I recently studied the Pardes story in Tractate Chagigah of the Babylonian Talmud. This story is a complicated, mystical journey. The Mishnah starts by asking what extremely sensitive topics are difficult and, therefore, should only be taught in small groups. The presence of G-d is one of those topics. In the Pardes (literally “Orchard”) narrative, four rabbis go in search of G-d’s presence. It’s a life-changing event. Only Rabbi Akiva comes out alive and intact. Ben Azzai dies. Ben Zoma “was harmed” – this is interpreted to mean that he lost his mind. Elisha Ben Abuya becomes acher, or other, a heretic who is forever changed by his experience.
This narrative stuck with me, particularly the stories about Elisha Ben Abuya, who, although still respectful and learned, remains forever “othered” by his experience. He’s unable to be included, or to properly reconnect or embrace communal Jewish life again.
When I was 14, I decided I wanted to become a rabbi. For years, this was my goal. I was actively involved in my congregation. My mom, a Jewish professional, started a Jewish nursery school, and then went on to become a director of education and, finally, a temple administrator/executive director. That building and community were like my house. I knew it inside and out. The rabbi’s family was extended family to me. We had picnics and cookouts, I played with their kids. I knew that Jewish professionals were people I loved. It made becoming a rabbi seem attainable.
I lived in Israel for a year in high school. I went to and worked at Jewish camps, studied Hebrew and Near Eastern studies in university, taught religious school and Jewish music and served on a religious school committee. I helped lead services. Then, in my last year of university, I interviewed at not one, but two rabbinical schools. I started with the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College (HUC). I later interviewed at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC).
I wasn’t accepted. Looking back, with a lot more interview experience, I can easily see that the interview process was flawed. The committee asked illegal, uncomfortable questions. The process didn’t judge me on my academic skills, Jewish involvement or merits. I was told, after the “try again next year” rejection, that I needed counseling. (Not career counseling, but just vague “counseling.”) Since my family was closely tied to the Reform movement, I heard later that, in that cohort, the competition for women to be accepted was much harder than it was for men. Many more women applied than men did, and there were reportedly quotas. At the time, women hadn’t reached parity in the field. The seminary didn’t want to accept more than 50% women.
Later, I watched several people, including a guy I had dated in university, get into rabbinical school and become a successful rabbi. He had lower academic grades and less Hebrew proficiency than I did.
RRC’s interview was much more respectful. I appreciated it, but they suggested that they weren’t sure I was Reconstructionist. They also rejected my application, again with an invitation to resubmit later, when I was “sure.”
Losing the life goal of becoming a rabbi was a difficult identity shift. I focused on what I had wanted out of the rabbinate: Jewish learning, chances to teach and lead services, build community and write about Jewish topics. I pursued a master’s in education and started teaching. I moved, got a dog, and got engaged … all serious commitments. It meant I wouldn’t suddenly be reapplying to rabbinical school and flying off to spend a year in Israel. I didn’t want to put off my life any longer to face rejection again.
On social media, I recently watched a long-time teacher transition out of the classroom to another kind of consultancy work. It was a flashback moment. More than 20 years ago, I was a high school teacher. I also taught religious school and tutored kids for b’nai mitzvah. Teaching was a huge part of who I was as a person. However, I wasn’t sure that my position was ideal. I still wanted to study more. I decided to go back to graduate school. This coincided with getting married. When I returned to get a religious studies degree, it felt like I’d lost any sense of authority, despite having a master’s degree and teaching experience.
In the graduate program, I earned a tiny stipend as a teaching assistant. Nobody cared that I already knew how to teach. While I did learn a lot, mostly on my own, I had the bad luck to enter a program that was splintering. A lot of faculty left, including my advisor. Without an advisor, I finished with only a second master’s degree, and went back into an educational administration job. I continued moving for my husband’s academic career, becoming a shape-changer in terms of my freelance work life.
I’m now in mid-career and, while I’m not a rabbi, I achieved some of my goals. I study more, have taught some, and I write about Judaism. That said, reading about Elisha Ben Abuya’s “othering” as a result of his experiences really struck home. Many of us have had these life-altering shifts of identity. Sometimes, it is individual, like a teacher’s career change or a divorce or the death of a loved one. Sometimes, like the millions fleeing war in Ukraine, Syria or Afghanistan, it’s a complete departure from life as they knew it. It can be soul-crushing. Some die, like Ben Azzai. Some are unable to maintain their sanity, like Ben Zoma.
One’s career or life can change gently, but often it’s sudden, like in war or with a swift rejection. Sometimes, it is a sapling or “shoot,” a hope for new direction, cut down, as Ben Abuya’s experience relates. Our lives shift. We change identities and directions. However, through all this, Jewish traditions can offer us a story or a metaphor from which we can learn or with which to identify.
Elisha Ben Abuya’s story is a tough and sad one. It also offers solace. I suspect more of us have had this gut-wrenching experience than we want to admit. Acher/Ben Abuya was public about his angst and struggle – and his community did try to help. Perhaps there’s a lot to be gained through processing and acknowledging our hardest experiences, even if, in Acher’s situation, his relief and resolution came only long after he died.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.