An Interview with Rabbi Margaret Holub 
Rabbi Margaret Holub in front of the Jewish Temple in Caspar. 
Rabbi Margaret Holub in front of the Jewish Temple in Caspar

Judaism has always been affected by the places and cultures in which Jewish people have lived. This makes Judaism very rich and diverse. Our community is touched by feminism and women's spirituality, and this affects how we approach traditional Jewish practices and teachings. Locally, women seem to be in the forefront of spiritual life of all flavors. The circle tradition as practiced here-whether pagan or Native American-has brought an egalitarian and emotional content to our Jewish community. I feel that in moving here, I started the most important schooling of my life. I've learned so much from women and men, about what it means to live in community together. For that I am thankful.
When I think about being a rabbi, I imagine two approaches-one as a shamanic or priestly channel of divine energy and the other as an organizer. I tend to be on the organizer side, but I am beginning to respect the part of my role that is priestly or shamanic, as something I feel I will grow into. In practical terms I do everything I can to make the Jewish community here strong, interesting and alive. I lead services-weddings, funerals, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and other kinds of life cycle occasions. I find different ways for the Jewish community to support people who are ill, troubled or in crisis-whether through prayer and spiritual means or through food and other practical things they need. I lead Shabbat and holiday services, teach (mostly adults and teens), help organize the infrastructure of the Jewish community and get out in the larger coast community in various ways as well. 
     The area I serve is officially from Elk north to the top of the county and inland to Anderson Valley, but there are a few heroic people who come from further away to participate. When I first came here nine years ago I was the only Rabbi between Santa Rosa and Ashland. I was going all over the place-inland to Willits and Ukiah every month, and also less frequently up to Garberville and down to Sonoma County. About seven years ago I was able to let go of all that circuit riding and just be here on the coast. I do have to watch my boundaries and not spread out too much. 
     We have a board of directors that raises my salary and the budget for the local Jewish community. We have no stupendously wealthy people here and I am very aware the people struggle for what they contribute. If someone calls on the phone and says, "I need your help," I don't know if they have contributed. I make sure I have no idea where the money comes from so I am not swayed by things like that. I do know that every penny comes from local folks, and I feel very honored to be supported by them. 
Rituals & Gatherings 
We do traditional and also non-traditional rituals. The latter have now become so ingrained in the life of our community that I don't always notice the difference. For instance, the Mikveh, a ritual of immersion in water (baptism came from the Mikveh), is traditionally associated with menstrual impurity. Married women are supposed to wait until they are not bleeding, count a certain number of days and then go to the Mikveh. Then they can have sex with their husbands. This idea that menstruation is somehow impure or polluting is obviously problematic for progressive Jewish women. There has been a lot of conversation about this ritual in the traditional community also. Here, a number of years ago, a woman who had just ended a difficult relationship, felt she needed some renewal and support. She asked me and some friends to go to the Navarro river with her. We conversed with her and then she immersed in the Mikveh in the traditional fashion-three immersions and certain prayers. It was so renewing and cleansing that we now do these for all kinds of non-traditional occasions-for growth and transformation occasions and to prepare for holidays. 
     We do a new moon gathering every month. One tradition of 2000 years ago says the new moon is a day for women to rest and feast. Yet it was more or less a blank category of a holiday because, as a women's holiday, it wasn't used that much over the centuries. Jewish women all over the globe have begun to revive Rosh Hodesh (the new month) and see it as an invitation for a women's gathering. We are just one group doing this. We cobbled together this ritual almost nine years ago, borrowing pieces from different aspects of Jewish tradition. Its ritual center is a ceremony called Havdalah, usually done at the end of the Sabbath when the night has come and the stars are out. Using a braided candle, spices and sweet wine, 
    it marks the boundary between Shabbat (the sabbath) and the days of the week. We use Havdalah to mark the new moon, the boundary between one month and the next. We have enlarged this ritual by adding other things. We wash our hands as we would before a Passover Seder. We name people into our circle who aren't there, and we blow a kelp horn at the end. This year we have added biblical study (from a women's perspective) in the middle of the new moon celebration. My initial dream was that we would write a women's commentary on parts of the Bible. This month we looked at a section from a little book called, Sarah, the Priestess  by Savina Teubal. It raises the hypothesis that some of the biblical matriarchs may have been priestesses of matriarchal and goddess traditions. This author suggests that some of the peculiar things in Genesis can be explained by thinking of the marriage of matriarchal and patriarchal traditions through particular people. We tried to track one of her arguments. The time before we looked at the story of the Garden of Eden and at various commentaries on that. We also made a big map of Eden and did some hands-on less cognitive exercises. We are in process of experimenting with intentional and prayerful study as part of our ritual way to welcome the new moon. 

