No Longer Male or Female? A Case for Leadership Equality for Women in the Messianic Jewish Synagogue

As Messianic Judaism continues through the inchoate stages of the 21st century, it can ill afford to ignore the larger social issues surrounding it. I believe that no single issue has loomed larger on the world scene this past half century than that of equality for all people. It is a concern that is multi-facetted, diverse, and wrought with potential disruption to the status quo of any community, nation or institution. In fact, equality as a practical social concept is not a single issue at all, but rather a complexity of independent causes which must each deal with its own set of unique circumstances, community boundary questions, embedded traditions, and societal interdependencies. Yet, as we deal with the complications and messiness of each of these independent equality issues, there is an overriding sense that compels us as a religious community to respond to the divine beckoning to treat all people as equals.

Therefore, the concept of equality requires its own set of qualifiers. What do we mean by equality? To what degree can equality be assumed without granting universal access to everyone at every occasion? To what degree can distinction be celebrated without nullifying equality?

The applications of such qualifications to certain issues are more complex than others since they are somewhat unique to the Messianic Jewish community. For instance, while recognizing the equality of all people and the symbiotic relationship of all believers in Yeshua, is it appropriate for non-Jews to be full members of a Messianic Jewish synagogue given the institution’s particularity? Moreover, should gentiles serve in leadership in the same congregations, especially as z’kenim? I am not raising these questions for present discussion, but to demonstrate the difficulty in drawing boundaries when mediating between equality and sameness, and to demonstrate the emotional response that is elicited when inviting people only part way into the family.

What I am suggesting is that declaring the equality of women in Messianic Judaism while concurrently limiting the level of their participation or potential for leadership can and does elicit a similar emotional response to the previously mentioned issue. But in many ways the role of women in our synagogues is easier to mediate than the aforementioned issue since our larger community of reference, the Jewish community, has already dealt with such issues, broadening the participation of women in leadership and even extending rabbinic ordination to women. This is not to say that such broadening is true in all quarters of Judaism; certainly the various forms of orthodoxy have not broadly increased the leadership possibilities for women, but even among the less insular branches of orthodoxy these issues are being discussed and experimented with. Still, the conservative and reform movements with which Messianic Jews share the most common social ground have already recognized that the time has come for such changes.

It is my contention that extending greater leadership opportunities to women poses little risk to Messianic Judaism, except the safety of the status quo. I am not, however, minimizing the immediate sense of disruption that some will experience in the process. I know that those who defend the present practice of limiting female participation do so based upon “biblical grounds.” I believe, though, that such interpretations and applications of predominantly Pauline scripture are based on institutionalized readings that fail to take into account the occasion and cosmology surrounding Paul’s writing, and traditional assumptions which themselves are conditioned by biases no longer upheld or tolerated in the greater Western society. For this reason I will first approach the question from the hermeneutical perspective, before dealing with the social implications.

Hermeneutical Presuppositions

Before discussing what the “Bible says” we must first visit the rules of the road. It is not my intention to lay out a complete hermeneutical perspective, rather to show the very difficult and thorny nature of the enterprise, and to establish the various poles that must be held in tension.1 It would appear to me that there are three major approaches to deriving ethical decisions from the text of Scripture that are most often employed by the various individuals and groups who touch our movement. These approaches need not always be distinct disciplines, and are often co-mingled to varying degrees. In fact I would recommend that some degree of each of these philosophies be applied to the process in order to give adequate attention to the triangulation that must exist between the text, the community that produced the texts, and the history behind the texts.

The first of these positions takes the Scripture as a unified book of laws or a summation of codes for human conduct. It argues that God has given prescriptive laws in the form of commandments and ordinances, which can be found in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Apostolic Witness. If people want to know what they should do, the laws of God stand objectively before them in written form, and they have only to refer to them. While I would, of course, agree that there is a great deal of didactic material in the Scripture, I would also posit that this approach avoids at least three major concerns.

1. A major portion of the Scripture is neither didactic nor explicitly instructive, but is either poetry or narrative prose meant to paint a broader picture of the highest standards of God as understood through his community of faith.

2. Many of the laws, statutes, and ordinances recorded in the Bible are neither timeless nor universal, but are time-bound and occasional. Therefore, only the broadest of commands such as the Decalogue or Yeshua’s command to “love one another” can be internalized and performed without an accompanying body of tradition. For this reason, the more narrow and specific the stipulation, the more likely it is to be time-bound and subject to reinterpretation and application. Who among us would consider it meritorious to stone a rebellious child or to instruct women to leave the community boundaries during menstruation?

