Paper delivered via Zoom to the Joint Meeting of Liberal and Reform Rabbis, 13.09.22


Hello everyone. I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person. As someone designated ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’, I need to keep Covid-safe.

I have been asked by Rebecca and René to speak about individual and personal theology, so here is my take on the theme.

An LSE Sociology graduate-come-Marxist anti-racist activist turned radical feminist activist, writer and editor, who became a lesbian separatist, decides to apply for rabbinic training. Sounds far-fetched?

I had two very good reasons back in late 1983 when I put in my application to the Leo Baeck College.

The first: I felt excluded from Jewish life and wanted to be included and to do what I could to include others and help make Jewish communal existence more egalitarian and inclusive.

The second reason: The Jewish Lesbian group I belonged to – which is where I met Sheila Shulman, Zichronah livrachah – decided to read Emil Fackenheim’s book, The Jewish Return into History[1], and I felt compelled by the additional commandment: ‘Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory’.

As an individual Jew who was an outsider before training for the rabbinate, my approach to ‘individual and personal theology’ emerges out of a triangle of connections:

  • my engagement with foundational Torah narratives that centre on individuals who had to take flight and found themselves alone in the wilderness communing with the Eternal;
  • my determination to enable individual Jews on the margins to participate in and contribute to Jewish life;
  • and back to the Torah again: my reading of key teachings that address the individual and invite engagement.
  1. Torah narratives of individuals in flight and their encounters with the Eternal

The Torah narratives that most capture my imagination are those of Hagar, Jacob and Miriam. When it comes to the flight-tales of Hagar and Jacob, what interests me in their stories is how the protagonists make sense of their experience of the Eternal. So, thinking of Jacob: On the run from Esau’s rage, going to sleep with a stone as a pillow, and then dreaming of the ladder and its ascending and descending messengers of God. When he awoke, he said (to himself): Akhein yeish YHWH ba-maqom ha-zeh, v’anokhi lo yadati – ‘Surely, YHWH was in this place, and I did not know it’[2] ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven’[3]. And so, when Jacob got up ‘early in the morning’, ‘he took the stone that he had put under his head, set it up as a pillar, poured oil over it, and called the name of that place Beit Eil, House of God.’[4]

The story of Jacob is very long. The considerably shorter tale of Hagar, Sarai’s Egyptian servant, is for me, much more compelling. [5] After acknowledging that ‘God was in this place and I did not know it’, Jacob named the place he had alighted upon. Hagar gave God a name. I shall now focus – albeit, briefly, for lack of time – on the first Hagar narrative in parashat Lech-L’cha, Genesis 16.

I studied the Hagar narratives in 1995 when I was preparing my Jewish keynote lecture for the International Council of Christians and Jews conference being held in Budapest that summer on the theme of ‘Speaking of God Today’. The lecture was published latter as a MANNA Essay[6], and then included as a chapter in my book, Trouble-Making Judaism[7].

Let’s remind ourselves of the story. Sarai was unable to conceive. She said to her husband Avram “bo-na el-shiphchati, ulai ibbaneh mimmennah – please come into my servant-woman, perhaps I will be builded up through her.” Avram complied and when Hagar became pregnant “va-teikal g’virtah b’eineha – her mistress was contemptible in her eyes.” Aware of this, Sarai spoke to Avram, who told her “hinneih shiphchateich b’yadeich asi-lah ha-tov b’einnayich, behold your servant-woman is in your hand do with her whatever is good in your eyes.” So, Sarai treated Hagar “harshly” and “she fled from her presence into the wilderness”, where a malakhYHWH “found her by a spring of water (ein mayyim) on the way to Shur.” The malakh-Adonai addressed her and asked her where she was coming from and where she was going. When Hagar responded, ‘“I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai”, the malakh-YHWH told her: “Return to your mistress and submit yourself under her hand.” The malakh-YHWH also offered Hagar hope for the future: “I will multiply your descendants exceedingly, so that they shall not be counted for multitude.” More directly, the malakh-YHWH addressed her immediate predicament: “Behold, you (are) with child, and you shall bear a son. You shall call his name Yishma’eil because YHWH has heard [shama] your affliction. But the promise about Yishma’eil was not all good news: “He shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him. And he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.”

How did Hagar respond to this startling other-worldly encounter and its revelations? Was this Egyptian servant-woman bewildered? Overwhelmed? Overawed? We read at verse 13:

Va-tikra sheim-YHWH ha-doveir eileha: ‘Attah Eil ro’I’

Then she called the name of YHWH who was speaking to her, ‘You, God, see me’;

ki am’rah: “hagam halom ra’iti acharei ro’i?’

for she said, ‘have I even here seen after (one who) sees me?’

And as we know, the text doesn’t end there. We read at verse 14 that the material landscape was then named for this ephemeral revelatory incident and Hagar’s response to it:

Al-kein kara la-b’eir: B’eir Lachai Ro’i

Therefore, the well was called: ‘Well of the Living (one who) Sees me’ ;

hinneih vein-Kadeish u’vein Bared.

behold, (it is) between Kadeish and Bered.

