made of sparks of light. I look up and see a huge snake above me, also made of tiny sparks of light.
Snakes are a sign of transformation and transition. Rabbi Arie’s soul has left his body, but his sparks are still with us. For a few moments, he gave me the gift of seeing those sparks and the world as he must have seen it: every piece and aspect of Creation (including all humans) sparkling with divine light.
The day after the burial, I was walking to the mikveh to officiate an immersion ceremony I had crafted for one of my spiritual companioning clients, a patrilineal Jew marking the completion of her first year of rabbinical school. Suddenly, a large black snake slithered down the path in front of me, leading the way.
Rabbi Arie will always be with me and us. We should only be worthy to receive his light and spread its sparks around the world.