Sarah Tauber—Rav ve-Haver: Teacher, Student, Rabbi, Friend

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Sarah Tauber

[Editor's Note: At least 3 decades ago, the Tikkun editorial board decided not to publish pieces describing insights obtained from personal articles about readers' trips to Auschwitz or other Holocaust sites, to Israel, celebrations of their child's brilliant Bat or Bar Mitzvah teaching, or the like – not because there was nothing to learn from them, but because we were receiving 5 to 10 of these submissions a week. But the article below, by Professor Elliot Ginsberg, is full of Jewish wisdom that could be a useful framework for any clergy person having the honor of addressing the death of someone they know and respect, or anyone else who is thinking about what one could do to honor the memory of  special friend.  --Rabbi Michael Lerner]

Sarah Tauber—Rav ve-Haver:
Teacher, Student, Rabbi, Friend

Dr. Rabbi Sarah Tauber (1966-2020) was a lifelong educator who mixed fierce intelligence with wicked humor, generosity of spirit with personal humility. She received her BA from Yale and a teaching credential from UC Berkeley before getting her doctorate in education from Jewish Theological Seminary, where she was an assistant professor from 2011-2020. Her deep knowledge and innovations in Jewish education, however, did not arise solely as an academic pursuit. It was her years as an on-the-ground Jewish educator in Geneva, Switzerland and New York that informed her commitment. Rabbi Tauber was active in multifaith and interfaith religious learning and partnered with Palestinian-American Christian educator Jenny Haddad Mosher to co-found the Religious Persecution & Vicarious Trauma working group at the Religious Education Association.

Haddad Mosher wrote of Sarah: “Rabbi Tauber’s commitment to Jewish education came out of her love of learning as a transformative force for good and her love of Jewish narrative—especially the narratives of Hebrew Scripture. But her love was not blind; she believed intensely that each learner (including teachers) had to build their own relationship with those narratives and with their associated traditions, and that those relationships would be meaningful only to the extent that they were brutally honest...Teaching was an art we had to practice and being a teacher was a presence we had to learn to live into fully. Consequently, in her class design, every student was absolutely essential to every session; there was no hiding behind the book or a neighbor.  She believed that each personal evolution in a person’s life, even challenging ones, brought new possibility and new responsibility.”

Dr. Tauber received Rabbinic Ordination from the ALEPH Ordination Program one day before she died, and seven weeks after learning she had pancreatic cancer. Sarah was the author of key articles on the intersection of education and spirituality, and on encountering the Other. She was the author of Open Minds, Devoted Hearts: Portraits of Adult Religious Educators (Horizons in Religious Education, 2015). She was the mother of two young adult children, Benjamin and Hannah Billingsley.

I have to remind myself that I only knew Sarah Tauber for half a dozen years, when it often seemed like we had known each other for several lifetimes, mi-Sinai – all the way back to Mt. Sinai – as we say in Jewish parlance.

Speaking narrowly, Sarah was my mentee in the ALEPH Ordination Program (AOP). But she was also my colleague—my fellow academic, teacher, and spiritual seeker —and we took turns playing teacher and student, meqabel u-mashpia, giving and receiving. Throughout, she was my sidekick, co-conspirator and a soul-friend. Sarah was both rav (teacher) and haver (friend), and I am grateful for this two-fold gift.

In Mishnah Avot 1:6, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perahia provides pointed instruction for how Sages might live deeply and well. He says:

עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת
Aseh lekha rav, uq’neh lekha haver; ve’hevei dan et kol ha’adam l’khaf z’khut.
Make for yourself a teacher (rav) and acquire a friend (haver). 
And judge every person with generosity.

I’d like to unpack the first 2/3 of this text, with my inner eye focused firmly on Sarah; to draw out a few tendrils of thought in appreciation of this brilliant, ebullient woman: this rav ve-haver — teacher and friend— who was also (to flag the last phrase) generous and generative.

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Movement I.  Sarah as Rav

Sarah was a teacher, in the simplest sense of the word. She harbored a fierce love for her students, a playful brilliance often laced with wicked humor and undergirded by tenderness. She would hear the question behind the question. She would furrow her brow and puzzle out a text. Hmm… When she experienced radical amazement, it was written on her whole body. And yet for all her ebullience, Sarah also knew when to step back and give space; how to co-create a learning community, guided by ha-iqqar, “what really matters.”

