Sacred Solidarity, Radical Hospitality: Women Priests & a Woman Rabbi

 Standing with the Sisters

[ By Rabbi SUSAN TALVE, founding Rabbi of Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis. ]

Two women asked us to house their ordination in our sanctuary. Their request  offered us another way of fulfilling our promise of radical hospitality.

But this act of “radical hospitality” was radical indeed. For the women 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.

When the line between the personal and the political dissolves, it is usually due to religion.

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 ordination here.”

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 of radical hospitality.

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 sources.

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 follow.

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 woman-friendly spiritual path better suit me?  I answer that I am Jewish and I am a feminist. Both realities define me. 

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 excommunication.  

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 that.

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 everything.

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 lives.  

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 Peace. 

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.

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