The First Blind Female Rabbi Is Making Sure She Won’t Be The Last

The First Blind Female Rabbi Is Making Sure She Won’t Be The Last


Wisdom And Reflections For A Very Different New Year: Seeking The Divine Face

This piece originally appeared as part of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Wisdom and Reflection For A Very Different New Year series in 5780/2020.

Psalm 27, which we traditionally recite twice daily from the beginning of Elul through Hoshana Raba is one of my favorites. It is emotionally complex and multi-faceted. I wish to be in Your Presence, the psalmist calls out. I desire, I yearn to know You, I seek you, I want to be in relationship. Please show me the good and proper path for my life. I want to dwell in the land of the living, give me strength and a courageous heart. Because so many of the Psalms give us ample opportunity for individual meaning-making. Our reading and resonance with this psalm changes because we change and the circumstances of our lives change.

Our liturgy includes this beautiful psalm, I believe because our tradition in its wisdom understands that we human beings often set lofty goals for transformation this time of year, but when we return to our ordinary lives, we aren’t so good at follow through. I believe that the Book of Psalms has had enduring relevance and power because it is so in touch with the full spectrum of human emotional expression. Psalm 27 is no exception.

I invite us to allow ourselves to fully inhabit all that is arising for us this year, particularly as we daven this psalm. I am struck by the psalmist’s constant yearning for the Divine. In a world that feels like the absence of the Divine Presence is far more tangible than not, this is a spiritual challenge to me certainly and perhaps to many of you as well to allow ourselves to uncover and encounter the Divine’s indwelling presence. Elul is a time when our tradition teaches that G-d is in the field, accessible to us more immediately—perhaps better understood as more viscerally. And yet, so many of us are entering this season of teshuvah feeling disconnected, numb, apathetic, unable to imagine a spiritually authentic and honest way forward. Yet, as Rabbi Nachman, a beloved early Chasidic master famously taught, we must never give up hope or give into despair. I invite us, as we experience the full spectrum of the yearning of this psalm to allow ourselves, as hard as it is, even just for a moment, to pause and feel into that which we are truly feeling, not wishing it away but allowing for it to manifest within. By so doing, we are able to be more honest with ourselves. Our inner work this time of year is aspirationally intended to transform our own souls and the way we show up for the people dearest to us as well as all beings we encounter. How we treat our own soul shows up in the way we treat others. We are witnessing the systemic, intergenerational and structural impacts that discrimination, racism, and all forms of oppression not only have upon a person’s material and social positions, but also the ways in which the mistreatment of others corrodes a society at its very core. May the work we do this time of year not merely lead to our own spiritual growth. May it show up in how we connect with others as well. After all, we were all created in the image of the Divine. We all possess a spark of the Divine within, and we can choose to allow that holiness to be revealed or concealed. May we witness far more acts of genuine care, concern and honoring of one another in the year to come.

Voices from the Bookshare Community: Rabbi Tuchman is Champion of Disability Inclusion

Voices from the Bookshare Community: Rabbi Tuchman is Champion of Disability Inclusion

Facebook Spotlight with IOWA Facilitator, Rabbi Lauren Tuchman

Facebook Spotlight with IOWA Facilitator

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, President & Dean of Valley Beit Midrash interviews Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, a speaker and author, on the topic of “Disability Inclusion in the Jewish Community.”

Rabbi Lauren Tuchman interviewed by the Women Rabbis Talk Podcast

Terumah 5780

Parashat Terumah begins a series of parshiyot or Torah portions chiefly focused on the construction of the Mishkan or portable sanctuary for The Divine which the Jewish people carried with us in the desert. In the second verse of our parsha, we learn that all of the children of Israel are asked to contribute physical material gifts towards the Mishkan’s construction as their hearts so moved them. In other words, these gifts weren’t meant to be given under duress, or because it felt like the communally responsible or right thing to do but were instead explicitly intended to be heartfelt, genuine expressions of love of God and love of community.