Sarah was also a midwife of emerging teachers. She helped her students—and her co-learners—unfold, empowering them. To turn to Maimonides’ interpretation of our mishnah, aseh lekha rav, “make for yourself a teacher,” note how the Rambam (Maimonides) rereads the term lekha not as “for yourself” but as “you, yourself:”

Make for yourself—lekha—a teacher. That is to say, even if that person is not [at first glance] fit/ready to be your teacher [not yet there]. Nonetheless, “make that one” into a teacher yourself —by your bearing and your actions—until it seems that that one really is teaching.

Moses Maimonides, 12th Century, Commentary to the Mishnah, Tractate Avot

Here the Rambam is highlighting the relational aspect of teaching, showing how it is davka —especially—a student who can help “make” a not-yet-ripe teacher. But I’d like to reframe Maimonides’ words, to assert further: a skilled, attentive teacher is one who aseh lekha, by whose very stance and action, helps to midwife you, the new teacher. Sarah, at her best—which was often—did this be-khol yom tamid —day in, day out.

One more aspect I’d like to touch on here. I’d like to look at rav not just as a noun, “teacher,” but in its meaning as an adjective: “capacious, large.” Rav in this sense refers to someone with “Big Mind,” someone who can hold multiple worlds (olamot rabbim), someone who is not afraid of diversity and disagreement (Hebrew: riv). Rav reflects the capaciousness of someone who can sit with conflicting ideas, attending to disparate voices while striving to honor them. Here I draw on Rav Kook’s gloss on the phrase rav shalom – “great is peace” (a phrase from Talmud and Jewish liturgy), which I once shared with Sarah. Kook says:

Rav Shalom. Why does it say rav shalom and not [the equally plausible] gadol shalom? [The key lies in the connotations of rav.] There are those who mistakenly think that world peace can only come when there is a single shade (tzivyon ehad) of opinions and orientations. Therefore, when scholars and students of Torah disagree and develop multiple approaches and methods, some think they are causing strife and opposing shalom. In truth this is not so, because real shalom is impossible without appreciating the value of ribbui shalom: the multiplicity intrinsic in shalom [quite literally the pluralizing of peace, or if you prefer, pluralism!]. The various components of peace come from a variety of approaches and methods that make it clear that each aspect has a place. (From Rav Kook, Olat ha-Ra’aYaH, on the liturgy.)

A teacher (rav) is one who can hold ravriv and ribbui: expansiveness, argument, and multiplicity. Someone who can include and weave together the voices of the many.

In just this way, Sarah Rabbeinu, Sarah our teacher, stretched us: advocating for greater inclusiveness within Judaism—what Jewish looks like-—and what deep Torah can hold. She built bridges between Judaism and other religious traditions. While teaching at Union Theological Seminary, in her work with the Religious Education Association (REA), and in her partnering with Jenny Haddad Mosher, a Palestinian-American religious educator, Sarah was (to use Ernst Simon’s lovely phrase) gosheret gesharim – a “bridger of bridges.”

At the end of her life, Sarah was what we call in the AOP an Erev Rav – an Emerging Rav, a rabbi on the brink. Every emerging rabbi has different interests and callings. With Sarah, it was about individual spiritual guidance (hashpa’ah). One couldn’t help but notice this growing “hashpa’itic” tendency in her most recent pedagogy. One example: the way she tended to hear students’ halakhic questions, i.e., questions on matters of Jewish law, as, at bottom, pastoral questions. In other words, for her a halakhic question was never about “how do we follow the letter of the law.” Instead, it was always about how to manifest ourselves in this world with integrity, while being connected to the Source of Life. This was her bent and her calling. Indeed, it was her plan to become a Spiritual Director or Mashpi’ah, after her ordination. (More about this shortly.)

