Judith London Evans Director of the Tam Institute of Jewish Studies Miriam Udel opened prayer during the Georgia House of Representatives Feb. 1 session. Courtesy of Emory University

Judith London Evans Director of the Tam Institute of Jewish Studies Miriam Udel became the first female orthodox rabbi to open prayer at a state legislature during the Georgia House of Representatives Feb. 1 session. 

Udel, who is an associate professor of Yiddish language, literature and culture, also noted that  she is likely the first female rabbi to take on the role of Chaplain of the Day — the religious leader who opens the day of legislation with a prayer — at the Georgia House of Representatives. 

Before joining Emory in 2007, Udel’s academic journey began when she got a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard University (Mass.). Around the time of her tenure in 2015, she received an invitation to apply for the first cohort of a new program at a Yeshiva that had recently begun ordaining orthodox women. She was subsequently ordained and received tenure at Emory. Udel said her academic path has centered around modern Jewish texts and how they relate to ancient literature.

Her interest in Jewish literature connected Udel with Rep. Esther Panitch (D-51), who is Jewish, over Twitter in January when she asked Panitch to provide more details on her swearing-in book — a Tanach her mother gave her during her 1984 Bat Mitzvah. The two stayed in touch, and Panitch asked Udel to fill out a form to apply for Chaplain of the Day. About a week later on Jan. 31, Udel was invited to open prayer — only one day before the session. 

“I’m not a hardcore Hamilton fan, but I have a child who is,” Udel said, laughing. “I know the songs and the motifs and I know you have to take your shot.”

Associate Professor in the Department of History and Institute for Jewish Studies Eric Goldstein (92C) explained that when a leader from a minority faith community acts as Chaplain of the Day, they can educate both the Legislature and community about their faith. 

“It has a very high symbolic value,” Goldstein said. “That is why it is so significant when someone is the first type of leader to play that role. It’s considered a stride forward in terms of doing that work of educating and sensitizing people to the richness and the diversity of our community.”

Udel spoke about the “Song of the Sea,” a poem within the Book of Exodus, during the prayer. 

“How cool would it be, on the first day of Black History Month, to talk about the Exodus and those themes of liberation,”  Udel said. 

Knowing that she would have a majority Christian audience, Udel added that she wanted a message that could reach across those differences. Further, she wanted to connect with people who are not used to religious language. 

“I wanted to use a language for God that could appeal to a number of different faith traditions and non-faith traditions,” Udel said. “I wanted a message that would be really applicable to the people who represent us.” 

Udel said she settled on the message that God is visible in the world through the way that people care for one another. 

“I felt like that was an authentic message,” Udel said. “It’s authentic to my identity, both as a rabbi and as an academic scholar, so I felt like it was the message that I could deliver as my whole self and, hopefully, that would resonate with people.” 

Goldstein said Udel achieved what she set out to do, explaining that he was impressed that her opening prayer was accessible to people of a variety of faiths while still maintaining tradition with terminology, stories and concepts that are “distinctly Jewish.” 

Udel explained that she has reflected on what it means for the House to have a Chaplain of the Day in the first place, especially when it comes to the separation of Church and state. She said the invitation letter told her to be non-partisan in her prayer. 

“I feel very ambivalent about that because part of my scholarship on modern Jewish literature and Yiddish culture tells me that everything is political,” Udel said. “Politics is what we do to each other and what we do for each other, so it’s impossible to really have any message that’s not political.”

At the same time, Udel said there is beauty to be found in the role of Chaplain of the Day. 

“There is a beautiful aspiration there of coming together and transcending difference,” Udel said.

Goldstein agreed, noting that the role allows the Jewish community to “be part of the civic culture.” 

Assistant Professor of Religion Kate Rosenblatt added that Udel’s opening helped emphasize the role of women in maintaining community and ethics, including in sacred texts, in which she said women do not typically play a central role.   

“She follows in a long line of Jewish women who have fought vigorously to be able to enter the Rabbanit and to act in the same capacity as men in Jewish communal spaces,” Rosenblatt said. 

Executive Editor Matthew Chupack (24C) and Assistant News Editor Spencer Friedland (26C) currently have Jay and Leslie Cohen Assistant Professor of Religion and Jewish Studies Kate Rosenblatt as a professor and were not involved in writing or editing this piece.

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Alina Glass (she/her, 26C) is from Baltimore, Md. She is double majoring in psychology and anthropology. Apart from writing for the Wheel, Alina is the public relations chair for Circle K, a writer for the Association for Women in Science newsletter and a volunteer for Sprouting Readers. When she is not writing for the Wheel, Alina loves to run, bake and spend time with friends and family.