3. Specific stipulations from Scripture often conflict with each other and cannot be mediated without a derivative tradition. Yeshua, for instance, affirms the Pharisaic tradition of circumcision on Shabbat while validating his own acts of healing performed on Shabbat (John 7:23).

The second way the Scripture is used for ethical guidance is that which places all of the emphasis on the universal principles that can be found to underlie the accounts of Scripture. Here the particular statements and practices are not considered binding, but the greater principles behind them are. In this approach, it is the job of the interpreter to look at the broadest representation of canonical accounting to derive the most universal of principles. I also see in this approach at least three areas of concern.

1. The narratives themselves are often difficult to apprehend. What ethical principle can we derive from Lot offering his virgin daughters to the oversexed mob in Sodom— kindness to strangers?

2. The tendency toward subordinating the voice of Scripture to the echoes of pop culture should be avoided. Additionally, biblical ethics should not become a subset of natural law, with the moral imperative of life rooted solely in human reason.

3. The principles derived from Scripture using this approach should not become such hard propositions that they merely replace the rigid structure of the law approach.

A third way of approaching the text for ethical guidance is by the principle of perspicuity, a recognition that by the power of the Spirit of God the true believer should be able to ascertain understanding and guidance on ethical matters. This approach in isolation also offers certain challenges.

1. The emphasis on each person’s encounter of God is highly individualized and American in its approach. It is not always helpful and often counterproductive when making the type of community decision that is before us. The historical leadership of neither the synagogue nor the church placed emphasis on the individual encounter as much as on the Spirit of God working within the group encounter.

2. While this approach can be a breath of fresh air amid the arid formulations and withering regulations of traditional theology, it can also replace both the propositions and principles of the Bible with momentary encounters.

As I stated earlier, it should be our desire to mediate between all of these approaches, recognizing that the laws and stipulations of the Bible, as well as the narrative flow, suggest precepts by which we should be guided as a community of faith in making ethical decisions such as the role of women in leadership. I believe it is equally important for us to be guided by the Spirit of God in this process, remembering that it is a process and the Spirit may well be encountered in the thorny moments of implementation and adjustment as much or more than in the momentary epiphany. In this way the tradition and revelatory process of Scripture is continued in the midst of our faith community.

Making sense of the “Texts of Terror”

As I mentioned previously, the ethical value of scriptural narrative can often be difficult to apprehend. Explanations for God’s instruction surrounding the wars of Israel can often be as slippery as the theodicies used to alleviate our discomfort with the omnipotent and omniscient sovereign’s apparent silence during the Holocaust. But none of the narratives are as tough a pill to swallow as those dubbed by feminist theologian Phyllis Trible as the “Texts of Terror.”2 These are the biblical narratives that describe the regular and dehumanizing rape, mutilation, and general bartering as commodities of women. Though polygamy is a common occurrence on the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures, women never possess more than one husband. The woman in Scripture is completely dependent upon a man for her sustenance and survival. Of course the biblical narrative is a product of its time and accurately portrays the events within their historical setting. What is striking, however, is the apparent silence of the text concerning any condemnation of these practices. In fact, the program of God seems to be advanced through these events and normative practices. If we were to derive any precepts concerning the treatment and role of women solely from the narrative and explicit prescriptions of the law books, they might be as follows.

  • A man can have multiple wives and concubines so long as he can support them adequately.
  • Actually if a man’s wife is unable to have children it is laudable for him to sleep with her personal attendant.
  • Should a woman’s husband die, it is incumbent upon a righteous relative to take the poor woman in as his own wife.
  • It is better for a woman to enter into an incestual marriage than for her family inheritance to pass to another tribe.
  • If a man takes a woman as a spoil of war, he should give her a place in his harem rather than merely discarding her, in this way domesticating and systematizing war rape.

