First African-American woman rabbi should challenge us

On June 6th, Alysa Stanton will become the first African-American woman to be ordained as a rabbi and will lead a congregation in North Carolina. Stanton, a convert to Judaism, is a mother to an adopted 14 year old daughter and a trained psychotherapist who specializes in trauma and grief.

Since ordaining its first female rabbi in 1972, Hebrew Union College (HUC) has ordained 582 women rabbis. Reconstructionist Judaism ordained its first female rabbi in 1974, and the Conservative movement began ordaining women as rabbis in 1985. Since then, a number of Orthodox women have also received Orthodox smicha.

The ordination of the first female African-American rabbi should spark further discussions about the ordination of women rabbis within a Messianic Jewish context. The Messianic Jewish movement remains one of the only branches of Judaism that still does not officially ordain woman as rabbis. But this is not for a lack of previous discussions and debate.

A number of debates, including a recent one hosted at Toward Blog, highlight the growing call for Messianic Judaism to move forward in this matter. Many of us younger Messianic Jews do not even understand what is holding us up from moving forward on this issue, and are continually growing restless with all the foot dragging. In the meantime, many gifted and talented young women are voting with their feet and leaving our movement for spiritual communities in which their talents are valued. In a day and age when women can be and do anything, it seems absurd that what they CANNOT be is a Messianic rabbi.

About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue in Agoura Hills, CA, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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25 Responses to First African-American woman rabbi should challenge us

  1. Gene Shlomovich says:

    I seem to have the distinction of being the first to post on your blog.About your post. This tells me that WE as a movement desperately need more young ethnically Jewish MEN to step up to the leadership plate. If not, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves – our movement will become even more irrelevant as our own top echelons become feminized, gentilized, liberalized and paralyzed by political correctness (and who knows what other “ized”).This also tells me that liberal American “Judaism” is in real serious trouble and will probably self-implode theologically and demographically in not too distant future (since it’s mostly assimilationist, secular, and its definition of Jewishness as well as its conversion standards are very loose). BTW, the man-hating feminists are eating this story up big time: radicalprofeminist.blogspot.com/2009/03/looking-for-rabbi-dont-forget-to-seek.html

  2. Monique says:

    Thanks for the comment, Gene.You’re making an assumption here that the standards for this woman’s conversion were loose.For the sake of argument, what if she had undergone an Orthodox conversion before seeking a Reform pulpit?I’ve met more than a handful of Conservative and Orthodox rabbis who are non-white converts. And they’re not all radical feminists, either. 😉

  3. Monique says:

    what i’m really asking is, what’s your issue here? that she’s a convert? that she’s black? that she’s a woman? that she’s reform? or all of the above?

  4. Gene Shlomovich says:

    Hi Monique… Instead of us rejoicing and be all excited when a non-Jew or a woman becomes a rabbi, we should be lamenting the fact the our Jewish men are being marginalized from and disenchanted with Judaism, and we should pleading before G-d on our knees to reverse this trend and raise up worthy MEN to lead Israel, Judaism and the Jewish people.I have not heard any concern for men as leaders expressed by anyone here – egalitarianism is all the rage now. But SOME in the mainstream Jewish community are taking notice (although I suspect it may be too late for liberal Judaism to do anything about it). I’m also very much concerned that this trend is about to affect Messianic Judaism before long (see article below):http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2008/06/22/where_have_all_the_men_gone/Is Messianic Judaism doing anything about this trend or are we going to stand idly by and just watch it happen to us as well?

  5. J.K. McKee says:

    The issue of female ordination if one of a whole long list of issues that the broad Messianic community has swept under the rug for far too long. Yet, Messianic congregations and organizations (even if in the far future) who ordain qualified females–who possess the same skills and credentials as the current male leaders should *already* have–are more likely to follow in the footsteps of evangelical Christians who are egalitiarian.I encourage anyone who is skeptical of all this to read through some of the free literature of an organization like Christians for Biblical Equality (cbeinternational.org). We all need to be familiar with the various sides of the debate, the relevant passages and their varied interpretations, before we then go out and stake our turf.