We also entered the month of Adar this week. The Talmud teaches, in Taanit 29, that when the month of Adar enters, joy increases. Adar is the month during which Jews observe the festive holiday of Purim, on which the Megillah—scroll of Esther—is read, gifts of sweets are given to friends and family, known as mishloach manot, and giving tzedakah on Purim day is one of the central mitzvot of the holiday.

Though the building of the Mishkan and the observance of Purim are dramatically different—the Mishkan served as a dwelling place for the Shechinah or Divine Presence and Purim commemorates the overturning of Haman’s harsh decree against the Jews of Shushan and beyond, at the root of how both our Torah portion and upcoming observance of Purim are manifested in our tradition, gifts are centered. Gifts which come from a genuine place, gifts rooted in joy and sweetness. Indeed, we learn later in the Book of Exodus that the children of Israel joyfully contributed so many material gifts towards the Mishkan’s construction that they were asked to halt the campaign.

There is something radically subversive about the idea that in this time of profound fracturing, rupturing and chaos, our tradition encourages us to increase our acts of joy. How are we to act and feel joyful when the world is burning? In times as challenging as these, it is all the more important that we seek out things this week, this month and beyond we find joyful and pleasurable. That might include observing Purim in a traditional or less traditional way, it might mean indulging in a favorite food, hobby or activity, it might mean making extra time for reading, contemplation, or other practices that bring us a sense of groundedness and centering. May we find moments in Adar and beyond to increase our personal and collective joy. In those moments when the ability to do so feels far away—trite, even—may we remind ourselves that when we engage in something that brings us joy, we provide ourselves with a critical spiritual anchor we can return to again and again.

Bo 5780

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, contains within it some of the most famous incidents in the Torah. The final plagues of locusts, darkness and the death of the firstborn are mentioned, as well as the introduction of the Passover offering and the observance of Passover as an eternally relevant festival in the life and collective national memory of the Jewish People. Though we no longer offer the Passover offering, the commandment to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt is the mainstay of the Passover seder. The seder is intended to be interactive, embodied and multi-sensory, with an emphasis on children, because it’s not enough merely to tell the story, we must also live into it. As we learn in Mishnah Pesachim 10:5, every single one of us, in every generation, is to see ourselves as if we, too, went out of Egypt. Freedom from slavery in Egypt is not a one-time historical event. It is an active component of our religious and ritual lives and memories. Remembrance of the Exodus appears twice daily in traditional Jewish liturgical prayer—once during the morning service or Shacharit and again during the evening service or Maariv. Additionally, the Exodus is mentioned during the Kiddush or blessing over wine or a grape beverage on Shabbat and holidays. The Exodus from Egypt is one of the six remembrances, six things that some Jews mention daily in addition to their prayers and in Tefillin, the leather boxes that some Jews wear during morning prayers on weekdays containing four passages from the Torah, portions of Exodus 13, the final chapter in our Torah portion are amongst those passages. In that way, the Exodus is part of embodied rituals annually, weekly and even daily for some. It is not meant to remain only in our minds but is intended to impact how we move throughout our world and our lives.

We are commanded to recall our freedom and redemption not merely for ourselves, but as a lesson to us about how we encounter and interact with others. And we know that our Exodus story was not only liberatory for us, but profoundly empowering and liberatory for African-Americans and many other oppressed groups.

There is something profoundly radical and deeply countercultural about Jewish conception of collective memory. In a culture profoundly influenced by Western conceptions of linear time, history is removed from our lived experience, apart from how we move throughout our world and, consequently, something we might learn about intellectually but not something we need to consider or integrate into our modern experience. Put another way, if time is linear, and we progress over time, then lessons from the past might inform our present but because progress moves ever forward and never backward, we can be grateful that we’ve learned from the past and certainly don’t carry any of the values from that checkered past into our more enlightened present. Though this idea allows for self-congratulation, we sense instinctually and intuitively how wrongheaded it is. More often, it serves as a stumbling block towards realizing real liberation and redemption for us all because it inhibits our ability to examine systemic challenges at their roots, unwilling as we often are to come face-to-face with the work left undone in the world.