The final way in which Sarah embodied this multivalent concept of rav was as a talmid hakham, a scholarly student. It is part of Jewish tradition that to be a sage (hakham) you must be a student (talmid) of a sage. Sarah could sagely mentor, in part, because she was always a student, in living relationship with her own teachers. For her, a key figure on her rabbinic path was Rabbi Dr. Neil Gilman, professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Some six years ago, as Neil was living with terminal cancer, Sarah explained her decision to become a rabbi:

From Neil Gilman I to be true to myself and true to Jewish tradition not in spite of the tensions that modernity imposed but by facing those tensions with courage and honesty. Most of all, he modeled how to trust in the process of self-discovery, no matter how demanding.

In other words, Neil modeled – and so did Sarah – the commitment to gaze unflinchingly, unblinking, at the world and at Torah, in its blessings and its flaws. I like to connect Sarah’s words to the morning benediction for being fully awake:

המעביר שינה מעיני ותנומה מעפעפי
Hama’avir sheynah me’eynay ut’numah me’af’apay.
[Blessed is] the One who draws sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids.

And in drawing this connection, I hold a kavvanah – a holy intention – that we, cleaving to the Source, may continuously lift the film from our eyes. As Sarah paid forward Neil’s directive as his student, especially after his untimely passing, so now it is our turn to do this likh’vodah, for Sarah, and for our own students.

Movement II.  More Briefly, Sarah as Haver 

The phrase in our verse of mishnah, uq’neh lekha haver, is conventionally rendered, “Acquire a friend.” But I prefer a reading of “invest in or co-create a friendship.” Compare, for example, Eve’s self-knowing proclamation after giving birth in Genesis 4:1, qaniti (same verb as uq’nehish et YHWH. “I have created (qaniti) a person, together with (et) the Divine.

Friendship, for Sarah, was conversational, collaborative, impassioned. It was fun and it was sometimes hard because she sought to wrestle with “what is” in this wondrous, heartbreaking world. The phrase that comes to mind is “devekut (cleaving) as contact improv” – finding ever-new ways of connecting with the Divine by means of I-Thou relationships with others. In Hasidic parlance we might refer to these holy one-on-one relationships as dibbuq haverim (the cleaving, or soul-connection, of friends)I am reminded of the Tannaitic gloss to our mishnah here: “A one with whom we can co-discover the secrets of living Torah and the secrets of [skillfully] being in this world.” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan on Mishnh Avot 1:6.)

What bonded us as friends? I pose this knowing Sarah had a wide circle of friendships, many of greater duration and impact than ours. As I noted, I sometimes felt we were neighbors mi-Sinai (from Sinai), as well as landsmen from the Pale. Or perhaps Sarah was a younger sister. We bonded over common interests and aspirations and a love of “letting it rip.” (By “it” I mean ideas, jokes, and latter-day midrash.) We were from the tribe of quirky academics, those with a devotional longing for the Divine that could no longer be denied. We were children of Holocaust survivors, struggling against what Sarah called “the tendency to awfulize and catastrophize to move to greater emunah u-vitahon, fundamental trust.”  

We moved quickly in thought, but came to embrace core longings—e.g., rabbi’ing—late! We delighted in the exuberant interplay of minds (sometimes too exuberant, but, oh well). We loved swapping ideas. Sharpening wits. With Sarah, I could be more fearless. We often said what we feared couldn’t be said aloud…if only to try it out, bli neder, as they say—without yet committing to it—and assess its merit, in merhav mugan, a safe space.

Which is another way of saying that we shared a penchant for extroverted thinking, discovering what we thought and felt as we wrote or talked. We sometimes went on too long…

We relied on humor to recalibrate and to hold the absurdity of life. We shared an abiding love of writers Aharon Appelfeld and George Steiner, even as we joked about our love-hate relationship with the French post-structuralists. We returned time and again to our fierce love and worry for our children, for Israel-Palestine, and for the Jewish people.

One example of Sarah’s dark humor: Last July, upon discovering she had Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer, Sarah quipped: “This is the ultimate anti-Semitic joke.” File under “the Humor of Children of Survivors.”

There were many differences between us too. She was a Galitzianeh and I was more of a Ukrainisher. That’s how we stretched each other—but those thoughts are for another day[1].

