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June 29, 1984 - Image 39

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1984-06-29

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0' .

f, 11 '


or Lynn Gottlieb,
the most meaningful words in
Judaism are "creation" and "coming
out of Egypt." "Creation," for her,
means "renewal"; Exodus means
"liberation and justice and hope."
With these as her Judaic cor-
nerstone, it is not odd that she sees
Judaism as a fluid, organic religion.
There is nothing static about it, noth-
ing hoary or stolid or petrified.
A 35-year-old rabbi now based in
Alburquerque, Gottlieb has come to
symbolize for some people the pos-
sibilities of change in Judaism and
the need to invigorate old and an-
cient traditions. As a scholar, she has
no standing. But as an interpreter, as
a dramatic presence, almost as a per-
former, she has a reputation, one that
fuses controversy with admiration
and innovation with an almost
chasid-like spirituality.
From her convoluted pursuit of
the rabbinate to her creative services
and left-tilted politics, Gottlieb has
been a pioneer of the New Judaism,
something with roots in the raucus
informality of the Sixties, the pop-
mystical quests of the Seventies and
the more sedate, down-to-earth
tempo of the Eighties.
But she has attracted just as
much criticism, almost invective, as
she has praise. Her blend of drama
and sign language has been hailed
for its vitality but panned for its "his-
trionics." Her interpretations of
Jewish tales and legends from a
feminist view has been welcomed as
"unique," but slammed as an "inau-
thentic fabrication."
Arthur Waskow, a member of
the faculty of the Reconstructionist
Rabbinical College in Swarthmore,
Pennsylvania, said Gottlieb has
made "an extraordinarily important
contribution to the chavurah com-
munity. She has been one of the most
powerful Jewish feminists. She was
one of the first to develop the notion
that song and dance were part of mid-
rashic story telling. Her use of dance,
in particular, gave us all a sense that
prayer and midrash come out of your
bones and not just your mouth."
But one observer said Gottlieb
"is a leftover from the Sixties. She
has a very naive view of the world.
She's very talented and she's doing
something no one else is, but she's
always on display, always acting."
And one long-time friend said he
was "fascinated by how much Lynn is
disliked in the chavurah culture. She
is very innovative and she's done
much good. But she does evoke a lot of
hostility. A lot of this comes from her
showiness. She is definitely controv-


Lynn Gottlieb was born in Allen-
town, Pennsylvaniii.e.Sime of her
fondest memories are of ber mother's
performances as a puppeteer.
Gottlieb watched her mother's
growing sophistication in handling


puppets and telling stories and
traveled with her when she toured in
nearby towns. Gottlieb's theatrical
interest stems from watching her
mother's shows and her, improvisa-
tional and story-telling talents date
back to studies under her mother at a
local children's theater.
When she was 11 years old,
Gottlieb read Andre Schwartz-Bart's
novel, The Last of the Just. "That was
the first I heard of the Holocaust,"
she said. "That initiated what I
would call a concern with things of
the spirit, especially as related to is-
sues of justice and human behavior.
That was very much fed by the kinds
of things I was doing in dramatics,
where we could explore the meaning

"She is very
and she's
done much
good, but she
does evoke a
lot of

of life through story-telling and im-
"I had a passion for issues that
were raised through being a Jewish
person, especially in the Reform
movement in the early Sixties, when
the questions of black-white rela-
tions and civil rights were
When she was 14, Gottlieb also
discovered that she had a "passion"
for writing liturgies. She wrote about
15 while she was in high school. Her
Reform rabbi soon suggested that she
might be suitable for the rabbinate,
something she had never before con-
sidered. "That's really been my path
ever since," she said. "Even when I
was an atheist in college, I was still
concerned with theological issues."
But Gottlieb didn't realize that
women couldn't be rabbis. "It wasn't
an issue until I tried to get into the
profession." Then it haunted her for
almost a decade.
Gottlieb, a peripatetic college
student, attended several colleges in
the United States and ended up at
Hebrew University, where she
finished work on her bachelor's de-
gree in 1969. She enrolled at the Re-
form movement's rabbinical semi-
nary, the Hebrew Union College in
Cincinnati, but left after one year be-
cause she sought a more Jewish ecu-
menical education. "I wanted a
broader perpective and the freedom
to choose my teachers. I didn't want
to be in a situation where I had to
study with the same people for five or
six years. Since then, Hebrew Union
has expanded quite a bit."
In 1974, Gottlieb went to New
York, where, seeking ordination, she
knocked on many doors, Although
the Conservative movement still did