  6. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Gene-I am having a hard time buying into your arguement that somehow “Jewish men are being marginalized.” In fact, I am arguing the opposite. That we men, especially Messianic Jewish men, continue to marginalize women in our Movement. We are far from being overwhelmed and overrun by women. Second, the position you are arguing for is the exact position of why so many young educated Jews do not take MJ very seriously, and are not found in large numbers within our ranks. My wife an I (among others) seek to build a vibrant Messiah centered Judaism that is attractive to, and spiritually compelling to our Jewish world. I just returned from a Young Leaders retreat sponsored mainly by the UMJC (you can read about it on Rabbi Russ’s blog at umjc.net), that brought together young leaders from the UMJC, MJAA, and Tikkun. Guess how many of us there were? 9! Although yes there may be another few out there who were not there who are leading congregations, or desire to becoome congregational leaders, but that number is still reflective of a problem that is Movement wide. The modern Messianic movement has failed in its ability to reach a) Jews in general, and b) the next generation.Although some congregations are doing better in these ragards then others, it is still a problem and will remain a problem until we are willing to admit, “Huh, maybe I am not always right and maybe we should rethink some of our positions.” For if MJ does not – how effective will we really be?

  7. Rabbi Joshua says:

    To clarify something my wife posted, Alysa Stanton did undergo an orthodox conversion in 1987. (See page 2 of the related article linked on the blog).

  8. Monique says:

    Gene,With all seriousness, I’d like to know how you came to the conclusion that Jewish men are disenchanted with Judaism. Maybe you’re seeing social phenomena in Florida that we’re sheltered from in SoCal. From our perspective it’s people under 40 (both men AND women) who are disenchanted. Their absence has a lot to with intergenerational clashes between aging hippies and post-post-modern hipsters. MJudaism’s outdated gender politics are part of that clash.We’ve definitely hashed it out (at Toward blog) on your theological objections, and have a halfway decent grasp of your objections on that front. However, we’re having a hard time understanding on a sociological level what’s so threatening about women’s ordination.

  9. Gene Shlomovich says:

    Joshua and Monique…We have failed to reach Jews because we are viewed as a non-Jewish (mostly evangelical or pentacostal charismatic) and often as a plain weird movement. We have very few Jews in our congregations. Our services are raping Jewish liturgy and traditions. Our leadership is educated in Christian institutions and many are anti-Judaic and anti-traditional. Many of our “rabbis” are Gentiles. Most of our membership (Jew or Gentile) is fresh from churches. We have no REAL physical institutions of higher Messianic Jewish learning. I can count our theologians on my two hands (and still have a few fingers left). This is to say that we are divided in many many more and in MUCH more important ways than simply not allowing “women rabbis”. I think that your women rabbis issue is a red herring – our TRUE problems have nothing to do with female empowerment or suppression of “talented women”. Nothing – it’s a diversion.Liberal Judaism is losing MEN, not women – please read the Boston Globe article I mentioned above. I quote from it:”Contemporary liberal American Judaism, although supposedly egalitarian, is visibly and substantially feminized.” (Sylvia Barack Fishman, a professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University and the coauthor of a study on “Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life”)Do you disagree with this professor? Perhaps you’ve done more research and more studies on this issue – let us know.It seems that Jewish men and men in general do not want to be lead by women, period. Perhaps if we regained strong Jewish male leadership this trend would be reversed. But it’s probably coming to the Messianic Judaism in the next generation and you want to lead the way.Shalom. I probably got your blood boiling again – but I come in peace.

  10. Gene Shlomovich says:

    More from the study I mentioned above:”When it comes to gender equality or gender balance, contemporary American Jewish life is caught between a rock and a hard place,” said co-author Daniel Parmer, a Brandeis graduate student. “Boys and men as a group ARE NOT ATTRACTED to feminized Jewish activities and environments.”http://www.brandeis.edu/now/2008/june/hbigenderstudy.html

  11. Monique says:

    could you repost the boston.com link? it didn’t work for me.

