The Torah of Inclusion: A Conversation with Montreal's Rabbi Lisa Grushcow
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow received her B.A. from McGill University and spent three years as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, where she earned a master’s degree in Judaism and Christianity in the Greco-Roman World, and then a doctorate. She was ordained a rabbi in 2003 at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and served as associate rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City until 2012, when she became senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El Beth Sholom in Montreal. In 2015, The Jewish Daily Forward named her as one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis.”
Rabbi Grushcow is the author of Writing the Wayward Wife: Rabbinic Interpretations of Sotah, editor of The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, a contributor to The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, a columnist with the Canadian Jewish News, and the current writer for ReformJudaism’s Ten Minutes of Torah.
ReformJudaism.org: Tell us about growing up Jewish in Toronto.
Rabbi Grushcow: I grew up in a Conservative home, went to a Jewish day school and summer camp. Jewish practice was very integrated into our lives. We had family Shabbat dinners and went to shul Shabbat mornings.
When did you first start thinking about becoming a rabbi?
When I was a teenager, people were saying women couldn’t or shouldn’t be rabbis. My reaction was: If you’re telling me not to do this, then this must be of interest.
While at McGill, I applied to the Jewish Theological Seminary, was accepted, and deferred – but the rabbinate became more of a calling a few years later, when I came out as a lesbian and realized the Conservative Movement was no longer going to be a home to me.
It gave me a real appreciation of the Reform Movement’s approach to inclusion. When I started making my way into Reform Judaism, reading writings on outreach by Rabbi Alexander Schindler, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, was very important to me
You’ve described yourself as an “immigrant to the Reform Movement.” In what sense did you feel like an immigrant?
I was coming from a more traditional Jewish background but was welcomed by Reform Movement and given the space to figure out who I was, where I was going, and how I could make a contribution.
When I got placed as a student pulpit rabbi, I realized that the differences between Conservative and Reform were not as relevant as I had always thought; we were all doing the same thing in terms of being Jewish, praying to God, connecting with each other, and learning Torah.
Inclusion seems to be a concept that’s at the core of your rabbinate. Why is it so important?
I’ve come to understand that there are two Jewish approaches to Jewish survival. One is to set up barriers to protect our tradition from being diluted and lost. The other is to say: This tradition has survived for more than 3,000 years – with the world changing around it and it changing, too – and it has been strong enough to interact with the outside world and welcome people in without disappearing.
The Reform approach is to say, “Yes, Judaism is precious – but we don’t have to be afraid to let people in.”
In your Ten Minutes of Torah commentary on Parashat Sh’lach L’cha, on the evolving role and meaning of wearing a tallit (Numbers 13:1-15:41), you open with a 95-year-old congregant telling you she feels estranged because the practice runs counter to her understanding of Reform Judaism. You write that, “on an individual level, the experience of wearing a tallit can be like being wrapped in something holy, creating a sacred space for prayer, and on the communal level it can be seen as Judaism’s big tent.” How is your study of Torah influenced by your experiences as a congregational rabbi?
I am always learning from my congregants, and including their perspectives and insights allows me to see Torah with new eyes. Another example: In my Ten Minutes of Torah commentary on Parashat Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89), I talk about a congregant who has developed her own version of a Nazirite vow in terms of her recovery from addiction.
What do you see as the main attribute of an effective spiritual leader?
There’s a line I learned early on, and it’s always stayed with me: “People need to know that you care before they care about what you know." Ultimately, I don’t think you can do this work, if you don’t love Torah, and if you don’t love people.