So, Hagar’s experience in response to Divine encounter, was not only recorded in the Torah, it was marked on the map.

There are many familiar elements to this tale of domestic rivalry and abuse and some very remarkable ones. The Egyptian servant-woman did not simply experience God in the wilderness, communing with her in her distress, giving her hope for the future, the power of the encounter impelled her to name it, to name God: ‘Attah El ro’i – You, God, see me’. As Jane Litman points out, ‘Hagar is the only person in the Hebrew Bible to name God.’[8]

Hagar’s naming of God may remind us of Moses’ encounter with the Eternal at the burning bush and his request – on behalf of the Israelites to whom he would be reporting – to know God’s name[9]. But unlike Moses, the changeling-prince-turned-fugitive, who had been saved from the plight of his fellow Hebrews as a baby, Hagar knew what it was to be subjected to the will of another; she had tasted bitterness and despair. Moses was quietly tending his father-in-law’s flock when he led them astray achar ha-midbar, ‘behind the wilderness’[10], but Hagar fled into the wilderness, wild with desperation. When she met the Eternal and God recognised her pain and spoke to her hopes and her fears, she did not have to ask for God’s name, she uttered the name which her experience evoked in her: ‘Attah Eil ro’I – You, God, see me’.

Hagar is not one of the Bible’s celebrated heroes: An alien; a servant; a lone woman; other, dependent, utterly marginal. Yet out of her distress, she heard God’s voice and she found the words to express her experience. And so, she becomes a model for each and every one of us – particularly for all those who have not had the courage to speak yet or whose voices have not been heard. Hagar’s tale is a source of inspiration, reminding us that the powerless have the power within them to name God – and also that each individual has that possibility.

But that’s not all. Would that Hagar, the progenitor with Abraham of Islam, might be regarded by Jews alongside Jacob/Israel as an inspirational figure, teaching us that the struggle and experience of individuals in the search for meaning is integral to communal existence. Further, given the extent to which the foundational Torah narratives focus on the lives of individuals and their encounters and relationships with the Eternal, perhaps, instead of seeing those tales as a preamble to the core story of the Jewish people that begins with the Exodus from Egypt, they should be integrated into our understanding of what it means to live as Jews, so that as we engage in the cycles and practices of Jewish life, we allow our personal stories and journeys to shape the ways in which we live Jewishly.

  1. Enabling individuals to contribute their gifts to the community

Which brings me to another side of the triangle of connections that shapes my approach to individual and personal theology: the emphasis in my rabbinic practice on enabling individuals who are, or have been, outsiders. This has been made possible, practically speaking, because of my commitment to meet with each and every individual who has contacted me in search of a rabbi to talk with about their personal circumstances and journeys.

I’m not talking about my extra-congregational work. Whenever I’ve been contacted over the years, I have always arranged to meet with the individual concerned – and to meet with them at the synagogue, conscious that when an individual makes a decision to talk with a rabbi about their personal issues and challenges – such as, a difficult family history, experiences of exclusion, marginalisation and isolation, their search for meaning – they are often trying to reach out and to forge new connections. And so, in my experience, enabling individuals on their journeys includes enabling them to find their own ways of connecting as individuals with community and to identify for themselves how to make meaning out of their personal lives as individuals in a communal context.

Of course, when an individual makes contact with a rabbi, what they might choose to do next doesn’t just represent a challenge for the individual concerned. When a congregation opens the door to an individual and welcomes them in, congregants and shul leaders alike must be prepared to make space for them and enable them to bring their gifts to the community.

  1. Key Torah teachings that address the individual and invite engagement

Thinking of the gifts that individuals bring to the community, let me turn to the third side of my triangle of connections: the key Torah teachings that I read as addressing individuals and inviting engagement. The first of these is the opening passage that introduces the last five parashiyyot of the ook of Sh’mot, which focus on the building of the mishkan in the wilderness. We read at the beginning of parashat T’rumah, Exodus 25, verses 1 to 8:

The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: / Speak to the Israelites, that they take for Me an offering – t’rumah; from everyone whose heart makes them willing you shall take my offering – mei-eit kol-ish asher yid’vennu libbo tik’chu et-t’rumati / And this is the offering that you shall take from that which is theirs: gold, and silver and brass; / and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats’ hair, / and rams’ skins dyed red, and sealskins and acacia-wood; / oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense; / onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the cape and for the breastplate. / Then let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them – v’asu li mikdash; v’shakhanti b’tokham.

Every individual who makes contact with a rabbi in search of connection, or who approaches a congregation directly, is not only looking to be helped and welcomed, they have gifts to offer; their own personal gifts for the building and enrichment of community. Rather than simply absorbing new members, congregations need to be prepared to be transformed by their presence and by their contributions.