Of course, none of these practices would be deemed acceptable anywhere in the civilized Western society and, though it may sound ludicrous on the surface, the biblical narrative and stipulations do describe a process of taming an already chaotic world. Torah describes the entrance of God’s cosmic ordering into the socio-moral plane in which we begin to encounter it. Israel acts as the conduit of God’s principles to a world already filled with disharmony, violence and inequality. Israel and its law system are radical and transforming to the ancient world of the Bible, but they do not immediately overturn the entire social order of the existing world system. The men of Israel are told how to treat women captured in war, but are never told to keep their hands off, an instruction that, from our ethical vantage point, would be considerably more acceptable. Within a world system where women were considered weak and inferior, valued only for their physical appeal and procreative abilities, the laws of Israel provided much greater protection. To say they did not go far enough in the immediate context might seem accurate from our perspective, but in the larger scheme the role and treatment of women in the laws of Torah and the principles revealed in the biblical narrative have evolved through the pages of Scripture and into the progression of post-biblical history to where we are today.

My main point here is that each of these laws and stories must be viewed through the lens of progressive revelation, revelation that continues to be advanced into this world through the body of faith. Narrow biblical stipulations should not be taken as the last and final word. They are part of the divine transformation of humanity and the full restoration of relational harmony that Kefa describes as “the salvation that is ready to be revealed” (1 Pet 1:4). Therefore, it is not productive to attempt to see most of these laws, including those in the Apostolic Witness, as unchanging, timeless, and universal prescriptions; rather to view them as part of a trajectory in Scripture leading toward a final goal.

The Trajectory of Scripture

The length and focus of this article does not afford me the space or opportunity to consider the entire context of biblical anthropology, but examining the origin of the human enterprise through biblical eyes may be helpful since origins often portend destiny. In Genesis 1:27 humankind is created male and female (זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה). Phyllis Bird has contended that these are biological rather than sociological terms, and that the male and the female are distinguished by their sexuality, not by their social status. They are accorded what Bird has called an “ontological equality before God.” Both are created equal in the “image of God” and are included in the creational command to “be fruitful and multiply.” According to Bird, the human relationship is envisioned somewhat differently in Genesis 2. Here humankind is again created with internal distinction, but the differences are now more relational. This time the terms man (אִיש) and woman (אִשָּׁה) are sociological rather than biological designations. The woman is taken from the side of man, and man is to leave his parents to be reunited with that which makes him whole. The biblical language is of course poetical, not empirical, but as in Genesis 1 it communicates a unique relationship whereby humanity is represented by a unity of opposites, differentiated but equal parts composing an ordered relational whole for the sake of creational blessing.3

Almost from the outset of the biblical account, the delicate relationships between God and humanity and those internal to humanity are subverted. Both male and female have violated the boundaries set forth by the Creator and, as a consequence, are estranged from God, and therefore, the source of harmony between them. For the man (הָֽאָדָם) this is manifest in his separation from the ground (הָאֲדָמָה) from which he was taken and upon which he relies for his livelihood (3:17–19). The woman (אִשָּׁה) is estranged from the man (אִיש) from whom she was created and upon whom she relies for her work of procreation (3:16). The relational equality is severed and the male is portended to rule over the female, an abolition of the distinctive equality intended in the created order. The cosmic rift, which is often mistakenly apprehended in metaphysical terms, enters into the socio-moral structure of the divine-human and human-human relationships.

In the simplest of terms, the chaos, which God has placed in abeyance when he orders creation, is unleashed. The dominance, which the male has over the female, is viewed in the creation narratives as a “curse,” not part of the creational order. From the outset the priority of the male is viewed as ordinal rather than hierarchical in the creative process. Therefore, the ideal for a restored humanity will be the removal of such a hierarchical subversion of the human relational balance.

I would then contend that any restatements of the male priority in the creational order that appear in the Apostolic Witness, especially in the Pauline writings, must be assumed to be concessions to the times, and still distant from the greater eschatological reality of true relational equality without hierarchical male hegemony.