Sarah was also a haver/ah in the sense of embracing hevreshaft (close collegiality) and havruta (deep one-on-one co-learning). In the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 23a), it was famously stated o havruta o mituta: “Give me spiritual friendship or give me death.” For Sarah, havruta study was a non-negotiable need, a minimum Daily Spiritual Requirement. When asked what she hoped to do post-ordination, her first response was, “To keep learning in havruta with Elca [Rabbi Elca Rubinstein].”

Movement III.  From Erev Rav – a Rabbi on the Verge – to becoming Rabbi Dr. Tauber

On Thursday, August 27, 2020, the 7th of the month of Elul, the ALEPH Ordination Program gave smikhah – ordination – to Sarah, half a year “early” and quite nearly too late. While the public smikhah with her cohort was scheduled for the following January, Sarah, being Sarah, had completed all the requirements by early Summer 2020.

Speaking with Benjamin, Sarah’s son, we knew time was short. Due to COVID, the ordaining faculty could not be physically with her to lay our hands, as is our custom. As it so happened, Bob Friedman, a Renewal Rabbi and Hazzan (cantor), was serving as a chaplain at the hospital in Princeton, NJ where Sarah lay. Bob served as our shaliah or emissary. He placed his hands on Sarah’s keppeleh, her precious head, as Rabbi Marcia Prager and I intoned the hasmakhah formula by Zoom:

Vi’hi yadekh ke-yadenu, assiyatekh ke-assiyatenu,
ve-dibburekh ke-dibburenu...uvirkhatekh ke-virkhatenu.

May your hands be like our hands . . .
your words like our words . . .
your blessing like our blessing.

The formula concluded with Ve-rabbi titqari – “We ordain you and call you Rabbi” – ke-dat Moshe u-Miriam ve-Yisrael, “in the new-ancient traditions of our People.”

I heard Sarah whisper todah rabbah – thank you – and heard her breathe out sheheheyanu, gratitude for being alive, being here, able to reach this moment.

The next day Rav Sarah passed.

That is not the end of the story. There is a reshimu – an imprint, an afterglow, in the ways Rav Sarah inspires us through her words and her hopes. A year earlier, Rav Sarah had articulated what she was looking forward to in moving into her rabbinate. As we mentioned earlier, first on the list was to continue to be in havruta with her friend, Rabbi Elca Rubinstein, to keep learning in tandem. And secondly, she was looking forward to becoming a mashpi’ah or Spiritual Director.

And third, Sarah wanted to nurture the Holy Spirit and keep community alive through sacred stories. In Sarah’s words: “I look forward to listening to the endlessly absorbing stories of the neshamot [souls] that I will encounter on the way, in order to be a creative, caring, and loving companion as they engage in the holy practice of being human—beloved creatures of Ruach Hakodesh – the Holy Spirit or Shekhinah.”

This is another place where Sarah’s reshimu – her imprint – may dwell in us. As Sarah declared: “For it is the holy work of this hour to creatively and lovingly seek ways to help keep alive the Ruach Hakodesh, the Holy Spirit, within each of us, and among all of us, in a terrifying and chaotic world. For me this involves practicing compassionate listening, humble speaking, and joyful living.”

Where and how do we intentionally nurture nishmat kol hai – the soul-breath of each creature? Sarah gave us a hint. She wrote,

“Ever since I was a child my spirit, mind, and heart pulsated with a passionate connection to the Jewish story writ large and small. It is my story, a story of my people and of the world. From that story I find the strength to encounter life in all its complexity. My work as a rabbi is bound up with the creativity involved in keeping vibrant these stories, while energizing the communities that I lead, to discover—through these stories—the sacred in themselves and in the world.”

Perhaps the deepest and hardest task Sarah set before us is to learn to love better. Sarah and I shared a commitment to holding the complexities of Israel/Palestine, seeking to align ourselves with forces of hope, “eyes open, heart open.” While our hearts broke on a regular basis, we refused to “live in a post-hope society,” as we stated to each other more than once. We had planned to be in Israel/Palestine in Summer 2020, as co-learners and loving witnesses—“to bear with-ness,” in the language of Sarah’s classmate, Rabbi Irwin Keller. To be there as part of the AOP’s Beloved Land Program: Israel and Palestine through the Kaleidoscope, a program Sarah had championed. But that, of course, was not to be.

