What rabbinical yeshivas can learn from a Catholic seminary

Dr Dawn TwitterThe other week I read an article in The Chicago Tribune profiling Dawn Eden Goldstein. Dr. Goldstein is the first woman at the University of St. Mary of the Lake to earn a sacred theology doctorate, a pontifical degree issued under the authority of the Catholic Church.

In a class of 220 men studying to be priests, Goldstein is also the only woman who ever earned this degree at St. Mary since the school’s founding in 1844.  While she won’t be ordained as a priest along with her classmates, per the Catholic Church’s prohibition on women becoming priests, she is now qualified to train future priests.

St. Mary is a co-ed theological school where most students are men.  The Tribune article says, “She is earning the degree, issued by the authority of Pope Francis, at the same time Francis is pushing to raise the profile of women in the Catholic Church, most recently in his 260-page apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” in which he praised some aspects of women’s liberation, though he did not go so far as to say women should be priests.

The article peaked my interest because of Goldstein’s last name.  Of course, many non-Jewish people bear Jewish last names long after any actual Jews remain in their families. Still, here was a trail blazing woman, pulling off a feat in a parallel Catholic realm, that no Orthodox Jewish woman has been able to accomplish as of yet – graduate from a men’s rabbinical college.

As I read through the article, I learned that, indeed, Goldstein had started out in life as a Jew.  Growing up in New Jersey, her family was very active in the Reform movement.  The Tribune writes, “Goldstein became an agnostic in 1981 after a rabbi preparing her for her bat mitzvah told her questions about her Torah portion belonged to scholars, not 13-year-old girls.

However, here is where Goldstein’s story takes a sad turn.  The article goes on to explain that even before her bat mitzvah, her faith had already begun to fray, “At age 5, during her parents’ divorce, she accused a staff member at the synagogue of sexually abusing her — an allegation the rabbi did not believe at the time, and one Goldstein did not pursue. Goldstein said she was abused a second time years later by someone close to her mother, leaving emotional wounds that one day would direct her calling.

After pursuing other interests for many years, including earning a degree in communications, music journalism, blogging about pro-life issues, and being baptized at a Seventh-day Adventist church, Goldstein finally found her home with the Catholic faith in 2006.  She enrolled in a master’s theology program at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C..  However, a priest saw more potential in her and urged her to change her plans and enroll in the St. Mary’s doctorate program.

As Goldstein focused on her studies, she also began writing about societal issues within the Catholic faith.  The Tribune writes, “In 2012, she wrote “My Peace I Give You,” a book about how the lives of the saints could offer hope for abuse victims. As a Catholic, it disturbed her how defensive the church had become regarding the sexual abuse crisis…It’s not enough for the church to simply be in damage control mode,” she said. “We’re not serving our mission as a church if we’re not providing spiritual accompaniment to people who are hurting.

Goldstein is part of a new wave of female scholars helping to build the future of the Catholic Church.  Pope Francis is opening the doors for female theologians to take leadership roles that don’t violate church doctrine.  The Tribune states, “In his most recent papal document, he stated that women could and should help prepare men for the priesthood.

Goldstein says that Pope Francis’ position “…shows a respect for what women have to offer the church, without crossing the line into women’s ordination, which she thinks would be heresy. There have been a number of female theologians that have shown it is possible to be a woman in theology writing on topics of importance to women, yet to not to take this subversive kind of view.

Interestingly, Goldstein’s sister also chose a religious vocation, and is a Reform rabbi in Cincinnati.  “Goldstein’s sister, Jennifer Goldstein Lewis…thinks her sister will be a powerful force in the church and the formation of its clergy.  She is such a thinker,” Lewis said. “She’s going to be a unique voice as she teaches these new priests.

So, what can rabbinical yeshivas learn from this Catholic seminary?  Mainly, that keeping scholars and educators apart on the basis of their gender doesn’t make sense.  For example, I have often heard religiously educated men expounding on the fact that learned women have so much more in-depth knowledge of Navi.  Why not share some of that knowledge with aspiring rabbis?

Furthermore, there are other areas in which women can assist in teaching new rabbis that are even more important than learning religious texts.  Rabbis today aren’t only expected to be experts in gemara.  Yes, gemara might be the bread and butter, so to speak.  However, rabbis today are expected to be social workers, psychologists, fund raisers, mediators, communicators, orators, writers, and a host of other professions all rolled into one.

For example, IT workers today are in high demand for their “hard skills.”  Their programming knowledge is the first requirement to get them an interview.  However, just as important, if not more so, are their “soft skills.”  These kinds of skills can’t be quickly discerned nor quantified.  Do they work well with others?  Are they good problem solvers?  Are they patient and compassionate?  Are they adaptable to change?

In most cases, when a good rabbi gets bad press, it is not because of a deficiency in his gemara kup, but because he is lacking in one or more of those “soft skill” areas.

Of course, men can teach soft skills too. The obvious hole in many rabbinical curriculums these days is the total focus on gemara and lack of preparation to be immersed in the land of the laypeople – people of every gender and age who will seek a connection to their spiritual leader who, up until graduation, spent his days only among immediate family and fellow students and teachers in the beis medrash.

However, Orthodox Jewish women (having either a more advanced secular education, or at least an equal secular education to men depending on the community) have the skills and perspective necessary to educate future rabbinic leaders on a wide variety of subjects that will better prepare them to be 21st century Jewish leaders – not the least of which is to relate to women as teachers, experts, and authority figures (something that most Orthodox boys past elementary school and sometimes earlier don’t have experience with).

Additionally, women would have an opportunity to connect to future rabbinic leaders as advocates for women and children.  How would the rabbinic response to sexual abuse or domestic violence change for the better if women ran workshops that brought in abuse victims, representatives from women’s shelters, or therapists who specialize in treating rape survivors?  Sharing a female perspective directly, instead of indirectly, can have a deeper impact than hearing it second hand from another man.

Incorporating women into the smicha educational landscape, both as scholars and teachers, can go a long way in creating leadership that not only welcomes women’s input into how the future of Orthodox Judaism will develop, but also will create a leadership that considers women’s participation in rabbinic education essential to the process.  Once men realize how much women have to offer in helping to shape the educational curriculum of aspiring rabbis, as well as realizing that when educated women are shut out, they are at risk of seeking other alternatives (such as Goldstein did), they might realize that bringing women into the fold of rabbinic education has been the answer to Orthodox Jewish continuity all along.