Jordana Gerson is a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in New York. In 2003, she received a master's degree from Harvard Divinity School. Her writing has appeared in Lilith, Boston Magazine, Delicious Living!, The Boulder Weekly, and the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, where her work appears periodically.
Rabbinical School Is Ruining My Love Life
or "I Promise God Won't Smite You for Taking Me Out to Dinner"
Reprinted with permission from Jewcy.
July 30, 2007
"So," he says in a low, soft voice, leaning across the table. "Tell me, what does Judaism say about sex?"
"Be fruitful and multiply," I say flatly, and start laughing.
"What does that mean?" he asks.
"It means that the Torah and the rabbis thought sex was a good thing. None of that abstinence and celibacy for them--that's Christian. No ascetism, no celibacy. Judaism's not really into celibacy. It thinks sex is natural, and beautiful, and sacred. Or that it should be anyway. There's no guilt attached to it, really."
"No guilt?" This makes him happy.
"Yeah." I say, "Which is great. But then there's that clause. The one that says that once you sleep with someone, you're supposed to keep them."
"For how long?" he asks. He's a law student. He knows about clauses.
"Life." I say, raising my eyebrows and shrugging.
"What do you think?" he asks.
I grin. "Remains to be seen," I say, and return to my sushi.
Over the last three years, I have had this conversation on at least five different dates with five different men--all of them Jewish. Before rabbinical school, and before divinity school, my dates didn't ask me about sex. But ever since I became "Jordie-the-almost-rabbi," the men I've dated have been intensely curious about my sexuality and what Judaism does (or doesn't) bring to bear on it. I've become--without my desire--a one-woman sexual ethics committee.
Dating never starts this way. It starts at a party, or a lecture, or a meeting. I meet someone new, I turn on my Jew-dar, we make small talk, he asks me what I study. I say religion. He says, "Oh really? What religion?" I say, "Christianity and Islam," hoping to prolong the inevitable, and then I feel guilty and say more softly, "and Judaism." If he's obnoxious or pretentious, or if he has a sense of humor, I'll add, "Circumcision and smiting, too."
"What do you want to do with your degree in religion?" he asks.
"Become a rabbi," I say.
If I like him, or think that I might, I'll do whatever it takes not to tell him that.
"Oh," he says, and goes quiet. He's now picturing the rabbi at his home synagogue, comparing me to the bald guy with a gut who dresses up as a baseball player every Purim. "That's intense," he says. The R-bomb, it's fail proof. It always shuts them up.
If he thinks I'm cute enough, if he's not getting bible-beater vibes, he'll continue, and then he'll ask me out. Nothing like going out with the guys for a beer and telling them you're dating a rabbi. A cute one, he'll add. In tight jeans.
The eroticization of this profession is stunning. He'll call me up from work and whisper, "Hey, Rabbi Gerson." Flinching, I'll look around for my father, Rabbi Gerson the first. The mystique of this profession turns him on. He thinks it'll be like being in bed with God. He wonders if I'll speak to him in Hebrew.
But far worse--and more common--are the men who fall for me but won't touch me. For many Jewish men in their 20s, you can't just date a rabbi. You have to be serious about her. This Madonna-whore complex has wreaked utter havoc on my dating life, and produced more conversations with the word 'marriage' in it than I want to recall. ("Marriage?!" I want to say, "Are you crazy? I just want to date you, for God's sake. Just relax!"). But too many Jewish men think that they have to be serious--on-the-road-to-marriage serious--to even casually date me.
Even now, I'm still trying to figure out what serious means to these men, but I think it's mixed up with the possibilities of what could happen when something as messy and complex as sex and sexuality becomes mixed up with God and what we hold most sacred. Sometimes I feel like the enormous ambivalence evoked by the meeting of divinity and sexuality is an ambivalence I provoke in the men that I date, and the repercussions of this have complicated or ended relationships that in any other universe would have been just great. There's nothing as frustrating as dating a great guy who adores you but is afraid to touch you because he's worried that he'll incur the wrath of God. (Or be smote. Be careful when and with whom you joke about smiting.)
The bottom line is this: too many of the men I date make significant assumptions about me without getting to know me first. They assume I'm Shomer Negiah (I'm not), they assume I'm strictly Shomer Shabbat (I'm not), and they assume that my commitment to a lifetime of Jewish leadership makes me--or should make me--a Puritan. If I'm comfortable with my sexuality, they're shocked. If I wear a low-cut shirt, they're scandalized.
I've had my share of flings since graduating from college. Almost all of them--before rabbinical school--were with non-Jewish men. My relationships? With Jewish men exclusively. Believe me when I tell you I didn't plan it this way, nor did I intend, for better or worse, for this to be the case. We don't fall in love with people, even if our mothers would like it, because of the religion they were born into.
But the non-Jews, they knew better. They knew that in my world they were not welcome, at least not for long. Well, by me, maybe, they'd be welcome. But not by the places I was going, and in the communities I would someday lead. Non-Jewish men assumed our relationship couldn't become serious--and after the Jewish men who put me in the serious category automatically, this was an enormous relief. Ask first, I say. Because you don't know.
Dating as a rabbinical student has made courtship--an ordinarily fraught, and occasionally painful endeavor--that much harder. It's hard to ask men to see me as a woman first and clergy second. It's hard to explain that I want to leave the baggage and blessings of my work at home (or at synagogue) when I'm on a date. And sometimes, as anyone who's ever dated in New York City knows, it's just hard.
By being enough of a feminist to train for the rabbinate, I've unintentionally saddled myself with age-old gender stereotypes, issues that the majority of women my age don't have to address anymore. Questions about how to talk about my career--or whether to talk about it all--and issues surrounding how I dress, whom I date, and what I do on those dates crop up in ways that "Free To Be You and Me" never warned me about.
The problem is this: I'm not willing to give any of this up. Not my sexuality, not my spirituality, not my Judaism, and not my career. I want it all. And as a third-wave feminist, I want to believe that I can have it. I expect it. So mah la'asot? What to do?
For the moment, I'm working on kicking the "rabbi" word out of the room on dates. My title doesn't belong on a date. It doesn't belong between me and my lover. So these days, I'm looking for a man who can ignore it, or at least realize that this word is not me, that I am more than the sum of its parts. Then, I hope, he can get to know me as me and not as the role I will someday have.
The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.