  12. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Shalom Gene,In regard to your stated issues within MJ I totally agree. I am sure we both have considered tossing in the towel on a number of occasions – not on Yeshua – but the hokey banners, glittery skirts, and “rabbis” who cannot read Hebrew. You can read my position on much of those issues as well. However, on this particular issue, my position in regard to women as rabbis is a separate issue from the “feminization of Judaism.” I would agree that too is a shift in the wrong direction. I agree with the article you quoted that the feminization of Judaism has become an issue within segments of the Jewish Communty; particularly in parts of the Reform, Jewish Renewal, and Reconstructionist Movements. However, as one very familiar with traditional, yet progressive congregations within Conservative, Conservadox, and modern Orthodox Movements, there indeed can be a very healthy balance, and in fact, an overwhelming boost to Jewish life as a result.I sense that you assume my positions are much more radical then they really are. My argument is simply that MJ currently has the opposite problem. In learning from the mistakes of others in regard to hyper-feminization, we also cannot let fear control us.

  13. Gene Shlomovich says:

    Monique… I have created a short URL that will take you to that Boston Globe article: http://alturl.com/mdamJoshua, I am glad that you are after a healthy balance. I am too. It’s just that I believe that achieving it need not involve having female rabbis or female led congregations. If we chase after liberal Judaism’s “progress”, we may reap its fruits as well. I am not afraid, but I am concerned about the direction we are heading. As in the story of Esther, G-d will achieve his plans for Israel whether we chose to participate in them or not. I don’t want G-d to choose someone else and reject our Messianic Jewish “house”.Shalom to you both.Will either of you take part in the UMJC conference in Miami this summer?

  14. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Hi Gene-In regard to your last comment, he still used Esther (emphasis on gender). LOL… 😉 I just couldn’t resist. As far as the conference, we were planning on going. But at the moment it is up in the air due to finances. G-d willing, we’ll see you there!

  15. Anonymous says:

    Great article. I find it ironic that MJ congregations reflect the conservative and white evangelical movement as a whole. Most MJ people I have met, and I know quite a few, are Republican and oriented toward a male leadership. If MJ were truly a Jewish movement, wouldn’t it reflect the demographics of the Reform and Conservative movements as a whole? Does MJ really expect Jews to be attracted to a conservative evangelical movement with Jewish window dressing which does not reflect the diversity in their own movement?

  16. Gene Shlomovich says:

    “Most MJ people I have met, and I know quite a few, are Republican and oriented toward a male leadership.”That’s why some people refer to Messianic Jews as “completed Jews”:)

  17. Monique says:

    partisan politics don’t belong on the bimah. EVER.i’m just sayin’ …

  18. Gene Shlomovich says:

    “…partisan politics don’t belong on the bimah. EVER….”Totally agree. I can’t stand when someone starts talking about politics at the ‘gogue, or tells me I need to sign this or that petition, or starts unloading on this or that politician or policy. Conservative or liberal, just shut up already.Thankfully, our rabbi is apolitical to a fault.

  19. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Dear “Anonymous,”Thank you for your post. It is true that unfortunately the way the MJ Movement has evolved is more toward, as you say, a “conservative and white evangelical” influence. In regard to your last question of whether or not “MJ [can] really expect Jews to be attracted to a conservative evangelical movement with Jewish window dressing which does not reflect the diversity in their own movement?” To that I agree, and that is why there are a number of us calling for a complete overhaul within MJ. My vision and desire is to see a “messianic”/messianist form of Judaism – similar to other messianic movements within Judaism. We can always limit the disagreement simply to WHO is mashiach as long as we are clearly within the boundaries of Judaism.But it must be similar to the concept of “Torah Lishma – Torah for its own sake.” We need to be Jews because we are Jews. Not because we only have an agenda to somehow attract other Jews.

  20. Rabbi Adam J. Bernay says:

    Sorry about the length of the previous post… y’all hit several of my “hot buttons”.

