The Shalom Report
Sacred Solidarity, Radical
Hospitality: Women Priests & a Woman
by Rabbi SUSAN TALVE, founding Rabbi of Central Reform
Congregation of St. Louis. Her story, below, both moves the heart and enriches
the mind. It is a tale of how the disempowered – in this case, women – can
reclaim their power.
Standing with the
When the line between the
personal and the political dissolves, it is usually due to
In the summer of 2007, two
women came to our synagogue to tour the sanctuary. Someone had told them that
the sanctuary is a welcoming space used for many different interfaith
activities. Indeed, a fundamental value of CRC is that our sanctuary provides a
safe space for change, that we always practice radical hospitality. Afterwards,
the women came to me in my office and said, "We would love to have our
Our response was gratitude for
the gift they were giving us. Here is why:
When we began our congregation
28 years ago, it was with a core value never to own a building. This was so that
we would never have to put more resources into bricks than people. We also have
a strong commitment to serving the city of St Louis where there seemed to be
plenty of buildings that we could recycle and reuse.
But our growth rate made it
challenging to stay in the church that originally housed us, and our commitment
to being '"green" made it difficult to move into an older, inefficient building.
So, we built a building after all, promising that we would practice radical
hospitality and that it would be a disabled-accessible resource for the entire
community. The request from these women to
house their ordination offered us another way of fulfilling our promise.
But this act of “radical
hospitality” was radical indeed. For the women who sought to use our sanctuary
for their ordination were Roman Catholics, and they planned to be ordained as
Roman Catholic priests.
The risk involved in ordaining
these two women was that they – and therefore we – were challenging the Roman
Catholic hierarchy in St Louis.
Our synagogue is the only one
in the "parish" of the Archdiocese. Our city’s namesake is Louis IX, sainted for
his role in the Crusades and for burning thousands of Talmudic commentaries and
other valuable Jewish books in 1242. But in this generation, we and the
Archdiocese have often stood together -- for immigration reform, for access to
health care, and for other causes that champion the rights of the most
vulnerable. I had also been invited to be in the front rows at the Cathedral
when the former Pope John Paul visited.
The board of our congregation
decided that we should host the ordination in spite of the tremendous
controversy it might bring. We then received pressure from the Jewish and
Catholic leadership to revoke our invitation. Leaders in both the Jewish and
Catholic communities warned that we were setting back Catholic-Jewish relations
two hundred years. I personally received death threats from anonymous
The day of the ordination, the
Archbishop at the time sent a videographer to the service who secretly taped the
crowd. Many of the Catholic leaders who dared to come that day lost their jobs.
Some were even excommunicated, a terrible threat to those who believe in the
essential nature of the sacraments to one's life.
But many others celebrated us
as heroes. Alongside the threats, I received potted plants from grateful orders
of religious women. Not only criticism but also accolades poured in from all
over the world.
The board made our decision
based on our core value of practicing radical hospitality. I shared this guiding
principle but for me it was also an issue of women's rights. As one of the first
women ordained as a Rabbi in this country, I felt a connection to all women who
are called to serve in the spiritual realm in whatever religious tradition they
When I heard many others ask
why these women had to be Roman Catholic priests, why not Episcopalian or even
New Catholic, I recognized a familiar challenge. How many times had I heard a
similar critique from feminist friends who wondered how I could be true to my
core values serving in a Patriarchal context! Wouldn't a Wiccan or more
spiritual path better suit me?
I answer that I am Jewish and I am a feminist. Both realities define
I felt the same was true for
these women. Their hearts were in the Church and their desire was to serve
within the sanctity of their faith and their church.
I especially felt this from the
Bishop who came to ordain them. She served as a Dominican Sister in South
Africa for 45 years. She received her training in Rome and taught seminarians
homiletics though she was not permitted to preach in a church. Still, she
served until she was convinced by male Bishops to let them ordain her and bestow
upon her the apostolic succession that allowed them to ordain priests. The
Bishops had to keep their identities secret or risk
She accepted their challenge
and lost everything. After a lifetime with her Order, she was expelled,
excommunicated and had nothing: no health insurance, no pension, no home. But
she had a calling toordain qualified women who served Roman Catholic communities
all over the world.
One of the more hurtful
critiques of our hosting the ordination came from a priest I had been friends
with and worked alongside for many years. Essentially, he told me to stay out
of the Church's business. He added that he could not trust me and would no
longer work with me. I was crushed and outraged. Where was his compassion for
his sisters? Where was his willingness to take a stand for the women he served
and the ones he served alongside?
When I took a step back, I
realized that I was getting a glimpse of what happens when any group’s position
of power and privilege is challenged.
I wish I could say that my
relationship with the Catholic Church of St. Louis is on the mend, that we are
making our way back to once again standing together and fighting for the rights
of the disenfranchised. But as a Rabbi and a woman, I cannot, in good faith, say
The heart of my most recent
storm with the Catholic Church can be traced to reproductive freedom and women's
health, in the debate on access to birth control which has played out at both
the national and state levels.
This year, the Missouri
legislature passed Senate Bill 749, which gives employers the right to refuse to
provide health insurance coverage for contraception based on “religious beliefs
or moral convictions.” While the bill may have been especially intended to allow
the Catholic Church to deny contraceptive coverage to employees of
Catholic-related hospitals and universities (which employ non-Catholics and
often receive governmental funds), it is written even more broadly so that
any employer can deny its employees access to birth control by
citing the employer’s moral objections.
Although this would clearly
deny tens of thousands of women their own religious freedom to choose
contraception if they wish, the Archdiocese of St. Louis heavily promoted this
bill as one of “religious freedom,” with blog postings, forums, action alerts
and more (http://archstl.org/category/tags/conscience-rights<http://archstl.org/category/tags/conscience-rights> ).
In reality, of course, the bill has far less to do with protecting religious
freedom than with limiting the freedom of women.(After weeks of uncertainty, the
governor finally vetoed it.)
There is no way to separate
women's health from reproductive freedom, so it seems that the Roman Catholic
hierarchy is willing to sacrifice the health and well being of women to keep
their position of privilege. The most recent attack on Catholic Women Religious
is also connected to the Sisters’ moral leadership in the arena of health care
access and affordability, especially for poor women. The Sisters under attack
have been willing to defend the health care rights of poor women even if it
means that they have to stand up to the Church and risk
In last week’s Torah portion,
the daughters of Zelophechad stand up to Moses and speak up when they are
skipped over for their inheritance even though their father had no sons. (Num.
27) Seeds for change were sown that day that would eventually bring more equal,
just and compassionate inheritance laws for women.
I believe that Arthur Waskow is
right to stand with the Sisters. I will stand with him, with scars from
previous attacks, to support and protect the religious freedom of American women
and families from those who would threaten our very
The time leading up to the
ordination was the most painful clash of the personal and the political realms
of my work to date. The ordination itself, however, proved to be one of the
holiest days in our sanctuary, our Sukkat Shalom, our Shelter of
Taking a stand always has
consequences, and true change takes time. But raising our voices together as the
daughters of Zelophechad did is sure to make a little more room for the
religious freedom of us all.
-- Rabbi Susan