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I am an Impostor

Yaffa EpsteinFilmed at Limmud Conference 2015

In this talk, I examine the concept of feeling like an impostor. The impostor syndrome is a term coined in the 1970's which describes a feeling of inadequacy despite being qualified for a particular task. It is something that plagues many people, and if we look through Jewish history, we'll see that many of our greatest leaders, and role models themselves felt like they were outsiders who somehow didn't belong. And no one more then Moses, who questions God directly about his own inadequacy. What is so fascinating though, is that God responds by saying that it was God's decision to choose Moses, and Moses should not question that. In fact, the message is - each and everyone of us has a unique gift to bring to this world, and it is specifically our outsider and imposter status, that makes us uniquely us, and must be brought to bear on Jewish tradition.

Yaffa Epstein serves as the Director of Education, North America for the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. She received Rabbinic Ordination from Yeshivat Maharat and holds a Law Degree from Bar-Ilan University. She has studied at the Pardes Kollel, the Advanced Talmud Institute at Matan and the Talmud Department of Hebrew University.

I am an impostor. Yes, I am an impostor.

I have heard a calling that has caused me to climb up to the top of the roof of a room – an outsider looking in, peeking in, listening in, through thick glass. The voices are muffled, and I can’t hear all the voices. I can’t see all the players. But I know – deeply, intuitively – this is where I want and need to be.

So I creep silently into the room. A room full of old men, and old books, and old ideas.

Ideas about who is allowed to come into this room, what they are allowed to think, and what they are allowed to say and even how they are allowed to say it. Who one must be in order to have access to these ideas. And at times, it feels like such an exclusive club, it is almost as if there is a guard at the door, checking credentials.

And even though these men have told me repeatedly, in their books, their words, their stares –these are not the books for you, this is not the room for you – I defiantly open the books, with respect and trepidation, hands shaking. Their mustiness brings tears to my eyes, and makes my nose wriggle.

I push on, and I study, I devote many hours, and I fall deeply in love. In love with the beauty and truth of a conversation that spans continents, languages, generations, cultures, classes, and maybe even genders, and lives on, continues on. That invites in all of the voices, and all of the perspectives. That fights back against the idea that there are acceptable and unacceptable voices.

And there are moments of pain when I learn the texts that reveal me as an impostor, that question my yearning to be part of the discourse and, in doing so, deny my very being by inherently viewing me as outside of the conversation.

And there are moments when I am simply missing from the text, not invited to the table.

To be sure, there are other alternative voices. Voices in the room and voices in the text, who say: Come on in, we want you, we need you! The Jewish people needs you to take up the reigns of leadership.

And I rejoice when I meet women just like me in the text, staking their claim. Taking power, and taking their place in Jewish tradition.

And my own voice says – yes! These are the books I want; these are the words I love. These are the students whose faces look to me – and I have an obligation to serve them, and to help them grow!

But, in addition to the voices in the text that exclude me and the voices that invite me in, there is another voice.

It exists only in my own head. It is the voice of self-doubt and it whispers quietly, insidiously – Impostor! Who are you to join the conversation, a conversation that has never let people like YOU in?

Ah, the impostor syndrome – it hits hard, and it hits home.

The impostor syndrome is a term coined in the 70’s that describes a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist within a person, even in the face of evidence of a person’s success and competence.

And it seems at times, no matter how hard I try – I profoundly feel this impostor status.

But there is nothing new under the sun, and in fact, I come from a long line of Impostors.

I have Impostor Yiches – lineage, if you will – it’s simply in my blood.

Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Esther, Ruth, Hillel, Akiva – all were outsiders, foreigners, looking in to a world that didn’t know them or accept them.

Let’s take a look at Moses, perhaps the most important leader in Jewish history, and I would argue struck the hardest by impostor syndrome.

He grows up in Pharaoh’s palace, always feeling out of place, always somehow knowing he was different, to the extent that he names his firstborn son, Gershom, I was a stranger there.

In other words, I am an impostor.

And when God first appears to him and tells him that he will be God’s messenger to free the Israelites – Moses’ first question to God is –
Who am I?
Why would you choose me, the people won’t listen to me, and I am not even a good speaker?
Once again, I am an impostor.

Now, it would be one thing if Moses didn’t trust his revelatory experience, and thought he was just having hallucinogenic thoughts.

But no! Moses knew that it was in fact God speaking; he knew that God was choosing him to be God’s messenger.

It is exactly that moment – that deep knowing that one is called to a task – that triggers our deepest fears and insecurities.

But maybe, just maybe, the impostor syndrome is not all bad. In fact, it might be at the heart of humility. What would it look like if more of our leaders stopped before acting, and asked themselves who am I? What makes me worthy of leading these people?
Maybe there is an element of self-doubt that is good and healthy. That pushes us, and helps keep us honest.

And what is God’s response to Moses’ self-doubt?

God criticizes Moses, and says – who are you?? Who am I! If you truly knew me, if you truly believed in me, you would know I am the being who can see you, I can see your flaws, I can see your imperfections, and despite them, I choose you to be my messenger.

God is critical, but not angry.

It is only when Moses refuses the task at hand. Moses denies his role and his calling. When he says to God: sh’lach na b’yad tishlach – שלח נא ביד תשלח – Send anybody else besides me, that is when God erupts in anger!

Perhaps the message here is – Yes, you can doubt yourself, you can see and admit your imperfections, but you are not free to abandon the task. Your feelings of inadequacy can keep you honest, but you cannot allow them to paralyze you.

That is the danger of the impostor syndrome, when we allow it to keep us from fulfilling our task.

Interestingly, the word impostor comes from the Latin imponere – which means to place upon, or to impose. There is an inherent connection between being an impostor, and being an imposer.

Yes, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Esther, Ruth, Hillel, Akiva, Maimonides, The Baal Shem Tov, Sara Shnirer – all were outsiders, but they were also paradigm shifters.

Each one heard a calling, and brought their true and authentic voices to the table. And each one of them CHANGED the culture that they lived in, expanded it, opening it up to new perspectives, new ideas, new voices, and new leadership. They changed their world davka, specifically, by being impostors.

These impostors then became imposers – they allowed themselves, and their outsider status to bring a freshness, and a newness to the tradition.

So perhaps to be Jewish then is to be an impostor, and to be an imposer.

In fact – there is a beautiful Midrash which tells us that when God chose to reveal Godself to the world, God did so בקול – b’kol, in a voice. God appeared to each person in a voice – but specifically in a voice that was right and appropriate for them. A voice that they were capable of hearing, and of bearing.

What does this mean?
I believe that this Midrash is teaching us a simple and very deep truth. Each person is capable of holding the Divine within us.

But, it is not enough to simply hold the divine within – we must allow it to be brought out into the world.

It might happen that we ask ourselves, who am I to hold the divine voice, who am I to be God’s messenger? These are good and healthy questions. We must ask them, and then we must push past them. We must trust that within each of us there is a divine voice that is necessary for the world.

We must impose our voices and ourselves onto this world.

Why? Because it is the only way that all of the elements of the Divine will be manifested in their fullness, and it is the only way that change will happen in this world.

So yes, I am an impostor, and I am an imposer. And I am proud.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

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