not ordain women, Wolf Kelman,
head of the movement's Rabbinical
Assembly, told her around 1974 that
he would ordain her if she took the
same courses at the Jewish Theologi-
cal Seminary that were required for
male ordination. Gottlieb, appar-
ently preferring to continue with her
independent studies, did not take all
the perscribed courses.
In 1979, another establishment
figure, Irving Greenberg, balked "on
purely political grounds" at ordain-
ing Gottlieb. "Lynn," recently said
the director of the National Jewish
Resource Center, "is very creative
and intelligent, but I thought it was
premature to have a female rabbi."
Gottlieb was finally ordained in
1980 by Rabbi Zalman Schachter,
now teaching at the Reconstruc-
tionist Rabbinical College outside of
Philadelphia, and Everett Gendler,
who has a pulpit in Massachusetts.
She is now married and expecting a
It had taken Gottlieb a decade to
join the handful of women ordained
in the United States. She had actu-
ally been working as a rabbi for the
previous seven years. In 1973,
Gottlieb was hired as a student rabbi
by Temple Beth Or, New York's -con-
gregation for the deaf. Then 24 years
old, she was virtually the only
woman in the country serving her
own congregation.
Beth Or, said Gottlieb, "was just
perfect for me. My background in
creative drama tied in with using
sign langauge to express religius
concepts and imagination." In con-
junction with several of her deaf con-
gregants, Gottlieb developed specific
signs to express Judaic concepts and
began incorporating drama, dance
and storytelling into services.
Gottlieb's work at Beth Or
earned. her a national reputation.
Through the drama and kinetics of
her services in sign language, she
gave the deaf, often a forgotten com-
munity, more prominence. Her mas-
tery of sign language — reportedly
something few other student rabbis
had done — gave her work an im-
mediacy and potency.
Author Bill Novak said that
Gottlieb "made enormous contribu-
tions to the deaf, especially in terms
of putting movement and dance to-
gether. Her services were very excit-
ing and uplifting."
But some people saw Gottlieb as
an opportunist. One woman who
attended several services at Beth Or,
for example, acknowledged that
Gottlieb "made tremendous strides .
in bringing Judaism to the deaf. She
broke many barriers between them
and the hearing community. But
handicapped people are more conser-
vative than ordinary people. They
are about the most conservative
people around. Many of them
thought Gottlieb was relating to
them as freaks through her drama-
tics. Some of them wanted ordinary
services, just as if they were ordinary
Gottlieb left Beth Or in 1980,
when she formed Mishkan A Shul, a
congregation on New York's Lower
East Side for the unaffiliated.
Aside from her strictly rabbini-
cal duties, most of Gottlieb's time



, 711-tith



• _


-Friday, June 29, 1984 . 39

over the last eight years has been
devoted to feminism and pacifism
and developing more contemporary,
more political interpretations of
Jewish tales and fables.
As one of the few women in the
U.S. seeking ordination, it was prob-
ably inevitable that Gottlieb would
gravitate toward feminism and poli-
tics. But she was a late bloomer. At a
time when her generation was being
tear gassed and jailed for opposing
U.S. involvement in Vietnam,
Gottlieb was fairly quiescent. Her
mother's chronic illness and
Gottlieb's travels to Israel kept her
from marching along with her con-
temporaries. She was not ignorant of
politics, but she did not especially
perceive her concerns as political.
"For me," she said, "it was more
a realization of the conflict between
justice and injustice. Early on, that
was expressed for me in the questions
of hunger and the abuse of power:
`Why are people hungry? Why are
there poor people?' I first understood
these as theological issues: 'Why does
God allow suffering?' As my theology
got more sophisticated, I understood
that we were called in a certain way
toward justice, but we seldom got
Gottlieb delved into Jewish
folktales and Biblical stories and
came away with interpretations to
support her emerging politics. From
a new perspective, she said, Eve can
be seen as thirsting for knowledge.
This is more positive than focusing
on her banishment from the Garden
of Eden. The presence she said, of the
upper and lower levels of shekinah,
the divine presence which is usually
perceived as feminine, is mirrored in
the Biblical stories of Rachel and

of them
thought Gottlieb
to them
as freaks
her dramatics."

Leah. The former represents compas-
sion, the latter is more subtle, hidden
and reserved. "One of the very excit-
ing discoveries of women's liberation
theology,"'Gottlieb said, "is envision-
ing shekinah — a feminine force — as
a core concept of shalom, withshalom
meaning 'wholeness' and 'comple-
tion' and 'reconciliation'."
Gottlieb maintains that Or-
thodox limitations on women's roles
in Judaism stemmed from sociologi-
cal conditions. "It does seem," she
said, "that at one point women were
called up to read the Torah. But then
the concept of Kibud hatzibur de-
veloped. This meant that it would of-
fend the honor of the congregation for

Continued on Page 44

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