The most forthright and positively eschatological statement of social ethics in the Apostolic Witness is Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Messiah Yeshua.” Here, Paul observes the internal evolution of revelation concerning the relationships between Israel and the nations, men and women, and the existing social economic strata to derive ethical standards for contemporary social interaction. I do not believe that Paul is advocating for the complete eradication of distinction; rather he is pronouncing a greater reality whereby hierarchical ordering is dissolving. But the inspired writer is nonetheless human and an influenced product of his times. According to NT scholar Richard Hays,

If we approach Paul’s letters a priori as Scripture in their own right, we run the risk of distortion through a hieratic reading that loses sight of their historical contingency and hermeneutical innovation. Paradoxically, we learn how to read Paul’s letters as Scripture only by first reading them as not-Scripture and attending to how he read the Scripture that he knew.4

So, it is incumbent upon us to attempt to understand the grid through which Paul saw the emerging Kingdom of God. When Paul says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female,” the ideal human being is indeed not somewhere halfway between each of these conditions. There is no such thing as a human essence that is truly universal, because such essences are always envisioned with some particular template of what constitutes a human being. Paul is not simply mentioning complementary pairs of equals. One term in each pair represents the ideal, the desired status for the believer, which, from Paul’s perspective, is Jew, free, and male, which, not so coincidentally, equals Paul! For Paul, the free Jewish man best represents the prototypical human ideal. When Paul juxtaposes “Jew” and “Greek,” he means that the Jew possesses the preferred condition. As Paul states in Rom. 3:1–2, “What advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way.” It is the Greeks who are underprivileged. Being “in Messiah” allows Gentiles to be part of the people of God, a privilege Jews already hold. However, Paul affords them full membership in the family without reservation of privilege, and moreover he places some restraint on entrance requirements.5

The historical church, though, began to interpret Paul quite differently. Confusing equality with sameness in Galatians 3:28 became pathology in Christianity. Christianity came to understand religiousness as faith in the Messiah, which was excluded in the kinds of prescriptions Jews followed. In other words, Christianity began to see itself as a purely spiritual religion able to encompass all the diverse peoples of the world, while it saw Judaism as inordinately preoccupied with its peculiar ways of doing things and thus devoid of the spirit. Similarly, women became associated with the material body, and men with the transcendent spirit.

Daniel Boyarin, a Jewish scholar of early Judaism and Christianity, has provided the most incisive critique of this problem in his book, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. Boyarin argues that Paul marks the beginning of the dominant male, Christian perspective of Western culture. This perspective imagined human essence as the white civilized Christian male and viewed both women and Jews as, at best, limited kinds of persons further removed from the ideal human essence and, at worst, as the particularized “other” in relation to the universal human being (in other words, the opposite of the ideal). Thus, Boyarin thinks Paul is the father of misogyny and antisemitism. While Boyarin’s impressive body of work has profoundly influenced me, his reading of Paul here appears to me to be aimed at countering a tradition of Pauline interpretation in the Christian West more than it addresses Paul’s own biases. Still it evokes the question, to what degree is Messianic Judaism still reading the apostle anachronistically through the lens of Christian tradition?

Getting Honest with a Few Propositions

Having taken a cursory look at Scripture’s trajectory toward the empowering of women, I feel we must stop briefly at those passages most often used to support by proposition the silencing and subordination of women. Most prominently but not exhaustively these are 1 Corinthians 11:2–16; 1 Corinthians 14:26–35; 1 Timothy 2:11–15; and 1 Timothy 3:1–7. Volumes have been written on these texts refuting the limitations they have traditionally placed on women based upon lexical, contextual, grammatical, and cultural evaluation.6 At present I would prefer to approach these passages from the path that I laid earlier, recognizing that the more specific the proposition in Scripture, the more likely it is to be time-bound and occasional. Our tendency, though, which we have inherited from the Church tradition, is to privilege Paul’s writings regardless of their circumstance. But in fact the epistles in general are more susceptible than other Scripture to the conditions that occasioned their writings, and Paul’s epistles are the most vulnerable. Again Hays comments on Paul’s writings,

Paul did not think of himself as a writer of Scripture; he was writing pastoral letters to fledgling churches, interpreting Scripture (by which he meant the texts that Christians later began to call the “Old Testament”) to guide these struggling communities as they sought to understand the implications of the gospel. It requires a disciplined effort of historical imagination to keep reminding ourselves that when Paul wrote there was no New Testament.7

So, when Paul writes to the fledgling congregations, he does so with specific concerns in mind which, in the case of the Corinthian congregation, is order and propriety in worship. Though many particulars of the conflicts and the social undercurrent are lost to us, it is apparent that he is as concerned with male improprieties as he is with female improprieties. The fact is we do not legislate the appropriate length of hair in our synagogues. Additionally, we encourage men to wear head coverings, a direct reversal of the 1 Corinthians 11 propositions, which would suggest that we do not really consider the legislations of this passage pertinent to our social situation. Since Paul’s short discourse in this passage on the ordering of gender in creation is given only as a support for his decree concerning head coverings, not as a central thesis, it also does not stand the test of time. Paul is merely using a deeply entrenched cultural convention to support his remedial measure for social upheaval within the Corinthian congregation.