In May 2020, while a student in my course “The Dream of Home (Cultural and Spiritual Expression in Israel and Palestine),” Sarah composed 13 affirmationsof which this was the 13th:

אני מאמינה באמונה שלמה שאהבה חייבת להתגבר על שנאה
כמו שכתוב כי עזה כמות אהבה [שיר השרים ח,ו[
I believe with whole faith that love must overcome [le-hitgabber] hatred,
as it is written in Song of Songs (8:6), ki azah ke-mavet ahavah:
Love is the only force that is as strong as death.

Love is the only force. As strong as death.


While preparing these words, I reviewed some of Sarah’s writing. I was struck by something she had said years earlier, in her spiritual autobiography. Probing her identity, Sarah associatively linked that same reflexive verb, mitgabber – “to overcome,” with her family name, Tauber:

“My family’s ancestors took the name from the Tauber River in the region of Franconia, Germany. Although the Tauber side of my family traces its roots to the shtetls and cities of eastern Poland that were once known as Galicia (and are now part of western Ukraine), it was not uncommon for Jews to adopt surnames from nature. As I dug further, however, I saw that the German “Tauber” might be related linguistically to the Celtic word for water, similar to “dover,” (as in the Dover River in England), another word of Celtic origin.”

How fitting for someone like Sarah who so loved swimming and being in fresh water! Sarah proceeded to link these flowing associations to her spiritual work on and with the Earth. For her, “Tauber” connoted not only a River, but a Source of Life [meqor hayyim], and, in the ancient Hebrew phrase ma’ayan mitgabber, a fountain that “ever replenishes,” that prevails or “overcomes” even when “life doesn’t go smoothly.” Sarah added: “Even if the human species should cease to exist (which is not totally impossible to contemplate), ma’ayan hamitgabber …will remain.”

And so, in this postscript, I ask: how will that fountain of light that is Sarah Tauber continue to flow and radiate after her passing? How might we turn elements of her brilliant life into Action Directives that serve? And how might we lift up these Action Directives into b’rakhah, into Blessing?

Your reading these words is one small step in that ongoing quest. 

שרה בת פרלה סיה ויוסף נחום, רבינו וחברתנו, יהי זכרה ברוך
Sarah bat Perlah Siyyah ve-Yosef Nahum, rabbeinu ve-haverateinu z”l
Y’hi zikhrah barukh.

May Sarah’s memory continue to be a b’reikhah—a pool that replenishes, a wellspring of blessing.

[1] This light-hearted comment exemplifies the tenor of our joking, namely, the way we could use Yiddish-code or loshn, alongside more typically American discourse. The classic example of East European Jewish cultural difference was the (oft-exaggerated) stylistic “clash” between Galititzianers (Galician Jews from Southeastern Poland) and Litvaks (Lithuanian-Belarussian Jews); or between Yekkes—German Jews—and Poilishers (Polish Jews, broadly speaking). These regional differences in accent and religious orientation, and the subtle differences in cuisine (e.g., does your gefilte fish use pepper—Litvak—or sugar—Galitzianer), have largely been forgotten in America, and snuffed out in post-Shoah Eastern Europe. Most Jewish American descendants of these distinct regions have become simply Ashkenazic or “white.” But as children of survivors, these cultural references—the stuff of early to mid 20th century jokes and song—weren’t forgotten by Sarah and me, occasionally popping up in a joshing way. Yes, our families may have originated only 100 miles apart but Sarah’s Galitzianer forbears lived under the  Austro-Hungary Empire, tfu-tfu-tfu; and my Ukrainian-Volhynian ancestors, in Tsarist Russia. Ah, the “vanity” of small differences! And this too, is a joke and a bittersweet cultural comment.

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One thought on “Sarah Tauber—Rav ve-Haver: Teacher, Student, Rabbi, Friend

  1. Beautiful, heartfelt and heart centered words. Sarah has entered me and has found another trough whom she will live on. Thank you dear cousin. You are truly an amazing man. The Ginsburg side of our family inspires me with the love that you exude. Love you.