Moreover, when religion is pure nostalgia, it becomes a caricature. If the rabbi, pastor or priest is little more than a reminder of the past, a kind of comfort zone, then his or her message becomes irrelevant. When the time comes to heed God’s call — to stand against an injustice, to care for the neglected around us, or to reconsider our individual or collective paths — people simply won’t be listening.
Gender equality in religious leadership is attainable; we’re not that far away. And luckily, some people are fighting to hasten it. One of the best examples comes from Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, a nonprofit group, which asks male leaders to pledge not to sit on all-male panels at conferences. It’s an attempt to halt a cycle: Men are asked to speak at conferences because they’re well-known and acknowledged authorities, but they became known and acknowledged by speaking at previous engagements. The pledge is a step toward ensuring that brilliant women are placed into the upward trajectories they have earned.
There is another possible solution: Clergy and serious practitioners often pass on religious teaching in the form of stories about teachers or religious figures they admire. These stories clothe meaning, instruction and values in flesh and blood — and show how religious principles live in real people.
Until recently, these stories were about men. But in our time, the stories of inspired and righteous women are plentiful. So it seems to me that people of faith, as students of these great women, should pass along their stories and teachings as much as possible.
Many have hoped that the presence of women in religious leadership would be enough to ensure their acceptance. But it hasn’t worked out that way, because we haven’t paid enough attention to religion’s mechanics. Religion runs on stories — stories of how certain individuals brought a little more godliness into the world. When it becomes normal for congregants to hear stories of great female religious teachers given as universal examples, without batting an eye, then we will have accomplished something.
Scott Perlo is the associate director of Jewish programming at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington.
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