But, of course, when individuals bring their gifts, the onus is not only on the community to embrace them. Each and every individual – both, those coming inside from the outside, and those already ensconced in congregational life – are challenged to actively engage with Jewish teaching and practice. For me, the Torah text that expresses this challenge most evocatively and succinctly is from parashat Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 30, verses 11-14, which Jews around the world will be reading in our shuls next Shabbat:

Ki ha-mitzvah ha-zot asher anokhi m’tzav’kha ha-yom – For this commandment that I am commanding you today – is not too wonderful for you nor too remote. / It is not in heaven that you need to say, “who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us that we may hear it and do it?” / It is not across the sea that you need to say, “who will cross the sea for us and fetch it for us that we may hear it and do it?” / For the word is very near to you; in your mouth and in your heart to do it – Ki-karov eilekha ha-davar m’od; b’phikha u’vilvav’kha la’asoto.’

I have elaborated my responses to both these Torah teachings – from T’rumah and from Nitzavim, respectively – in different chapters of Trouble-Making Judaism[11]. I offer them to you today as expressions of my approach to ‘individual and personal theology’. In my view, what is most striking about this passage from Nitzavim is the way in which it stresses singularity: ‘For this commandment: singular; ‘that I am commanding you: singular; ‘For the word: singular; is very near to you’: singular; ‘in your mouth’: singular; ‘and in your heart’: singular; ‘to do it’: singular. As no doubt we are all aware, the reference here to ‘this commandment’ gave rise to rabbinic speculation concerning whether the teaching concerns any particular commandment. According to Nachmanides,[12] for example, ‘this commandment’ is a specific reference to the command to repent, since a passage a few verses earlier includes an exhortation to ‘return to YHWH your God’ – v’shavta ad-YHWH Elohekha[13]. But since the Book of D’varim speaks elsewhere of ‘the’ or ‘this commandment’ in the singular[14], we might conclude that it either means different things in different contexts, or that expressions in the singular should be understood to encompass the mitzvot as a whole.

From the perspective of the individual engaging with the Torah, the statements in the singular in the Nitzavim passage juxtaposed with the references to the communal context – ‘who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us that we may hear it and do it’; ‘who will across the sea for us that we may hear it and do it’ – only serve to reinforce the power of the closing verse as a direct challenge to the individual: ‘for it is in your mouth and in your heart to do it.’ Moreover, the order – ‘mouth’, then ‘heart’ – is suggestive of how the individual may go about imbibing ‘the commandment’: from the mouth, that is literally, the interface between the public and private, to the deeply personal and internal domain of the heart.

Taking these two passages from T’rumah and Nitzavim together, they may be understood as evoking an interplay of individual engagement between giving and receiving – the individual contributing their personal gifts to the community and receiving teaching as they engage with the words of Torah. But as we can see in the Nitzavim passage, clearly, receiving is not the end of it. And so, alongside giving and receiving, there is a third dimension: ‘for it is in your mouth and in your heart to do it.’ Words must be translated into practice. Further, words and actions are one. Or, to put it another way – with my old Marxist hat on – in my approach, ‘individual and personal theology’ is a theology of praxis; a philosophical concept adopted by the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, to express his philosophy of the unity of theory and practice.[15]


In conclusion, for me, ‘individual and personal theology’ is a theology of engagement, encompassing personal experience, personal encounter with Jewish teaching, and personal practice that enhances, both, the individual and communal existence – and, ultimately, the wider society and the life of the world.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Joint Conference of Liberal Rabbis & Cantors / Assembly of Reform Rabbis Meeting

13th September 2022 – 17th Elul 5782

  1. Schocken Books, New York, 1978. Chapter 2 The 614th Commandment.

  2. Va-yeitzei, Genesis 28:16.

  3. Gen. 28:17.

  4. Gen. 28:18.

  5. The Jacob narrative begins at Tol’dot, Genesis 25:19 ff. and concludes at the end of the Book of B’reishit, Gen. ch. 50. The story of Hagar is related in Lech L’cha, Gen. 16 and Va-yeira, Gen. 21.

  6. MANNA, No. 5, Summer 1996.

  7. David Paul Books, London, 2012. Third reprint: 2019.

  8. See ‘Postmodernism, Jewish Theology and Naming God in The Reconstructionist, Vol.59, No.1, Spring 1994, p.78.

  9. Sh’mot, Exodus 3:13.

  10. Ex. 3:1.

  11. Re: T’rumah, Exodus 25:1-8: Chapter 11 Empowering Individuals and Creating Community. Re: Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 30:11-14: Chapter 10 Compelling Commitments and the Impulse for Engagement.

  12. Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman. Born in Gerona in Spain in 1194. Also known as the RaMbaN. He brought his interest in Kabbalah – the mystical dimension of Judaism – to his commentaries on the Torah.

  13. Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 30:2.

  14. For example: Va-etchannan, Deut. 6:25; Eikev, Deut. 8:1; R’eih, Deut. 15:5.

  15. Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) proposed his ‘philosophy of praxis’ in his ‘Prison Notebooks’. See: Antonio Gramsci Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Ed. Quinton Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Lawrence and Wishart, 1998). First published 1 January 1947.