Paul’s insistence in 1 Corinthian 14:33–35 that women be silent in the congregation and only speak at home is not only irrelevant to our current circumstance but, I would suggest, dangerous for any of our rabbis who dared try to implement such a “biblical teaching.” Furthermore, wedged between these two passages is another (1 Corinthians 12) that emphatically requires the utilization of all spiritual gifts regardless of gender, no small feat for those who are also commanded to be silent. If there is a central precept that survives for us then, it is the need for propriety and order in worship, liberated from overly demonstrative egos, regardless of gender.

The one passage that is most often adduced to claim that the Brit Hadashah prohibits women to teach or to have authority over men is 1 Timothy 2:11–15. But 1 Timothy imposes similarly restrictive leadership and ministry prohibitions on men. According to 1 Timothy 3:1–7 the only men who may aspire to leadership within the Ephesus congregation, which includes the ministry of teaching and managing the affairs of the congregation, are those who are married and have children who are submissive and respectful and believers in Messiah Yeshua. Such requirements disqualify not only women, but also men who are single; all men who are married but childless; all men who have only one child; all men who are married but have children too young to profess faith; all men married but who have one unbelieving child; all men who are married and whose children are believers but are not submissive; all men married and whose children are believers and submissive but are not respectful. These exceptionally harsh and restrictive requirements are all the more amazing since the Brit Hadashah elsewhere favors singleness for both men and women, stating it as a preferred status for the execution of ministry (Matt 19:11–12; 1 Cor 7:25–35).

It has often been deduced from these passages that 1 Timothy is establishing a remedial measure for a congregation that had fallen into a state of terminal crisis. Its underlying principle is restricting management to a few leaders of proven competency. The fact that these leaders were chosen solely from men reflects the patriarchal nature of the society within which this occurs. Which women would or could have been prepared for such a position? How many could have possibly been the most prepared candidates for but a few positions when men had been granted much greater opportunity to gain practical experience within the present society? This is a vastly different situation than ours; since we have so many women who are not only spiritually mature but also qualified managers.

We should also note that in our own congregations we already subvert the strict propositions of this portion. Women already serve in most of our UMJC congregations in roles of leadership. Trustee positions of any kind are “overseers” (episkopes) that might fit the biblical model expressed in 1 Timothy 3. That we have assigned the title zaken (elder) to the Greek episkopes as a specific hierarchical position does not negate the more general meaning of “manager” or “overseer,” which may be implied by the text. Actually the term presbuterous used in 1 Timothy 5 is much closer in meaning to zaken, referring to those who are worthy of respect due to their age and stature rather than their managerial role. The fact is that we are following a very specific sectarian Protestant tradition that has distilled the biblical episkopes, first to bishop, and then to elder with an established definitional set that includes the exclusion of women. What is clear from the 1 Timothy 3 passages is that no women and very few men could have become the Treasurer of the Ephesus congregation.

And what about the position of shammashot as it is so often used in Messianic Jewish Congregations? By feminizing the plural of the term shammash we display our willingness to subvert the Jewish tradition of male shammashim only. But what does Scripture have to say to this? 1 Timothy 3:8–12 clearly disqualifies women from serving in the position of deacon (diakonous), using the same criteria by which they are disqualified from being “overseers” (presbuterous) just a few verses prior. Why are we so predisposed to a rigid propositional reading of verses 1–7 only, yet considerably more flexible and principled concerning verses 8–12? Is it possible that we are inadvertently protecting the last vestiges of male hegemony without even realizing it?

I think it also behooves us to get a little honest with traditional Jewish propositional thinking as well. The exclusion of women from leadership in the traditional Jewish community had often been tied to women’s exemption from positive time bound mitzvot. There are no explicit reasons for these exemptions given in Talmud, but explanations abound in both modern and medieval thought. The most popular reason given, though without any textual basis, is the occupation of women’s time with child rearing.8

This no longer rings true since today many men are deeply involved in the process of child rearing. Women are active in the public sphere today, challenging any such exemption. For this reason all but Orthodox Judaism have already provided for the ordination of women. Even within orthodoxy, reevaluation of the leadership roles of women is in progress, with the exception of the most insular of the frum communities. In the Messianic Jewish community few congregations exist with the level of insulation necessary to sustain this bifurcation of mitzvot responsibilities. I know of no Messianic Jewish congregations where regular prayer or study of Scripture is excluded or considered optional for women. While child rearing can certainly stand in the way of a woman being an adequately involved leader, so can the diverse challenges upon the time and abilities of male candidates.

