Women Religious Leaders See Glass Ceilings In Faith Culture

In an age where little girls are told they can be or do anything, there still remain some places they cannot go. Women cannot become Catholic priests. They also cannot pray in the same area as their Orthodox Jewish male counterparts. To discuss the role of women in religion, host Michel Martin talks with a diverse group of women: author Leora Tanenbaum, an observant Jew; Sister Maxine Kollasch a Catholic nun; and the Reverend Renita Weems, a minister ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we remember the life of Jaime Escalante, the teacher who inspired the film "Stand and Deliver."

But, first, today, the final day in Women's History Month of this year. We're taking another look at the roles women are playing in some of the major religions practiced in this country. We're thinking about this because we live in a time when most American girls are told they can do anything. Run households, run companies or countries, but there remain barriers that cannot be broken - positions of leadership in some religious traditions that bar women from performing many sacred tasks.

While many women do not object to these restrictions, considering their obedience to them a part of their obedience to their faith, some women do object and are raising questions about whether these restrictions are indeed theologically grounded at all, or merely cultural practices. Recently we spoke with two women who both practice Islam, who express different views about the practice of separating men and women during worship. One supported the practice and one did not.

Today we're going to hear from Leora Tanenbaum, the author of "Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality." She's an orthodox Jew. She's coming to us from our New York bureau.

Also joining us is Sister Maxine Kollasch. She's a member of the Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a Roman Catholic religious community. She blogs about her life as a Catholic nun at, appropriately enough, "A Nun's Life." She joins us from Chicago.

Also with us is a frequent guest on this program, the Reverend Renita Weems. She's an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and she now co-pastors the Ray of Hope community church with her husband in Nashville, Tennessee.

I welcome you all. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. LEORA TANENBAUM (Author, "Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality"): Hello, thank you so much for having me.

Sister MAXINE KOLLASCH (Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary): Hi, I'm delighted to be here.

Reverend RENITA WEEMS (African Methodist Episcopal Church): Hello, this is my pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, Leora, I'd like to start with you. You write in your book "Taking Back God" about the experiences of women in various religious traditions, but who find a tension between their faith and the way their faith treats them. You write: These women agree with their priests, pastors, imams and rabbis that the word of God is revealed in their faith's sacred writings and they embrace the word of God, yet they believe that God always intended for women to be treated as equals to men. The problem is not God's intention, but rather a distortion of God's plan.

I'd like to ask you, how are they, how are you - so sure?

Ms. TANENBAUM: Well, when it comes to matters of theology, I don't think anybody can ever be totally sure. But it's really interesting when you look at the core of these traditions. I don't have to tell you, Jesus was a feminist. Muhammad the Prophet, back in seventh century Arabia, worked very hard and was quite successful in elevating the status of women in a number of areas - in marriage, inheritance, and so on. So, when you go back to the core, you can see that actually there is an ethic of equality for women in much of the sacred texts and the tradition.

MARTIN: Talk to me, Leora, if you would, about some of the practices that with which you take issue, the practice of segregating men and women during prayer, for example - which is practiced in some synagogues. I would say probably most orthodox synagogues, but not other traditions within Judaism don't.

Ms. TANENBAUM: That is correct, Michel. In orthodox Judaism, there is always gender segregation in prayer. You identified me as an orthodox Jew, which is not entirely incorrect. I am an observant Jew and orthodox Judaism is my life and my world, I don't actually label myself an orthodox Jew. I reject that label for the simple reason that I reject the party line of orthodox Judaism on issues such women's rights and gay and lesbian rights.

MARTIN: Sure.

Ms. TANENBAUM: To make that clear.

MARTIN: I think that's a legitimate, yeah, that's fair and I appreciate it.

Ms. TANENBAUM: You know, and in many ways, as you point out, traditional Judaism and feminism are locked in a head-on collision. Traditional Jewish law is rooted in the idea that men and women have separate roles, separate spheres. In orthodox Judaism, you know, there is this gender segregation where the women sit either in an upstairs gallery, such as in a mosque, or just in a separate section behind the men or adjacent to men, but it's always separate. Women may not lead mixed gender prayer or read from the Torah. And as many people know, in orthodox Judaism, which is different from the other more liberal denominations, women may not become rabbis, and that's something that is being contested.

MARTIN: Sister Maxine, let's hear from you. Historically, nuns have played an important role in providing leadership on a range of issues. So I'd like to hear from you about that. But before we do, I did want to ask if you had an opinion about the question of the ordination of women as priests.

