In the Mishnah, the early sage Yehoshua ben Perachia taught: Aseh l’cha Rav v’na-keh lecha chaveir. Establish for yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a companion. Sometimes they turn out to be the same people. Sadly, I lost a great rav and chaveir this week with the sudden death of Rabbi Judith Abrams.
Judy was that rare combination of intellect and passion. Armed with ordination from HUC, class of 1985, she then went on to be the first woman ever to earn a Ph.D. in Talmud from Baltimore Hebrew University. She was a dynamo in person, urging her classes to respond, to react, to grab everything they could find in the text. She wrote prolifically – everything from children’s high holy day prayer books to a book on Jewish parenting that she co-wrote with her husband, to regular weekly lessons from Torah that she posted on Facebook.
She is most famous as a great Talmudist, and she had a great gift for making Talmud study accessible and inviting, and its stories compelling and relevant. She wrote many books on the Babylonian Talmud. Most recently, she dove head-first into the Yerushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud, or, as she put it, the “other Talmud.” She invited colleagues to study with her in person, on her internet site, and in weekly conference calls.
Our paths first crossed just after I was ordained, when I was asked by the CCAR Journal to review her book on Illness and Healing in the Jewish Tradition. It was a treasure, a beautiful compilation, translated into English, of Jewish texts from Bible to modern day, dealing with the mitzvot of seeking healing and giving healing, of coping with pain and suffering, of medical ethics, and of the sacredness of health in Judaism. She wrote me a note thanking me for the kind, supportive review. It is still one of my go-to books when I’m looking for sources on healing and health.
Our paths crossed again a few years ago, when I was asked to lead the team writing the below-the-line spiritual commentary for the new high holy day prayer book that’s now in the works – and I had the honor of having Judy as a member of my team. In partnership with Suzanne Singer, a wonderful colleague from California, Judy produced lovely and thoughtful notes, midrashim, introductions and commentaries. I don’t know that any of it will actually make it into the final version of the book, but I do know how much I enjoyed reading them.
And just a couple of years ago, Judy taught the closing shiur, the closing lesson, at the Women’s Rabbinic Network conference in Memphis. And that’s when I think I figured out Judy Abrams. The conference was dedicated to making our voices heard. Women are not only a small minority in the rabbinate, we also make up only about 20 percent of columnists and pundits whose names and faces appear in newspapers and on tv and on web sites. Our training was not just in how to get a letter to the editor published – but in recognizing the value of our words, that what we have to say does matter. And that we should raise our voices and our profiles to speak to bigger audiences.
Judy brought us a text that made everything fit into place for us. It was a short sugya – a short excerpt – from the Babylonian Talmud. It was sort of a random list of quotations from rabbis about, essentially, what turns them on sexually.
For one it was gazing at a woman’s pinkie and thinking what more there was to see. For another, it was a woman’s leg. For Rabbi Shmuel it was kol b’isha, the sound of a woman’s voice.
This single reference to kol isha, found in three places in the Talmud, is the foundation for every halakhic rule that banishes women to the balcony, or behind the mechitzah, or on the other side of the road. Every rule that says a woman cannot speak in public, or cannot sing in public, or cannot appear in public – even at non-religious events throughout Israel. That forbids the Women of the Wall from praying together, out loud, at the Kotel, the holiest space in the Jewish world. Every time a woman’s voice is stifled, it’s because Rabbi Shmuel just couldn’t control his own urges. That’s it. That’s the reason.
Judy’s shiur clarified everything we’d been doing for four days, all of our studying, all of our training. It helped us understand how we enable and empower those who keep us quiet when we take ‘no’ for an answer. It inspired us to come back to our congregations and our communities and know that our words and our ideas and our beliefs matter, and that they must be heard and respected.
I personally think that’s what Judy Abrams was all about: Making voices heard. Every voice. It’s not accidental that she called the Yerushalmi the “other” Talmud. The other voice – whether it be a Palestinian rabbi of the third century or an American female rabbi of the 21st century – has intrinsic worth. The Talmudim, both of them, are full of such voices – contradictory voices, voices of anger, of conciliation, of minority opinions nonetheless preserved by the majority.
She brought life back to all those voices with her studying and her teaching and her shiurim and her conference calls and her books. Children’s voices should be heard – so she wrote for them. The voices of people who are sick and in pain should be heard – so she wrote for them.
The fact that she herself suffered from chronic illness for years made her attentive and sensitive to the voices that are sometimes ignored or suppressed by a society that often is too busy or too preoccupied to listen.
She used every avenue at her disposal to make all those voices heard. From her scholarly works to her prayer books, from her web site to her weekly conference calls, and most recently to her weekly Torah commentaries posted on Facebook for us all to share. She spoke with passion and with conviction, and with a sensitive ear tuned to current events and how Judaism helps us make sense of a world of confusion.
Just a few days before she died, she posted a shiur about ebola and tracing the treatment of patients back to the directives in the Books of Leviticus and Numbers. She included questions for conversation about how we can handle our feelings and maintain our humanity in the face of such a disease. I have a copy of the teaching for anyone who wants it.
Judy did this all with a great sense of humility. She was never the chacham, the sage, but always the talmidit chacham, the student of sages. B’ezrat ha-shem, she always began her shiur: Please God, help me give those who read my words a little morsel of enlightenment.
I wish she had stuck around a few more days to witness the joyous scene at the Kotel this morning, as the Women of the Wall defied the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate and snuck a small Torah scroll into the women’s section. They not only read out loud from it but for the first time ever, celebrated a full service of bat mitzvah at the holiest site in Judaism. She would have relished every second of it.
In the introduction to her book on illness and healing, Judy wrote, “the selections here were chosen to be inspiring, empowering, and provocative.” This was the essence of Rabbi Judith Abrams, and this is her legacy.