Bet Din, The Jewish Court 
Several years ago the Mendocino Coast Jewish Community invited other Jewish communities (from Garberville, Eureka, Willits, Ukiah, Guerneville, and other areas) to a summer women's retreat that has taken place at the Mendocino Woodlands for seven years now. It started as a new moon gathering.- This cross-fertilization of different Jewish women's personalities, practices and communities was originally a teaching potluck. Anyone who wished to teach or lead or present anything was welcome to do so. More recently we've gotten a little bigger and more organized. We have a theme and usually a special presenter, but a lot of different women still teach and lead rituals. 
     A few years ago an issue came up because a woman had not been allowed to bring her ten year old daughter to the retreat. From the beginning we had decided to not have girls under the Bat Mitzvah age of twelve. This kicked up some strong feelings. Some people said, "I do not want kids at this retreat. I want to have time to myself and not have to be a mother for a couple of days." Other people said, "I've chosen not to have children so I don't want to have them here." Others said, "I've chosen not to have children, so I want to have them here." "I have children and I want my children included." This was very emotional and like a lot of women, I have been in women's groups that have been foundered by this kind of unresolved conflict. 
     When this issue first came up, those of us leading the retreat felt a little panicked, because we had never had a big dissent or unhappiness associated with the retreat before. For the moment we decided that for the next year we would keep our policy but would figure out a thoughtful way to work on this issue over the course of the next year. The following year we set up something like a traditional Jewish court called a Bet Din with three women from the retreat who heard testimony from people about this issue and then rendered a decision. It was a really wonderful process. We borrowed something from the Quakers tradition called "threshing." As I understand it, when there is a conflict in a Quaker meeting, the members go through a very intentional process to seek resolution. One rule is that if someone has already said your argument, you don't repeat it. We used this rule in the context of our Bet Din. People were respectful of that. I was touched by how powerful and thoughtful they were able to be. As a result of using this process, we didn't know how many people were of one opinion. It wasn't a vote or a power struggle-it was an effort to seek out the best possible conclusion from the array of what everyone had to say. The judges had a year to write a one page decision after thinking, studying, and talking. The decision was rendered the following Spring. We now send that paper out with our retreat materials each year. This has given us a model for a way to deal with community conflicts. 
Early Background 
I grew up in Orange County. There was no ethnicity, no culture and basically no spirituality where I grew up. Everyone looked and acted like everyone else. The most exotic thing in that world was that Catholics lived up the street. As Americans, a lot of us have lost a sense of rootedness in a particular culture. Growing up in a white bread world, my family had lost hold of the Jewish tools of my ancestors. 
     It's hard to connect with spirit if you don't have a form. For example, Native people have tools for connecting to the sacred. Here on the coast we see some white people adopt Native American forms for their spiritual practice. Jewish people might say, "Well I was raised Jewish and I had a Bar Mitzvah. I haven't been in a synagogue in twenty-five years and although it was a negative experience for me, I feel I want to reconnect with it right now." Others like me, who didn't have much traditional background are looking into the possibility of a Jewish way of life for the first time. By connecting with Jewish spiritual practices, I now have a useful toolbox- Shabbat, the day of rest, certain prayers, the tradition of Bat Mitzvah, the rite of passage when I'm thirteen, rituals that help me to join with a partner in love and to mourn. I have all this to help me connect with the sacred in the universe. 
     Some people are moved to convert to Judaism as a spiritual calling. This isn't really logical since Judaism is not an easy religion, but most of these people would say that ever since they were a child, they've had some fascination or some pull towards Judaism. It's like they have been following a thread. This is a mystery. 
     One idea related to reincarnation is a teaching from the mystical traditions that there are a certain number of Jewish souls in the world. They are placed into different bodies at different times. Sometimes I have that feeling. I know a woman who grew up on a farm in the Midwest who never really even met a Jew until she was an adult. She was drawn to Jewish characters in books and was curious about the Jews in the New Testament. She just had this incredible pull. So at forty years old she converted. I thought, if there is anybody in the world who has a Jewish soul, she does. 
     I also think being Jewish doesn't work for some people and I respect that. Technically you can't convert away from being Jewish. From a Jewish perspective, even if you practice Christianity or Buddhism, you are still Jewish. But there are certainly Jewish people who find their spirits better elevated by using a different spiritual form. If I am going to respect a person converting to Judaism, I guess I have to also respect Jews who leave Judaism for other paths. 
     Being Jewish is not better than other traditions or religions, but I feel lucky to have a cultural identity. I feel like I fit into a larger story-a history with particular struggles, stories and aspirations. I have holidays, special food, a language, a literature, teachings, and customs. I just read a wonderful oral history of some American Jewish Communists-about that beautiful, proud and tragic part of Jewish-American history. That feels like a part of my history-the legacy and struggle of deepening social change. 
     I'm increasingly aware that my unconscious life is illustrated in different ways by Jewish things. Sitting with some Jewish women the other day, we talked about Sarah and Abraham from the Bible, what their lives were like, the landscape of the desert in which they traveled, their struggles, jealousies, fears and achievements. It all seems like dream material-part of the landscape of my psyche. I relate to these texts. They fill out my inner life a lot. 

