Women in clergy have made gains

One evening, I’m sitting at my desk with a list of five items to my right — all potential subjects of future TJP columns. To my left: two clippings from a recent Dallas Morning News.
Many years ago, when I was first offered the opportunity to become a columnist, I sent three samples to my managing editor, who got back to me thusly: “Can you keep this coming, every week, week after week, all year long?” My answer was a writer’s “no-brainer”: “That’s a valid question for an editor. But the columnist’s question is, ‘What should I write about first?’” (And I “columned” for that paper for almost a decade, until I came to Dallas.)
So now, to my right are those five subjects, fighting for me to write about them ASAP. But to my left are the reasons I’ve chosen a different topic for today: one woman who wanted to be a church leader but couldn’t, and another who wanted to be a synagogue leader and could.
Peggy Wehmeyer, a self-identified Evangelical Christian Dallasite, was the first person of either sex ever to be a religion correspondent on national network TV. But that wasn’t the career she’d wanted; her aim was to be a minister, a leader of a church congregation. Her religion, however, would allow her to lead groups of women only, not to influence men. It maintained that a woman’s highest calling came straight from God: Marry and have children.
About that same time, Ellen Lewis — one of the earliest ordained women rabbis, and the first ever to serve a congregation in our area — became Temple Emanu-El’s religious school director. But she also had some pastoral responsibilities, among them making visits to hospitalized Jews who requested them. She returned from such a “deployment” one day, madder than she’d ever been before, because when she had tried to turn her car into the parking lot’s clergy section, the attendant denied her entrance: he insisted that “Women can’t be rabbis.”
Just as Wehmeyer couldn’t be a minister. Her church wouldn’t let her preach to men; it maintained they would “obey” a woman only if they were too weak to do otherwise. Be like Sarah, she was instructed; God told her to listen to Abraham, she was told. (I wonder if the giver of that advice had ever read far enough into the Bible to notice what God said when Sarah urged Abraham to send Ishmael away and he was reluctant to do so: “Listen to her.”)
Wehmeyer is more content now because her own daughter is attending a Christian seminary that prepares women for full ministry. But we Jews have been ahead of that curve, even though some of our own are as reluctant to accept this as are some evangelicals — like the one I recently heard on the radio (I have a pre-set in my car that used to play my favorite music, but it’s now gone to full-time Christian broadcasting; I keep listening, because I learn so much): His “expert” opinion was that a woman can now preach, but not pastor. In other words, she can speak, but she can’t lead.
My second clipping shows the DMN’s recent editorial “thumbs down” to the Richardson church whose minister had circulated his views about “many dangerous ‘isms’” — including Judaism among them. Then, leading many in public opposition to Pastor Sheldon Gibbs III was Elana Zelony — not only an ordained Conservative clergyperson, but the only woman rabbi in North Texas (maybe even in all of Texas) to stand in her very own pulpit. She’s living the life of religious leadership she wanted, as Wehmeyer could not, although her daughter can.
Ages ago, when I was a young woman daring to say out loud that I would like to be a rabbi, I got this advice: “You can marry a rabbi.” Bad idea. But these two recent clippings illustrate changes, both profound and undeniable, in today’s religious leadership.

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