Revenge of ordination by media

shawl2I keep meaning to highlight two stories from earlier this week that dealt with female ordination. The first was a very well-written and interesting profile of the Rev. Marsha Foster Boyd by David Crumm in the Detroit Free Press. She was ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and will be taking over as the fourth president of Detroit’s Ecumenical Theological Seminary in October.

Many U.S. denominations still do not ordain women and, among those that do, women clergy often complain of a stained-glass ceiling that bars them from top leadership. Boyd has invited the Rev. Leah Gaskin Fitchue, the only other woman to achieve a similar milestone, to speak at her installation.

The word “still” is interesting and completely unnecessary. My denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, doesn’t ordain women. No need to say we “still” don’t ordain women. as it adds an editorial nudge. It’s the annoying kid in the back seat asking, “Are we there yet?” It assumes that where we are now is not good.

Anyway, there was another interesting and well-written piece in The New York Times about an Orthodox Jewish woman who will be leading a synagogue. The piece, by Michael Luo, explains a bit about the inherent conflict of such a move.

[Dina Najman] will not be called rabbi; instead, she has been given the title of rosh kehillah, or head of congregation. It is the highest position in the community, and she will be performing many of the functions of a rabbi, within certain limitations that have been laid out by the congregation’s leaders in an effort to abide by Jewish law.

One thing to note about stories such as this is how much coverage they should receive. It’s always a challenge, and one best handled by accurately characterizing how big a deal the news hook is. I thought Luo tread the delicate balance well. For instance, here’s how he characterized the congregation:

The congregation is on the leftward fringe of the Orthodox movement. Kehilat Orach Eliezer, which is about 15 years old, has intentionally avoided affiliating with any movement so that Jews from a variety of theological backgrounds can feel comfortable attending, but most members identify themselves as Orthodox.

I asked a few Orthodox Jewish friends what they thought of the story. Most said they didn’t think it was that big of a deal. They said communities on the fringe of Orthodoxy sometimes act outside the tradition but that the episodes never seem to set trends.

Luo definitely made it seem as if this was more of a trend than an isolated incident:

Indeed, propelled by an explosion in Jewish learning for women, they are now teaching Talmud classes, acting as advocates in Israel’s rabbinic courts and functioning as primary authorities on questions of family purity law. In Israel recently, a woman was even ordained by an Orthodox rabbi, although she does not occupy a pulpit and many in the Orthodox world do not recognize her status. And, in New York several years ago, a handful of women were hired as congregational interns by Orthodox synagogues.

All in all, though, I think this story provides a nice counterpoint to the debacle that was the WomenPriests coverage. Unlike in Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism has no central governing body that has forbidden such roles for women. There is clearly room for debate.

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  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    I’m from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, another body that does not ordain women. I believe the Russian/Eastern Orthodox tradition likewise does not recognize women’s ordination.

    Here in the Milwaukee area a woman was “ordained” a priest in the Roman Catholic church. Of course its not recognized as valid; some renegade priest is “ordaining” women on his own. Anyway, the archbishop of Milwaukee, Timothy Dolan, is threatening to excommunicate the woman in question. Sad that excommunication is not seen as the last “act of love” but as a club to beat people into submission. But that’s another post for another day, right?

  • Harris

    In a third interesting article on women’s ordination, there is this from today’s New York Times. Although told from the typical NYT perspective, focussing on women, the article is reasonably respectful of the conservative traditions, citing the 1 Tim 2:12 text, and focusing on the women’s decision to leave or change rather than on the conservative rejection narrative.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    On the internet I have read a number of accounts by women themselves who had been ordained and after serving have decided that ordained Christian ministry is not meant for women. One I read of joined an Eastern Orthodox Church, two became traveling Catholic evangelists, two others started writing books for a Catholic publisher about women who had embraced feminism, but have decided it is destructive. My main point for this site is why the secular press NEVER-that I can find- does feature stories about such courageous women who should be of serious interest because of their counter-cultural witness in a society that is probably the most ideologically feminist society in the world (or maybe that is why women like the above are treated as if women like them don’t even exist. How many more stories do we need to be treated to –except as liberal propaganda–about women who attack basic premises of their own religion, while ignoring women who shake off society’s brainwashing after living what they came to realize was a sham type of existence inimical to a religion they decided was more right than their society or secular culture.

  • C. Wingate

    Of course, the article doesn’t mention Catharine Jefferts Schori. It’s rather oddly focused on seminaries, as though there were no other leadership spots available. I also wonder how many of those 254 seminaries belong to the “historically black” denominations, and how many belong to denominations that “still” don’t ordain women.

  • Maureen

    The Catholic Church’s leadership hasn’t “forbidden” women’s ordination. It decided that ordaining women wasn’t within its power — wasn’t one of the powers granted it by Christ — isn’t one of the things it was set up to do.

    If Jesus wanted to give the Church that power, then we should have seen tons and tons and tons of examples of women’s ordination in all times and places. It should have been something at least as prominent as consecrated virgins and widows, one would think. But we don’t see that. (Which is maybe just as well, considering that women’s ordination would be probably the one thing that could make Byzantine history messier.)

    So “forbidden” isn’t really the word. “Unconstitutional” might be a better comparison.

  • Izzy

    Unlike in Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism has no central governing body that has forbidden such roles for women. There is clearly room for debate.

    While you might describe it as “room for debate,” Judaism never had a centrally governing body.

    In Rabbinic Judaism, there is a well-known set of laws, then a layer of interpretations, then a layer of customs. There is no question that in Rabbinic Judaism, no woman can be a dayan, (judge) in a Bais Din (Jewish Court of Law). This, in turn, precludes them from serving as a Rabbi.

    Theoretically, women can serve as spiritual advisors, counselors, administrators, etc., within the limits of propriety (another topic altogether). The Synagogue in question, is not an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, but, is a breakaway from the Conservative movement that felt that the Conservative movement wasn’t halachic (following Jewish law) enough.

    It is somewhere in the “no man’s land” between the Conservative movement and Orthodox Judaism.

    As far as the story of the woman “ordained” as an Orthodox Rabbi,

    Neither she, nor the Rabbi who “ordained” her will use the term “Rabbi” when referring to her. His ordination confers his assessment that she has completed the same course of study as would be necessary for rabbinic ordination.

    For further background on this, you can look at some comments by Gil Student