  21. Monique says:

    Editor's note: REPOST of Adam J. Bernay's prior post, edited for length. See below:"I just want to point out to the anonymous poster that while most Jews in America are liberal politically, most ORTHODOX Jews are VERY conservative politically. In Judaism, the politics tends to follow the theology & practice. And, in fact, in Messianic Judaism, I find the same to be true, by and large: the more Orthodox the person is in their view on Torah Observance, the more conservative they are politically, with a few exceptions. The objection that if you're a conservative Republican you're somehow LESS Jewish must be coming from a non-Orthodox. And such an objection makes me laugh. Although I'm no longer a Republican (I'm "Decline to State" in California's bizarre terminology — "independent" anywhere else), my political views (as opposed to my moral views) are on the libertarian end of conservatism."Now, as for the issue with female rabbis, I gotta say I disagree. I see no direct violations of Scripture in it. Is it the PREFERRED situation? No. One of my mentors put it this way: God prefers to call men. If no man will stand, God will call women. If no woman will stand, God will call children. If no child will stand, God will cause rocks to cry out and donkeys to speak."Only if our goal is acceptance and "credibility" in the Jewish community is there an issue. Well, we could be the frumest of the frum, without a "Goy" in the place, with rabbis trained to the standards of the JTS… and we will still not be accepted or credible to the Jewish community at large, for one reason: Yeshua. Period. Until He sets foot on the Mount of Olives, they will not accept us as a community and most of their leaders will hate us. I've accepted that. (Individuals are another matter. Plenty of mainstream Jewish individuals accept us, even if they don't believe in Yeshua, but as a community it ain't gonna happen.)"That being said, we are DEFINITELY in need of some higher standards and stricter definitions in our leadership education in the Messianic community. Most of our "yeshivot" hand out supposed "degrees" that are not even close to the standards required. MAYBE they're suitable for the equivalent of a 2-year Bible School certification, but we need to develop not just yeshivot that can hand out respectable semicha, but also one or two actual SEMINARIES that can give ACTUAL, LEGITIMATE graduate degrees, not that all Messianic rabbis or ministers need a graduate degree. We need the "Bible School"-type yeshivot to provide basic training coursework that can equip congregational leaders that are NOT rabbis and will NOT be given that title."

  22. Monique says:

    Adam, I couldn’t disagree with you more on the “preferences” of G-d. But if that’s the last straw that you’re holding on to, then I’d say we’re making progress.

  23. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Dear Adam-I would also disagree with your assumption of “G-d’s preferences.” Of all the examples of women leaders within Scripture, there is not one example supporting your assumption. In response to your comments about the training of future leaders, the UMJC and MJTI have really raised the bar in this matter. MJ Rabbis ordained within these contexts will recieve a graduate degree and extensive rabbinical preparation in addition to smicha.

  24. Mike says:

    We have D’vorah, Miriam, and others in the TaNaKh, Miriam, Miram of Magdalene, Priscilla (AKA Prisca), Chloe, Junia, and Phoebe in the New Testament, so what’s the hold up?! I was raised in Chabad where we were enforcers of Kol Isha, I came to Christ 4 years ago, and the more I study, the more I don’t see a valid argument against women in ministry. Yes there’s the passages in Timothy, and Corinthians, but we must look at the context to why that was said. All who are called to the ministry should come under the same scrutiny, and the scrutiny should be based on how Biblically orthodox they are. Shaul who is supposed to be the one to have introduced Kol Isha to the church, is the same one who acknowledges woman in ministry in Romans 16. Rabbi you make excellent points for the cause of female smikha, and I’d love to see the day when it happens.
    I’m an evangelist at heart, I’m in New York once a year for Shalom Brooklyn with CPM, I tell you they have women on staff there who are truly anointed (my friend D Line comes to mind), that to me furthers the cause for women’s ordination.
    Yasher koach rabbi for a great article. Shabbat shalom.
    On a side note looking at some of the comments, I envision a messianic Judaism that’s like traditional Judaism, where you have three main branches, Orthodox, Masorti (also known as Conservative), and Reform in their approach to Judaism, but Biblically orthodox and highly evangelical.