Sister KOLLASCH: Well, of course that's a very big issue in our church, and has been for some time. Women do have roles in lots of other spheres of church life, parish administration, many other roles. There is a difference between women religious and clergy. Our roles are very different in the church. If you look at the scriptural basis, most scripture scholars will say there is no scriptural reason for the prohibition of women to be ordained, that basis really lies in the tradition.

Now, of course, like any tradition, ours is a living tradition. It grows and changes and I think in the final run, God will be the one who decides that.

MARTIN: So is it your view that the roles that women play in the church at the moment are equal but different, or do you think they are subservient and you are just faithful in your hope and belief that this will change in time?

Sister KOLLASCH: I think for people who do feel called to ordination it does feel like subservience. I, myself, feel called to religious life, not ordination. There's, you know, a lot of opinions about it. I think that if God calls a person to ordination its a call that needs to be taken seriously by everyone in the church.

MARTIN: Okay. And Reverend Weems, in your religious tradition, how is this issue...

Rev. WEEMS: Yes.

MARTIN: You are a minister. You do offer sacraments. Talk to me a little bit about whether that was a difficult journey to get to.

Rev. WEEMS: Right. I am an ordained minister in a Protestant tradition and women have been ordained in the Protestant tradition for quite some time now. But just because we are ordained doesnt mean that we really hold the reins of power.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you, has there been resistance to your leadership or your service in this role?

Rev. WEEMS: Oh yes. I have found, personally, I dont receive the same kind of resistance now at this age in my 50s that I did when I was in my 20s. That may very well be because on one level, the Protestant culture has changed. But I also think there's something about when you get older you can command some things that you could not necessarily as a woman command when you were 20 and 30. So I dont receive the same kind of resistance now.

Now, they may feel the same way, but no one says those things to me in the same way they absolutely said them to me when I was in my 20s or my 30s.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask what some of the things were that people said?

Rev. WEEMS: Oh, just God doesnt call women. You know, going into a church - I have very vivid memories. As a young ordained minister there in the Princeton area and there was a Princeton church where the women had invited me to come speak for a Sunday service and they thought that they had the permission of the pastor, and I got there with my robe on my arm and my Bible and my little sermon. I dont even think I got into the vestibule of the church and the pastor turned me away and said, oh no. There was a mistake. We dont allow women to preach here.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with three women from three different faith traditions and we're talking about the role of women in religious practice today. In some religious traditions women are not permitted to hold certain roles and we're talking about that. I'm speaking with the Reverend Renita Weems, Sister Maxine Kollasch, and Leora Tanenbaum.

Leora, I'd like to come back to you. In your book, you quote a woman, Sara Shapiro-Plevin, who says: In the secular world I can insist on equal treatment because that the way our secular society operates. But in the Jewish traditional world I can't, and I hate it.

And I wanted to ask how is this discussion, debate, whatever you want to call it about the roles that women should play, particularly in the orthodox tradition, how is this discussion going forward?

Ms. TANENBAUM: There is an organization called The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and there are many members who are activists and, you know, trying to be rabble rousers in their communities. The problem is that when you look at the core of Orthodox Judaism, we dont have any feminist precedent, really. We believe that equality is a core Judaic value. As with Islam, we operate within a legal code, and so the challenge is to figure out how to enlarge women's role without going beyond the boundaries of the legal code.

MARTIN: Is there any hesitation about surfacing this debate for fear that it will be seen as disloyal to the faith tradition? And even more broadly, give aid and comfort to anti-Semites, for example, this idea that we can't criticize within because it will give comfort to our enemies on the outside. Is there any of that?

Ms. TANENBAUM: I think that's probably true of all of us, the whole question of whether you, you know, air your dirty laundry in public. But I will say that when it comes to Judaism, we have such a rich history of being critical. I mean you go back to our sacred texts, including the Talmud, the Mishnah, and the Gemara, which are debates amongst the rabbis. And so we feel particularly comfortable, I think taking on that kind of critical role. I think that may outweigh the concern of, you know, airing our dirty laundry in public.

MARTIN: And Sister Maxine, what about you within the Catholic tradition? Obviously, we know that there are people who've publicly spoken on this issue who consider themselves faithful. But are there those who say the very act of taking this issue on bespeaks an unseemly disobedience to the church and therefore, is not appropriate?

