Standing out or blending in?
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Standing out or blending in?

Rabbi explores texts on looking like everyone else — or not — at a partnership minyan in Tenafly

Rabbi Sarah Mulhern
Rabbi Sarah Mulhern

There is a fact that is exciting for some of us, unnerving for some of us, and supremely uninteresting for some of us, but true for every single one of us — we each make a statement with the way we choose to look every time we leave the privacy of our own homes.

We each have a multitude of looks to choose from — put together, casual, formal, colorful, bland, in style, out of style, beyond style.

And we also can choose whether or not to look Jewish.

We cannot, mind you, choose our features, and that is not the point. Some of us have stereotypically Jewish features, and some of us — probably more of us — do not. That’s not optional. But the way each of us chooses to present to the world absolutely is.

Rabbi Sarah Mulhern of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America will discuss the choice of looking Jewish, based on texts as old as “first century and as recent as last week on Facebook,” as she put it — the way Jews have addressed looking Jewish across both time and space — at a lunch and learn after davening this Shabbat at Minyan Tiferet (see box).

“I’m interested in the question of how people display their identities through their clothing, and that obviously is a question we can ask about many things — about gender, culture, political affiliations, and marital status, among many others. People can articulate all sorts of things about who they are.”

Although it is hard to understand with any degree of dispassion why “there is a human desire for someone walking down the street, some stranger who you will never interact with, to know how you voted, or what your favorite team is,” Rabbi Mulhern said, that desire is real.

“And I’m also interested, as a rabbi, about Jewish identity.” Given our need to be public about at least some aspects of who we are, “what does that say about how we understand Jewish identity, both for ourselves and for the community?” she asked.

On Shabbat, Rabbi Mulhern said, she will explore three categories into which the texts about choosing to look Jewish fall.

“A group of texts says that it is a strong Jewish value to look different,” she said. “A second one says that it would be a nice thing to be able to do that — to have the luxury to do that — but we can’t. And the third says that it is important to look like everyone else.”

Each group includes a range of ideas.

The texts that fall into the first group range from the goal of dressing distinctively to show your separateness from the corrupt culture in which you are forced to live to “helping build your own internal culture cohesion,” Rabbi Mulhern said. In our culture today, “do we want to look different to say something positive about American multi-ethnic pluralism?” Do we not care much about the surrounding culture and choose to focus the message on the community we’re accepting rather than the one we are rejecting, at least visually? Or “do we want to be a minority? Do we choose not to pass as white?”

The middle group, Rabbi Mulhern said, is largely “instrumental. It says ‘It would be nice — but we need economic success. I have to be able to walk in the halls of power” — and it’s hard to do that in peyes and a black hat.

“And then there are texts that say that we should dress in a way that is respectful of the culture and the time that we’re part of,” she said. “We value the society, and we want to be part of it, to take part in it. We want our respectful dress to be intelligible to the people around us.”

Rabbi Mulhern plans to open with a discussion, move to the text, and then go to a discussion. “It will open to a broader conversation about what these texts tell us and what their implications may be.”

Rabbi Mulhern, 32, has a bone-deep understanding of how it feels to be an outsider in a culture that is not at all hostile but still in many ways is deeply foreign. “I grew up in Salt Lake City,” she said. “My family of origin was deeply Jewishly involved, we were Jewishly committed, we were ethnically and politically Jewish, but I wasn’t observant then. And I was the only Jewish girl in my high school. The vast majority of the other kids were Mormon. I grew up with a sense of distinctness.”

She chose to go to Brandeis, Rabbi Mulhern said, because “I knew that there would be many Jews there.

“That was the first time I ever encountered Jewish text study,” she said. It was the first time she’d ever seen a page of Talmud. The effect was electrifying. “I fell in love with Jewish observance, and with text,” she said. “I became obsessed with it.

“I was supposed to go into public policy,” she added. “My undergraduate degree was in Middle East studies and economics; really, my background in economics has been useful.”

That love affair with Jewish text started a years-long course of studies in yeshivot. “I really started quite literally not knowing which way to hold the siddur,” she said. “And then I was blessed to have the opportunity to learn for a number of years in Israel.” She studied at Pardes; back in New York, she also studied at both Hadar and Drisha. Understanding that the Jewish world was the world in which she had to live, she worked at the American Jewish World Service developing service learning programs.

But even that wasn’t enough.

“It became clear that I had to go to rabbinical school,” Rabbi Mulhern said. “I really fought it — but God can yell in your ear for only so long.

“So I went to Hebrew College.”

Hebrew College is in suburban Boston; it’s a pluralistic school that ordains rabbis and cantors and offers degrees in Jewish thought and practice. “It was an amazing experience,” Rabbi Mulhern said. “I learned with people who had radically different perspectives and experiences. It was really a gift. I learned so much.”

Rabbi Mulhern is a complicated person. As much as she loved Hebrew College, it did not fully satisfy her. Now, she said, “I am completing Orthodox smicha.” It’s private, from Rabbi Daniel Landes, who lives in Israel and is a former director of the Pardes Institute. “I spent one year studying in Israel full time, and now I’m finishing remotely.”

Why does she want the second smicha so different from the first? “They offer such different fields of study,” she said. “In Hebrew College, I learned how to be an American rabbi. I learned talmud Torah, pastoral care, and how to run a nonprofit organization. The Orthodox smicha is much more focused on very deep study of Jewish law. It’s about supplementing the education I got in Hebrew College, which didn’t tightly focus on questions of adjudicating Jewish law.

“It’s about the art and science of learning how to answer halachic questions.

“I live a halachically observant life,” she said. “People were coming to me with questions, and I want to be able to be authoritative in answering those questions.”

So what does she call herself? Not surprisingly, Rabbi Mulhern is not a big fan of labels. “I describe myself as halachic,” she said. “Everyone else can decide what I am. I am interested in being the best person I can be Jewishly, and in being the best rabbi I can be. I don’t need to be involved in turf wars.”

She is not pleased by the idea that the question of gender — of what a woman legitimately can do in the Orthodox world, of what her place should be — is “the dividing line,” she said. “That is a strange thing. That’s the line, rather than belief in God, or commitment to the legal system?

“There are a lot of places where we can draw a line, and it is interesting that we are drawing it on women’s bodies.

“I understand that many Orthodox people do not see me as Orthodox because of my belief about what the Torah demands of Jewish women, but I just want to teach Torah and defend the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Mulhern lives in Riverdale, N.Y., with her husband, Rabbi William Friedman, and their toddler, Eliana Mulhern-Friedman. She is the manager of rabbinic and lay education at Hartman, “fostering teachers of Torah,” she said. She also teaches there.

“My deeply held belief is that Torah can grow and expand only if different people and different beliefs and different perspectives come into the beit midrash,” she said. “There are things that my female collaborators can see that haven’t been seen in thousands of years. We are doing important work.”


Who: Rabbi Sarah Mulhern

What: Will teach at a lunch-and-learn program after Shabbat davening

Where: At a private home at 36 Oak St., Tenafly

When: Davening starts at 9:30; the potluck lunch-and-learn begins at about 12:15, more or less.

For more information: Go to minyantiferet.com

You might want to know: Minyan Tiferet is an Orthodox partnership minyan; there is a mechitzah, men lead the parts of the service that need a shaliach tzibur, and women can lead the other parts. Both men and women read Torah. It is based on the model of Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem.

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