Avram Ha-Ivri (Genesis 14:13). Abram the Hebrew. Out of all the Avot, it is only Abr(ah)am who received this as his epithet. What does it mean? The Midrash (Genesis Rabba 42:13) offers a number of possibilities. One of them would translate ‘ivri’ as ‘beyond’ suggesting that it highlights Abram’s journey from ‘beyond’ the Euphrates river. Another interpretation notes that ‘all the world was on one side (iver) and [Abraham] on the other side.’ The notion of ‘Ha-Ivri’ offers a way for us to address the many questions we have about Abraham’s motivation: why was he able to hear, and answer, the call of ‘Lech lecha – go’? Abraham as ‘Ha-Ivri’ becomes our mythological, archetypal, boundary-crosser on a journey across the artificial boundaries that close off ideas, communities and people from one another. This week the Leo Baeck College community is mourning our own Ivri: Rabbi Sheila Shulman, a true crosser of boundaries.
A comparison with Abraham is helpful for me as I mourn her and begin to process the impact that Sheila and her teachings had on me and on so many of her congregants, students and colleagues. In writing a D’var Torah I usually take the ‘Davar’ part – meaning ‘thing’ or ‘word’ – literally, using words to talk about other words of Torah. As I reflect on Sheila’s life I’m reminded that our lessons in Torah are actually best expressed in the meeting of words with life. Sheila did not just teach her Torah, she embodied it. A Talmudic principle, stated by students as they look at the daily behaviour of their teacher, springs to mind: ‘this too is Torah and I must learn it’.
The Torah itself reminds us of this by beginning with Genesis and the lives of our ancestors. You might have thought that the Torah should have begun with the laws in Exodus which tell us how to live. Instead it begins with narratives of human beings which explore the parallel question: why we live.
This is the role of narrative, of stories, in our theological thinking that Sheila was so committed to. She taught our course on Narrative Theology at the college and could respond with an appropriate narrative to any question. Whenever I shared a struggle with her, her response was always to recommend a text. She taught me that tensions and questions could not be resolved, instead they are held in that tension within a story or a poem or by a thinker. For all of us who were told by her to take our questions to Buber and Rosenzweig in ‘The Builders’, or to an Adrienne Rich poem, or to Dostoevsky in the Brothers Karamazov, Sheila’s teaching lives on in those texts that held the questions and tensions of her life.
Sheila’s Torah was broad. As she crossed the boundaries of different communities she held on to the foundational texts from each place, bringing poetry, literature, western philosophy and radical politics each to enrich the other. She was keen to state, contra Rosenzweig, that she was not bringing these parts of herself ‘back’ across a boundary into Judaism but that she was allowing these parts to dialogue with one another. They were not to be subsumed by any whole.
This was the core of her teaching: a commitment to the open dialogue between people and ideas. The result of this was an invitation to her students to be fully themselves. She modelled an integration of the disparate parts of ourselves that conventional thinking might have encouraged us to erect boundaries around. She showed us how to cross these boundaries of ideas whilst maintaining a critical edge over each part. She was adamant that arriving at an end point, reaching the metaphorical home, was not possible because, in the words of her much loved quote from Ursula LeGuin: ‘You can go home again…so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.’ Sheila’s Torah pushed us on a quest for meaning, a meaning that would be held in narrative but never reached. She resonated with the ‘lech lecha’ of Abraham as he went out to act in the world but she needed that action to be in the mode of struggle, as embodied by Jacob at the Jabbok. Through these texts Sheila acknowledged that she was adopting a prophetic posture that could, like the prophets of the Tanakh, speak truth to power. This posture valued rage. Before meeting Sheila I was not used to hearing expressed anger as a part of our call to action in the world. Now I see the value in anger, and the tension between that and my yearning for happiness.
It is on shabbat afternoon that the Torah portion for the week shifts to the next one. Sheila died surrounded by her friends and students on shabbat afternoon as the ‘Lech lecha’ narrative began with Abraham’s response to his calling to go out into the world, to cross boundaries even if everyone else was on one side and Abraham was alone on his side.
Shabbat lech lecha is also the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Leo Baeck z’l the teacher of our teachers’ teachers. Now it will also mark the passing of Sheila who linked her students into this chain of tradition. Mishnah Avot (1:1) recounts the chain of tradition from Sinai to the men of the great assembly who said three things: ‘be patient and careful in judgement, raise up many disciples and make a fence to protect the Torah’. Sheila raised up many disciples. She taught those disciples how to push apart those fences that others had placed around the Torah and replace them with transparent, critical and emotionally resonant fences around the Torah which we, her students, understand to be as much a part of the tradition that we inherit as any other.
Thank you Sheila for being our teacher in the way of Abraham, the boundary crosser.
Student rabbi Daniel Lichman
During the writing of this Dvar Torah I re-read and drew upon two of Sheila’s essays: Reading Whole (2010) and Worldly Jewish Women: A Possible Model (2004).
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.