At its best, the Jewish tradition, by centering the Exodus narrative, asks us to be constantly mindful of the freedom we experienced so that we never cease yearning and hoping for a better world, a place where the Divine Presence or Shechinah can truly dwell. During periods of tremendous oppression for the Jewish people, remembering the Exodus was an act of deep spiritual resilience. We must never give up on the world as it should be, even as we live in the world as it is. We learn in Perkei Avot that we may not finish the work, but we are not permitted to cease from doing it. Social change takes generations, solutions often do not come overnight. Yet, when the going gets rough, we are not permitted to walk away, to throw up our hands despairingly. We learn from many of the great Chasidic masters—Rabbi Nachman of Breslov amongst them—that we are never to succumb to hopelessness, never to give up and that, as he famously said, the world is a very narrow bridge and the most important thing is not to be afraid. The Piaseczna Rebbe teaches that when redemption feels far away, we can and must create our own moments of personal joy by engaging in acts and activities that bring us delight.

When we feel like the road to a more abundant and equitable world is never-ending, may we be mindful of our tradition’s call to us to recall our own freedom, so that we might remain hopeful, resilient and able to continue the work for the long haul. When burnout and depletion feel like they are going to get the better of us, may we create moments of joy and redemption for ourselves and our communities, so that we may fully live into joy as we fully grapple with the brokenness of the world around us. Joy is essential to a healthy spiritual life and is necessary if we are to keep working, never ceasing in our struggle for justice and freedom.

Reflection on Isaiah 66

This reflection originally appeared as part of the 929 Project, the study of a chapter of the Jewish Bible or Tanakh each day.

Our chapter, the final in the Book of Isaiah, presents us with a variety of contrasting and paradoxical motifs. A beautiful, redemptive conjuring of Yerushalayim is juxtaposed with the ways in which those who do evil in the world or do not follow Hashem’s ways will be treated. We are reminded that the world is Hashem’s, entirely brought about by Hashem. How, then, to reconcile a yearning for redemption, a yearning for full consolation, consolation beyond measure with the seemingly steadfast presence of those who act wickedly, and turn away from what is right and good? How are we to deal with the disappointment and anger so evident in our chapter? This anger is no less real and present for many of us today than it was for the Prophet Isaiah. Cosmic yearning is no less real in our time. For many of us, the world as it is and the world as it should be feel as though they are lifetimes apart. Disconnection from self and others, to say nothing of our worrisome disconnect from and disregard for nature and from source often leave many of us feeling unmoored, adrift, destabilized.

Yet, our people have remained resilient, hopeful, always yearning for, imagining and dreaming of a more redemptive future for themselves and all others. As we meditate upon the beautiful verses in our chapter which describe a redemptive consciousness, may that give us the strength we may need in these times. Maintaining our Emunah, our faith, in a world consoled utterly, in a world in which all thrive can nourish our spirits and our imaginations for what comes next.

Rabbi Lauren Tuchman organizing for liberation remarks Join for Justice October 3 2019

4 Tishrei, 5780/October 3, 2019

The following remarks were presented as part of a public event sponsored by Join for Justice at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, Massachusetts on October 3, 2019. The event featured Rabbis Lauren Tuchman and Becky Silverstein.