Examining the Social Implications

It would appear to me that one of our greatest hindrances to the empowerment of women in our Messianic Jewish synagogues is an unidentified loyalty to polities of Protestant sectarianism. Though supported by biblical propositions, we have previously noted the occasional nature of such prescriptions. We have, therefore, adapted our biblical applications to accommodate our social proclivities and make our communities more comparable with our own sensibilities and constituencies, as well as that of our primary community of reference, from where we expect our future growth to come. I would then propose that the time for change is already upon us. Following are the practical reasons that I believe necessitate the change.

1. By placing an artificial gender restriction on leadership service we are self-limiting our own potential. More than half of our membership is eliminated from the pool of potential managers. Often, under-utilized women are more talented administrators and teachers than many of the men we employ. I am not suggesting that we elevate women carelessly, rather that we take the time to recognize the potential surplus of talent and spiritual acuity previously overlooked.

2. The perception that we are at all misogynous will alienate us from the greater Jewish community upon which we rely for future growth. We are already viewed with suspicion by the larger Jewish community; any appearances of being more closely allied ideologically with Christian Fundamentalism will only cause more far-ranging suspicion. Though some branches of Orthodoxy also limit the active role of women in leadership, many are insular groups which are also alienated and suspect by the greater Jewish community. Since we have a message that will always be a dividing point to some degree, it is incumbent upon us to remove all unnecessary barriers.

3. We are sending mixed signals to our children. Most of us who are parents of girls or younger women wish to see our children accomplish all that they might. I frequently tell my girls that I do not care what career they aspire to so long as it is moral and ethical and gives back to the larger community, and that they do their very best at whatever they choose. I would certainly not be disappointed if they became career homemakers and mothers if they were to do so with excellence. Neither would I be disappointed if they were to go into the fields of genetic ethics, cancer research, or the Messianic rabbinate. We tell our girls that “they can do anything they wish to do and work hard at” and also that “religious community is an essential part of life,” yet we send the clear signal that the one thing they can’t do is take a primary leadership role within this essential religious community. Furthermore, we cannot expect young couples with daughters who are not already happily indoctrinated with Evangelical Christian mores to hang around while we straighten out our message.

4. We are bleeding young people. It is important that we develop a Messianic Jewish faith that is relevant to the concerns of our youth. Egalitarian issues and especially women’s issues are of more immediate concern to Generation Z and beyond. To most youth our limitations on female participation are sexist. Merely polling those who have stuck with Messianic Judaism is an example of actively gathering biased support data. The fact is that the majority of young people leave our movement. I am not suggesting that this is the sole issue for which they leave. Rather it is indicative of the gap in generational thinking. Efforts to change our stand on female leadership and the ordination of women should be a measure of good faith that might demonstrate our desire to hear the youth’s deep structural concerns, instead of merely dealing with the external surface issues. Furthermore, doing the hard work to change in such foundational ways might help advance our thinking and ability to make meaningful room for the next generation.

5. We are presently inconsistent in our egalitarian standards. A woman can serve as a congregational trustee, given the most important of responsibilities such as keeping the congregational books or corporate records, but cannot be recognized as a true “overseer” in our midst. Often these same women may be the most spiritually attuned and those who the congregational leaders call upon for prayer or advice.

6. The absence of female elders is facilitating the creation of de facto positions. Very often, large personalities aspire to leadership and fill the vacant positions by default. In most of our congregations the zakenim are chosen by the existing board, with the requirement of affirmation by the entire congregation. Self-advancing men are held up to the scrutiny of the communal process. The defined process judges those men who have not made the grade, or are still in the process of leadership development. Since women are already deemed outside of the process, small factions can develop that elevate such personalities through a privatized ritual of ratification. A woman who is married to a leader, for instance, might adopt the nomenclature “rebbetzin” and assume leadership responsibilities without the same process of scrutiny.