  25. H. Cohen says:

    I see this article about celebrating a new rabbi. Period. Hooray for her, and the Jewish community is all the better for her and her passion being part of it. As for women in ministry, sadly, this topic is too often a victim of ignorance itself. If we read Paul carefully, we will notice that he does NOT stop women from leading out everywhere in general, like Rome, for instance. Why? The churches there in Rome were led by women. He even greets a woman BEFORE her husband, denoting rank/authority. A Roman church historian illustrated how men’s allegiance was to Caesar, so as to avoid political issue (and penalty of death), women ran the churches. The Roman churches became the strongest in time, and they grew well under this female leadership for awhile. What happened in Ephesus and Corinth? The Hellenist goddess cult was VERY strong there–it was a big part of women’s rank in society, but even more so, it brought tourism/pilgrimages to the area, triggering growth in commerce and boosting the economy. In fact, prophetesses for the Ephesian and Corinthian goddesses had political standing equivalent to that of city mayors, and a lot was at stake when a new male deity (Yeshua) was introduced, whose teaching denounced their goddesses as false. A gender war over god vs. goddess broke out. Females worshipped goddesses–for fertility, childbirth (deadly and frightening back then), and other women’s life cycle issues. Males worshipped male gods–for fertility, war and success. For a woman to abandon her personal goddesses for a solitary male god was preposterous! Personal survival, social rank, women’s issues and identity were at stake, and the women fought this. It became a battle of the sexes, culminating in some very frank, desperate, and “no holds barred” directions from Paul on how to handle the issue, as the very Gospel itself was at stake in these areas. Chava/Eve in the Garden of Eden was even brought up in trying to even-out the lopsided feminist theologies that prevented Yeshua from being as widely accepted in those circles. Does this mean that all women today in our various communities are more feeble-minded then men in general? This argument was crucial for Paul’s mission against the Gentile feminists and their blind “anti-male theology” agenda, but today, for other communities out of this context, we can see that it would be inappropriate and very far from truth to say that all women universally are therefore feeble-minded and unworthy as leaders. Timothy, having learned all he knew of Judaism (growing up) from his Jewish mother, also likely held high respect for women’s credibility in theology. Paul may have seen him as quite vulnerable, being sent to these aggressive feminist pagans, and thus instructed him to subdue them, so to speak. Keeping them at bay was crucial for the Gospel to go forward at all in these specific regions only. If this was a universal truth, then surely this instruction for women’s silence would be in the letters to each and every community and church, but it wasn’t. Not even close. Keep in mind, Paul’s letters are a one-sided conversation, and we are “eavesdropping” into the conversation and missing vital bits of information as to what was going on behind the scenes and back and forth. He didn’t have to put anything in the Book of Hebrews, because the Jews knew their own history–they knew of Dvora, and others… and not the least being Huldah, the rabbi to the rabbis (speak of authority over men!)… when King Josiah found the mysterious scroll (of what turned out to be Deuteronomy) in the Temple, he needed the most respected authority on the matter. He could have gone to the prophet Jeremiah, but that wasn’t enough, as he wanted someone of even more credible authority and reputation–he went to the prophetess Huldah. She, yes SHE, was the metaphorical “gate of information” for the nation; she determined what was acceptable or not, she was this type of a spiritual authority. Naturally, they even named the city gates of Jerusalem after her–the “Huldah Gates.” So, when determining whether or not we should “ordain” women, we need to look at the WHOLE picture, not selected little bits of information addressing specific Gentile communities with isolated issues not necessarily present in other places. After all, ADONAI anoints, and humanity ordains… if we ordain someone that ADONAI hasn’t anointed, they will bear not fruit, and their ministry will be of no effect… BUT, if we bar someone from leadership that ADONAI has anointed, woe unto us all. I’d rather err on the safe side. (Information also taken from Merlin Stone & Fr S. King).

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