Sister KOLLASCH: Well, it can be a source and has been, of course, a source of great tension in the church. Some people will look at this as a feminist issue, even though its a much larger issue that deals with priests who are now out of their role there and are married. Also it involves certainly much than women religious. We work in a very different kind of sphere as women religious than other folks in the church at times.

For us, social justice is a huge issue and it is by that path that we come to the issue of women's ordination. Should people be allowed to respond to the call that they receive from God? I think that's ongoing debate and there are definitely some in the church who view that as - to engage in that, even that discussion as a form of disloyalty. But we also have a church that knows how to talk amongst itself and to say what needs to be said. We have our limits, granted, but I have a great deal of hope that the church will work these issues through.

MARTIN: You do? In your lifetime?

Sister KOLLASCH: In my lifetime, I would love to think so, Michel.

MARTIN: Do you think so?

Sister KOLLASCH: I probably wouldnt hold my breath on that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Okay. Reverend Weems, what about you? How do you feel these issues are being addressed within the Protestant world? Do you think its, is it you or do you think its the community at large that's changed?

Rev. WEEMS: It's probably a little bit of both. But I do think that a number of women that once weve reached a certain age find that we dont receive the kind of blatant overt sexism. We dont experience it in the same kind of way. I mean in terms of that no, you cannot do this. Sit down. People are much more subtle. I didnt say respectful, but I just say subtle.

I think what we discovered is the fact that there is no one Protestant Church, which means that we have always disagreed. We have always split off around some issue, whether it's communion or baptism or slavery. We have not necessarily split off around the issue of women's ordination. Within the Protestant tradition, we are faced with and we have this overwhelming kind of doctrine of the word only and what does God say and what does the Bible say?

And so we are, find ourselves arguing with this text, but nevertheless, there are women who have found comfort in an inspiration from the fact that women have played an important role within the early church and within our Judeo-Christian tradition, whether it is from Mary Magdalene and Priscilla to Esther and Deborah so we know that there are women who have emerged, who played a prominent role even if they did not have an official role.

MARTIN: And finally, in a couple of minutes that we have left, I'd love to hear from each of you about where you think this conversation is going within your respective traditions. And Reverend Weems, why dont you start.

Rev. WEEMS: I think it is inevitable. I think not within my lifetime, but I think it is inevitable. I think it has already started as women began to seek ordination, to seek more ordination and to become - that there become parity within our church. I think that that is inevitable and I think that that is indeed the direction of history within Protestantism.

MARTIN: Sister Maxine, what do you think? Where do you think this conversation is going?

Sister KOLLASCH: Well, I think the world will continue to change and the church is part of that world. There are many other factors that affect this issue, of course, in our church, one being fewer men joining either orders or diocesan priesthood ranks. And again, I think that for people who feel this call and there is a need for people to feel this call, I think as a church, we are - it is imperative for us to listen to all the ways that God calls anyone. And my great hope is that we will have that openmindedness as a church and we will move on that.

MARTIN: And finally, Leora, what about you? Where do you think this conversation's going?

Ms. TANENBAUM: Well, people always ask me in amazement, you know, why dont I go to one of the other denominations? And my answer is twofold: one is I happen to find the observant Jewish lifestyle really fulfilling. I dont want to leave it. And second: if I dont stay and fight the good fight, who will? Real and lasting social change always comes from struggles from the inside, which is why it's important for all of us to stay.

In terms of my community specifically, I'm involved in a cutting-edge movement to build what are called partnership minyans. These are prayer services in which orthodox norms are maintained but women read from the Torah and lead certain parts of the service and take on this leadership role that they usually are denied.

So from where I sit, we are chipping away. It's slow. Its a slow process but we are chipping away at the inequality and we are taking back God for ourselves.

MARTIN: Leora Tanenbaum writes about matters of faith for the Huffington Post. She's the author of "Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality." And she is, as she told us, an observant Jew. She joined us from New York. Sister Maxine Kollasch is a member of the Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a Roman Catholic religious community. She blogs about her life at anunslife.org, and she joined us from Chicago. And the Reverend Renita Weems is an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She co-pastors the Ray of Hope Community Church with her husband in Nashville, Tennessee. She's the author of many books and she also blogs, and she joined us from Nashville.

Ladies, happy Easter, happy Pesach to you; I thank you so much for joining us.

Rev. WEEMS: Thank you.

Sister KOLLASCH: Thank you.

Ms. TANENBAUM: Youre welcome, Michel.

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