7. It is our stated desire to honor equality, while maintaining the unique distinc-tions between men and women. I have also suggested that we may be influenced by the ripples of historical male hegemony. If we truly believe that women are distinct and unique, then how can we in good conscience leave at least half of our congregational constituency without adequate representation? How can I fully understand pertinent issues from a uniquely female perspective? Unless I believe that I as a man have the innate ability to hear from women and sort through those uniquely female perspectives (distorted by emotionalism) that are clouding the core of the true issue. Doesn’t such an attitude suggest the male is the ideal rather than the other half of a fulfilled humanity? Though in the past we have invited women into our meetings to speak into certain issues where we have considered them to have important input, merely making the decision as to which issues are pertinent to women smacks of male over-management.

In conclusion, I can find no reason to continue to exclude women from the highest leadership positions within our congregations. Any exegetical system used to support the narrow scriptural propositions that exclude women from serving as “zakenot” already fail to support most of our present practices. The natural next step is to facilitate the aspiration of women in our communities to all positions of leadership for which they are qualified, inclusive of the rabbinate. The general trajectory of Scripture is toward the relational fulfillment of humanity through the equal empowerment of all people, despite gender. To fail to do so, in my estimation, is to subvert our vocational calling as a community of faith. This failure is being felt, I believe in ways that we have failed to realize, because we have previously failed to look. To continue to be a credible communal testimony to ourselves, our children and the greater Jewish community, we must be willing to take action now to make the necessary changes.

Rabbi Paul L. Saal (MA, Theological Studies) is the founding spiritual leader of Congregation Shuvah Yisrael in West Hartford, Connecticut. He received smicha through the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) and the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (MJRC), which he has served as president. Rabbi Saal is the Dean of Students of the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute. He is a former editor of Kesher and author of many published theological papers and articles. He and his wife, Robbie, are the parents of four daughters and five grandchildren and have lived in West Hartford since 1994.

For Further Study

Antonelli, Judith S. In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah. First ed. Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1995.

Belleville, Linda L. Exegetical Fallacies in Interpreting 1 Timothy 2:1115. Priscilla Papers 17, no. 3 (2003): 311.

Bird, Phyllis A. Missing Persons and Missing Identities. Overtures to Biblical Theology, edited by John R. Donahue,Walter Brueggemann, Sharyn Dowd, Christopher R. Seitz. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997.

Bird, Phyllis A. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Overtures to Biblical Theology, edited by John R. Donahue,Walter Brueggemann, Sharyn Dowd, Christopher R. Seitz. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.

Boyarin, Daniel. A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Hays, Richard B. Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Longenecker, Richard N. New Testament Social Ethics for Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984.

Ner-David, Havina. Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey toward Traditional Rabbbinic Ordination. first ed. Needham: JFL Books, 2000.

Padgett, Alan G. “Beginning with the End 1 Cor. 11:216,” Priscilla Papers 17, no. 3 (2003): 1723.

Trible, Phyllis. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Overtures to Biblical Theology, edited by John R. Donahue,Walter Brueggemann. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.

1 For a fuller treatment of my proposed Messianic Jewish hermeneutical approach I recommend reading Re-Imagining of the Canonical Text, a paper I presented at the 2001 Hashivenu Forum,

2 P.A. Bird, “Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narrative,” in eds. Walter Brueggemann, John R. Donahue, Sharyn Dowd, Christopher R. Seitz Overtures to Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1984).

3 P.A. Bird, “ ‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Gen.1:27b in the Context of the Priestly account of Creation,” HTR 74 (1981), 129–159; “Genesis I–III as a Source for a Contemporary Theology of Sexuality,” Ex Audiitu 3 (1987), 35–39. Both are reprinted in Missing Persons and Missing Identities, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997).

4 Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 5.

5 For this insightful reading of Galatians 3:28 I am indebted to Pamela Eisenbaum, “Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Anti-Semitism?” Cross Currents Volume 50, no. 4 (Winter 2000–01).

6 For those who are interested in a more technical exegetical approach I would highly recommend reading the Priscilla Papers, a journal published by Christians for Biblical Equality, an Evangelical think tank devoted to this issue.

7 Hays, 5

8 Havina Ner-David, Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination (Needham: JFL Books, 2000), 28–65, offers a well-developed discussion of women and the tradition of time-bound mitzvot. Also see Judith Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice (Boulder: Westview, 1998), 221.