Should Rabbis Speak Out about Subordination of Catholic Women -–
Or is it entirely an Internal Church Question?
In the last few weeks I was sharply faced wth that question. I want to share with you both my own first gut reactions and some fuller thoughts about it. And in the next few days I will also share with you how Gloria Steinem and Rabbi Susan Talve respond:
Should rabbis speak out about the subordination of women in the Catholic Church and Catholic theology -–or is it entirely an internal Church question?
Should rabbis who strongly support the Pope’s strong stand on the climate crisis be silent about his failure to address the question of women in a similarly deep and serious way?
This issue arose sharply for me in the last few weeks, mostly because there is right now meeting in the Vatican
a “Synod” – convocation of bishops – reexamining Catholic theology and practice on “the family.”
Shortly before the Synod gathered, one gay Vatican official spoke up for a change in the Church’s behavior toward gay people. He was summarily fired for “creating public doubt and confusion about the holding of the Church.”
Then Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec, urged the Synod to consider at least small steps toward fuller inclusion of women in the spiritual life of the Church.
By Email I was invited to join in a petition supporting Archbishop Durocher. I did.
And then a rabbi wrote me in FaceBook that this is a purely internal issue of the Catholic Church, and rabbis should not be getting involved in it.
His comment made me think through the questions involved in my original visceral response. The rest of this letter is my considered approach to the question. And in the next few days, I will share with you comments on an earlier draft of this letter that I invited from Gloria Steinem and Rabbi Susan Talve.
From the moment Pope Francis issued the encyclical on the climate crisis and the actions we need to take about it, The Shalom Center stood shoulder to shoulder with him.
But we are deeply critical of the Church’s and even this Pope’s basic theology and practice toward women.
We stand with him on the climate crisis precisely because Laudato Si went beyond the looming disaster for our Mother Earth, to look at its deep causes. The Pope described gross inequality of wealth and power and grossly selfish arrogance toward other-than-human life as the deep issues behind the climate issue. The Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis (signed by 400+ rabbis), which we issued a few days before the Encyclical, spoke of this reality in evocative Jewish language: “Carbon Pharaohs.”
AND -- we condemn the Church’s outlook on women because it is precisely the reverse of its outlook on the Earth. It accepts oppressive male power and arrogance toward women (and men who in that theological outlook act “unnaturally” like women) as legitimate – even obligatory.
There are two reasons why rabbis are not only permitted but obligated to urge that the Roman Catholic Church commit itself to the full equality of women, within and beyond the Church.
1. We are commanded, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof -- Justice, justice, shall you pursue." As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
This assertion is not mere rhetoric but, rather, a practical truth. The “internal” patriarchal structure of the Roman Catholic Church has resulted in its putting a great deal of money and political effort into subordinating women and gay men in American society way beyond the borders of the Church:
• Trying to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage; • Trying to undermine the legality and availability of "artificial" contraception even while 96% of American Catholic women use it; • Burdening the choice of abortion so as to make it unreachable for women who legally have the right to choose it; • and more broadly, Treating the moral agency of women in making their own conscientious choices as of no account when their choices differ from male-only top-down theology.
All this is the result of the impact of a large utterly patriarchal Church on our entire society. I would certainly not outlaw such a Church, but I certainly undertake to criticize that aspect of it, seek to persuade it to change, and support those Catholics who challenge it.
2. This male-chauvinist theology of the Church has its roots in misinterpretation of Torah 2,000 years ago among some in the emerging rabbinic community that included Jesus himself and some of his early followers, even before "Christianity" existed.
To the extent that ancient rabbinic misinterpretation contributed to that result, rabbinic thought and action in our own day is obligated to correct the mistake -- among Jews and among Christians.
That misinterpretation began with misconstruing the parable of the Garden of Eden. One major aspect of that story (there can of course be many varied interpretations of this multifaceted tale) can be summarized this way: --
God (YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of Life), speaking as Reality, for Reality, and about Reality, says to the human race: “There is amazing abundance all around you. Eat of it joyfully:-- but with some measure of self-restraint. From this one tree, do not eat!”
But the human species refuses to restrain itself, and its arrogance brings on two deadly disasters:
One disaster is that the abundance vanishes, so that humans must toil with the sweat pouring down their faces to wring just enough to eat from an Earth that brings forth thorns and thistles.
The other is that human arrogance turns inward also: Hierarchy comes into the world, in the form of “Men shall rule over women.”
Hardly anyone has ever seen the first disastrous consequence as a command. If it were, we would be forbidden to invent tools to ease our labor or to shape a society at peace with the Earth.
But a great deal of Jewish and Christian theology has till recently seen the second disastrous consequence as a command: Men must rule over women.
But that is not the point of the biblical story. The point is to warn us of the sad future that will arise as a result of the human race’s arrogance toward the earth and its unwillingness to restrain itself from gobbling up all Earth.
The Eden story is about a childish human race growing up into rebellious adolescence, and then into an adulthood of drudgery and hierarchy.
But growth is not supposed to stop there. The real goal of the Bible is for the human race to grow up into a maturity that is joyfully at peace with the Earth and in which women and men are joyfully at peace with each other. The vision is embodied in the Song of Songs –- Eden for a grown-up human race.
Another – and related -- major mistake of the early rabbis that spawned the same mistake in the early Church was to take all the earthiness out of the Song of Songs. The rabbis and their Christian brothers interpreted the Song as only about love between God and Israel or Christ and the Church, Thus they blinded us all to its vision of real live women and men in loving community and real live human earthlings in loving community with Earth. For if men were supposed to rule over women, the Song could not be about women and men – real people – as equals.
In the last generation of Judaism, we have gone far (not yet the whole way) to correcting the unjust and destructive misinterpretation of Torah as commanding the subordination of women. So have many branches of Christianity. But not yet the Catholic Church.
I believe it behooves us as Jews and especially as rabbis to do tshuvah – turn our ancient mistakes into today’s transformation -- for the way in which our forebears had a hand in mis-shaping what became Catholicism.
There is an overarching meta-relationship between the relationship of women and men and the relationship between Mother Earth and her human earthlings. The two are deeply intertwined, whether for love or for subjugation, as Eden and the Song make clear.
If it is desirable for us to applaud the Church when it tries to move beyond human arrogance toward the Earth, then it is desirable – even obligatory – for us to criticize the Church when it encourages male arrogance toward women.
The responses of Gloria Steinem and Rabbi Susan Talve will reach you soon. And I welcome your own comments as well.
If you value this kind of conversation as a way of enriching your own thought and action, please help us carry these conversations forward by clicking on the Donate button to the left. Thanks!