Organizing for Liberation with Rabbis Lauren Tuchman and Becky Silverstein


Shanah tovah and gmar chatimah tovah! A happy, healthy and liberatory new year to us all. Such hakarat hatov—sincere gratitude—to all of the staff at Join for Justice. It is an honor and privilege to be with you all tonight. I want to begin my remarks this evening with a brief introduction to myself and how I came to do the work I do in the world. As Jihelah noted in her kind introduction, I was ordained at JTS in 2018. I was lucky and blessed to have gotten my start in community organizing under the mentorship of Rabbi Elizabeth Richman and Jews United for Justice through their Jeremiah fellowship. Upon learning in my first year of rabbinical school that Join had a class for New York area rabbinical students to learn community organizing and how to apply it as clergy, I jumped at the chance to participate the next year. And the rest, as they say, is history. In addition to being in the clergy leadership project in 2014, I have had the honor of working with Join in a variety of other capacities, most recently as an advisor for the new Empower Fellowship, a cohort within Join’s Jewish Organizing Fellowship that cultivates the power and leadership of Jews with disabilities and brings more trainings about disability justice to the fellowship as a whole.

As someone who has almost always been the only blind person in spaces I inhabit—educational, social, communal—I am very aware of what it means to be othered. My life experience teaches me over and over again the importance of genuine, mutual, authentic and reciprocal relationship, which is one of the many reasons I find community organizing as a method of social transformation to be so powerful. This is not about checking off a diversity box or thinking the work has been done by token representation. Rather, it is about all of us rolling up our sleeves and doing the hard, messy and, yes, ultimately rewarding work of building relationship and coalition across lines of difference. I inherently do this every day, as a blind person living in a very visual world who has had to learn to develop skillsets for both navigating that world as well as conveying to others how I, as a nonvisual person, live in the world both differently and also in the exact same way. Relationship removes mystery, fear and uncertainty. I have often wondered why, in my albeit nonscientific and limited experience the disability community is largely absent from social justice movements and language. Is it fear of that which we don’t know and cannot understand? Are we still stuck in transactional models, wherein people with disabilities are being served and unable to serve ourselves? Are we not yet seen as peers, as equals? Relational organizing, I believe, turns this paradigm of the us and them, the serving and the served on its head by requiring of all of us the deeply human and necessary act of opening up our dalet amot—our own little worlds—to get to know others genuinely and without pretense.

Being part of such a small, if also quite dynamic minority community—the blind community specifically and the cross-disability community more generally which is nearly 20% of the human family—has also taught me the importance of the interplay between the collective and the individual in social transformation work. One size never fits all. As one example, the technology I use to accomplish my computing needs is both unique to me and used by others. I, for example, am a Braille reader—the preservation of Braille and the importance of Braille literacy in and amongst the blind community are passions of mine—and yet, I understand and teach that no tech combination works for every person. Though two people have a similar impairment, the accommodations needed and the way in which that impairment manifests might vary tremendously based on any number of intersecting factors. Taking the time to build relationship across difference, even amongst our own communities, is both an exercise in checking our ego, which, I grant, many of us who have had to fight our entire lives for access and who have lived in a world of seeming scarcity often have a challenging time doing when different methods for accomplishing the same task are brought by others and it is also an exercise in humility, knowing what I don’t know is as important as lifting up my expertise is.

