Why I’m Not a Rabbi

By Edie Mueller


I wanted to be a nun when I was young. There was the movie, The Nun’s Story, about a woman going to Africa to care for people. And there were those habits so soothing to the eye: the tidy black and sharply-creased white, a silver cross proclaiming faith. A nun would have her life in order. She would know what was expected of her, face the world with grace and charm, do good deeds all the time and never think of herself or be afraid. This was my vision of a spiritual life.

I’d always felt a strong relationship with the Creative energy, but I’d never found a way to express that spirituality until I watched my daughter study for her bat mitzvah. She had us saying Friday night prayers, and seeking forgiveness during the Days of Awe, and inviting people over to gamble on Hanukkah. I got interested in Jewish learning and I loved it. I went to Torah study every Saturday. I learned how to lead a service, became more engaged with my temple community, taught in the school and took classes at Hebrew College here in Boston. During these years I discovered that my spirituality was expressed in my engagement in study and in community. And when I realized that, all the misplaced building blocks of my life fell into order, like a child lining up the ABCs: I was meant to be a rabbi. I would be able to pray and study and bring people into the community and bring Judaism into the world so that it was understood beyond “The difference between Jews and Christians is that Jews don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Now, you might think that the major qualification for rabbinical school, beyond academic ability, is the character of the person. Is she caring and good with people? Does he love Torah and bring it into the world, give it life? Can she mark life cycle events with the appropriate joy or sorrow? One might think that these qualities would make a person a rabbi. But no. Though these are sought-after qualities for an applicant, they are not the most critical. First and foremost, a married applicant must be married to a Jew.

As I learned at my rabbinical school application interview, there are no exceptions. I met with the rabbi in charge of admissions for Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement seminary in New York. for over an hour. We talked and laughed and seemed to be connecting in a very meaningful way. Then I asked if it would be a problem that my husband was not Jewish. He said (and these are the words exactly as I remember them), “Call me when you fix that problem.”

“Fix”? “Problem”? My marriage was a problem that had to be fixed? This stunned me. I had thought I was the Perfect Candidate. My rabbis had encouraged me to apply. When I asked if my intermarriage would be a barrier they said they didn’t think so. And weren’t we the perfect example of a mixed marriage, for though my husband is not Jewish, we had brought our daughter up in a Jewish household; she was more of a traditional Jew than I! In these days of declining Jewish identity, I had thought, and still think, that keeping Judaism alive in a mixed marriage is a major accomplishment and that I provided a great role model. I had thought I would be welcomed with open arms! And shouldn’t a school that teaches people how to be, among other things, sensitive, judge a candidate by her or his qualities–who she or he is as a person? Why the rigid rules? Even the laws in Torah are interpreted in myriad ways.

But I really thought this was beshert (meant to be). My whole life I had been walking left-foot first, while the rest of the world was right-foot first. Now, though, I’d found a place that felt as if it might be a home for my truest self, like when you’re at the beach and you throw your towel down and wiggle in the sand until it hugs you. I went home and talked with my husband. Couldn’t he convert? He knew all the prayers, said them with us Friday nights. He came to temple sometimes and had supported my daughter in her preparation for bat mitzvah. He didn’t belong to any other religious organization. What could it hurt? The epicenter of my life was presenting itself to me; how could I turn away? When he said no, I said, “Let’s get a divorce–in name only. We can remarry after I graduate.” When I finally heard myself, I cringed. Getting a fake divorce so I could focus on the spiritual? Talk about an oxymoron–or just plain moron!

It’s been 15 years since that epiphany. I’ve dealt with the pain. I’m still an active member of my congregation, but I do think the Reform movement is making a huge mistake, especially now that rabbis can perform intermarriages. One rabbi in my congregation does–he married my daughter and her wife, who was raised Catholic. Another rabbi does not, yet she welcomes all interfaith couples. They get to choose; the school does not. And once a rabbi is ordained, she can marry a person of any faith. In dismissing me, and many others in similar situations, the institution diminishes itself and shows a hypocrisy that is disturbing. On the one hand Reform Judaism is open to mixed marriages; on the other, it denies ordination to those in mixed marriages. Either we are welcome and accepted and treated as equals, or we are not. Second-class citizenship should not be an option.


About Edie Mueller

Edie Mueller has retired from teaching Creative Writing and English at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. To fill her free time, she has worked with the clergy of Temple Israel, Boston, to create new liturgy and services for the Days of Awe. She has also colored a pink streak in her white hair, and begun making jewelry under the name All That Glitters.