I was ordained in 1986. I went to the seminary of the Reform movement for five years after college-a long program. I spent a year in Jerusalem, two years in Los Angeles and two in New York. Back when I was thinking about becoming a rabbi in the late 1970s, the Reform movement was the only one that was ordaining women. Since I went to school, other options have become available for women, but I have a very conventional rabbinical education. 
     Judaism is a very text based religious tradition. We studied the Bible, the Talmud and other texts and were expected to have some conversancy with all these sources and to be able to teach them. Not knowing Hebrew, I spent a lot of my time trying to learn enough of the language to translate these texts. 
     We were also trained how to be high profile rabbis in hierarchical and bourgeois situations. A lot of my career path has focused on avoiding professional privilege-by not serving rich people more than others, not demanding an exorbitant salary and not expecting a high status in the community. To be more open and available, I had to unlearn a lot and find my own path as a rabbi. 

Esoteric Scholarship 
I am in a small group that studies together every Thursday morning. We have studied, read texts out loud and considered them in different ways. It took us two years to read fifty pages in an early Kabbalistic text called the Bahir. Although it was very difficult and I couldn't tell you very much about what we read, it has enlarged my perspective a lot. It has been a very moving and amazing experience. 
     I am turning forty this winter. My interest in esoteric things didn't even begin to emerge until the last year or two. It's an interesting coincidence that Jewish tradition says that people shouldn't study mystical texts until they are forty and have a good grounding in the basics, like the Bible and Talmud. I seem to be following the traditional program, even though I never tried to! Different pieces of the truth are more important to me now. When I was younger I had a more activist perspective. Now I am more contemplative and will probably become more so as I get older. 
     To me communing with the divine is an incredibly ordinary thing that happens for all of us. If I say, "I just don't feel right saying that to her" or "I feel like helping out with this", that's divine-enough guidance for me. Or if I do something which Jewish tradition says I should do, like visiting someone who is ill, I am following divine guidance. It's not as mysterious as it is sometimes made out to be. 
     The Jewish tradition has a mystical strand and at the same time is suspicion of the mystical. My own sense of life is rather common sense and practical. If someone says to me that they have access to a kind of information that nobody else has, I'm not going to say they don't but I'm not sure I would drop everything and follow it either. 
     In Judaism there is not really a division between the spiritual and ethical-there is the strong sense of justice. It is powerful to be brought up with the sense that how you conduct yourself matters. We often teach kids, for example, to feed their pets before they eat-not to leave their pets hungry while they eat. This is a simple and powerful teaching that a five year old can understand-it's mundane but very spiritual. 
     I wrote my rabbinic thesis on Jewish laws that address slum landlording. I was impressed to see that from 2000 years ago there is an awareness of the relationship between the landlord and the tenant and the tradition almost always favored the tenant. Jewish law says that a fair relationship should exist. For instance, landlords have to keep things fixed and they can't evict people in the winter. 
From sundown on Fridays to sundown on Saturday is the Sabbath, which is called Shabbat-a day of complete rest and renewal. That's something I'm very into. You don't do any work for pay; in fact, you're not even supposed to think about work, talk about business, talk about politics or do household chores. It's a day of renewal. I've become personally more committed to this practice. 
     I renew myself in a non-traditional way. I ask myself what I want to do and I try to do what comes up. I often have the opportunity to be silent for much of Shabbat when my partner happens to be away on Saturday. During that time, I might try to be outside as much as I can-read something spiritual in nature or just lie on the grass. I try to suspend any sense of "I should"-even things like "I should pray or I should reflect on the divine." I just try to live a life for twenty-four hours without any pushing. It renews my soul to be free from endless lists of things to get done. Just stopping is powerful medicine. 
     There's a tradition of having big meals on Shabbat. The truth is I eat a ton all week because I have big tables of people all the time. For me, it's renewing to not think about food very much. So on Shabbat I may just take some crackers outside. I pet my cat and eat crackers. That seems like a perfect Shabbat meal to me. 
     People follow Shabbat in different ways. A lot of people say things like, "I don't do laundry on Shabbat" or "It was Shabbat so decided to wait until Sunday to write that difficult letter." They begin to internalize the possibility of stopping. And once you start down this path, there are whole worlds of relaxation and renewal to explore. 
     This is both a struggle and a joy. The traditional idea about Shabbat was that God created the world in six days and on the seventh day God stopped. So the way that I think about Shabbat is as a day to not create. In the best sense, many of us are creative in trying to change the world in one way or another-we teach or produce good things. So, one day a week we stop all enterprise, stop trying to make the world different. It is a time to be passive and receptive. Then, of course, on the other six days, we can go out with renewed energy to try to make a better community and world. 
     A Jewish teacher, named Arthur Waskow, who has been writing about Shabbat says the world economy never stops. It's as if our social and economical system has cancer. It expands madly and ceaselessly. More and more businesses run seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, three shifts a day. They want to be more productive. Shabbat really addresses that. There's nothing wrong with being productive, but if you never rest, work consumes everything. Waskow raises the idea of observing Shabbat on a social and economic level by doing one-seventh less work. For me that might mean visiting one-seventh fewer sick people or doing one-seventh less writing, but hopefully I'll do what I do with more heart and more energy. It's important to know, personally and collectively, that there is a limit. We can't and shouldn't try to expand, achieve, create, mark and fix without ceasing.

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An Interview with Rabbi Margaret Holub 
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