In a world of increased polarization, where fewer and fewer of us want to emerge from our own bubbles and echo chambers, where we spend endless hours arguing and lamenting the missteps of others, in a world where call out culture often serves more to humiliate and shut down than to educate and open up, the work I do in the Jewish disability space specifically has forced me to sit with my own unchecked biases, to learn how to humbly stand in my knowing and in my growing edges, and has taught me how to communicate across a broad constituency. That work is often very difficult. It also keeps me on my toes, as I have to learn to translate terms that are common in social justice spaces into language that can be understood in a variety of settings. I have had to learn to communicate the ikkar—the essence—of disability justice theory to many people for whom my speaking was their first exposure, and I have had to subsequently amend, challenge and refine my thinking. If I believe, as I do, that people with disabilities ought to be able to access religious spaces that are the most authentic expressions of their religious orientations no differently than people without disabilities, I have to grapple with the painful reality that this world is far from the world as it should be, and that part of organizing for genuine social transformation is learning how to find those commonalities that bind very different and often uncompromisingly so groups of people together. What does it mean, for instance, to be a blind, egalitarian Conservative rabbi who, at one time, regularly interfaced with Cheredi organizations, knowing that was, for that time, my only option for getting the religious materials in the exact format I needed? I felt in those moments a deep constriction, hiding myself, who I am and my own religious integrity, all for the benefit of access. I have no doubt that were I to have sat down with those Cheredi organizations and asked them about their attitudes towards combatting ableism and living in a barrier-free world, I doubt that language would have resonated in the same way. I feel certain, however, that their work is deeply rooted practically in the needs of their own communities—blind people are obligated in most positive time-bound mitzvot, and thus must be given the ability to fulfill their religious obligations no differently from sighted folks. We might not have used the same language to describe the impact of our work, and, it goes without saying that we think very differently about the role of women in Jewish life, but in their own small way, they are creating a world in which the Shechinah can truly dwell, by upholding the dignity of blind folks who seek them out. Kavod habriot, the inherent dignity of every human being, and every living being, is central to Jewish understanding. We are all created b’Tzelem Elokim—in the image of G-d, no being is created any more or any less in G-d’s image. Nevertheless, human beings have often chosen arbitrarily to assign social value to people based on ability or seeming lack thereof. Disability justice theorists have often made the distinctions between impairments and disabilities. Impairments are often static facts; disabilities are social constructions. Though this theory is itself binary and not without its own need for further nuance and explication, it does help us move collectively to an understanding that the human being is more or less disabled by their environment, and that one way of making a world in which all can thrive is to create environments in which folks who live with any number of impairments or disabilities are able to bring their full selves. When we all come to recognize that as beings with agency, we are able to make different choices about the world we’d like to live in, if enough of us come to this understanding, regardless of where our starting point is, together, we can do a lot.

Amongst the many lessons I have learned through my work as a rabbi in the Jewish disability space, working with people where they are is perhaps the most important. In an era of social media soundbites, decontextualization and a knee-jerk reactive culture, sometimes, being deeply uncomfortable is the necessary thing to do. How are we to get people to move with us if we aren’t able to meet them amidst the problematic stew of misperception about disability that is alive and well in our culture? In this season of teshuvah, of turning and returning, of striving to live in right relationship with ourselves and with others, we have a uniquely potent opportunity for a reset. Resetting does not mean erasure. Our slates are wiped clean on Yom Kippur, yes, but that only applies to sins between ourselves and Hashem, not to sins between ourselves and others. For that, as the Rambam famously teaches in his Laws of Teshuvah, we must approach the one whom we’ve wronged for forgiveness, sincerely commit to change, deeply regret our past behavior and, as he teaches, when the same or a similar situation arises, not to repeat our past misdeed. In that way, we’ve achieved a complete teshuvah. A mentor of mine once taught me that to do social justice work inevitably opens one up to erring, constantly it feels like. Are we to feel utterly frozen, trapped by those errors and missteps we all make? We’re all in process, culturally conditioned, and constantly unlearning and re-learning. The Days of Awe aren’t about achieving perfection. They are, in their rawest form, about the messy reality of the human condition. They are about us coming to terms with the fleeting nature of life, its inevitabilities, its twists and turns. They are about self-reflection, often hard self-reflection, but they are not about achieving perfection and beating oneself up when one unavoidably does not achieve that elusive perfection. I believe that this is something that we must remember all year. If we are to live in a more liberatory community and a liberated world, we must both have the humility of knowing what it is we are striving to improve upon as well as knowing what it is that we are doing well. We move from the awesome nature of the Days of Awe a few short days later to the time of our rejoicing at the holiday of Sukkot. If we aren’t able to celebrate our wins as organizers, the joys in the world all around us, but instead focus on our shortcomings and those areas in which we missed the mark only, we will be left uninspired and burned out, unable to co-create a world of abundance. The struggles of all of our lives aren’t the only things about us. When we take the time to build relationships, to do those listening campaigns, and to invest something of ourselves genuinely in others, we leave those encounters with a holistic understanding of who we are, who are folks are, and how, together, we can continue to build a world of love, dignity and liberation.