Image credit: Savio Sebastian, Psalm 63
License: CC-BY 2.0
by Marcia R. Rudin
In my novel, Hear My Voice, Catholic Sister Mona Sullivan wants to become a priest. But if she chooses this path she must renounce her vows and leave her beloved Church. Sandra Miller-Brownstein, one of the first women rabbis, and Elizabeth Adams, one of the first women Presbyterian pastors, must choose between love and their careers.
When the three women attend a gala dinner to receive an award for their professional accomplishments, each recalls fifty years of her life and struggle to forge a path-breaking career and find her own voice. And that evening each woman must make a decision that will forever change her life.
Set between 1940 and 1990, the story follows the civil rights struggles that revolutionized every major institution, including religion. Although the three women in my novel are fictional, the social changes and personal challenges they faced were real.
Because of my husband Rabbi James Rudin’s work as Director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee for over thirty years, I was aware of the efforts of clergy to bridge destructive misunderstandings between religious communities.
A video about Natan Sharansky, and the Soviet Jewry Movement that propelled him into the spotlight, embedding him into Israel’s history, from the AIPAC-the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
So perhaps it was inevitable my three protagonists would work to promote interreligious dialogue through their friendships and active participation in the Soviet Jewry movement and the women’s ordination movement.
When I speak to book groups about Here My Voice, sometimes I’m asked if I based any of these women on my own life. Of course the fifty years of the novel are my fifty years, so I experienced these changes in society and in the religious world.
The closest character in my novel to my experience is the rabbi, Sandra. Her childhood as the daughter of a bemused agnostic sociology professor and as a Jew living among Christians in a university town in the Midwest in the 1940s and 1950s is based on mine. Like Elizabeth, I attended the University of Edinburgh during what was then called my “junior year abroad” and Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
And I celebrated with other women when Sally Priesand was ordained as the first woman Reform rabbi in June of 1972. The Reconstructionist Movement ordained its first woman in 1974. The Conservative Movement ordained its first woman in 1985.
We Jews were way behind Protestants. The Harvard Divinity School had been admitting women since 1955. In 1956, Presbyterians ordained their first woman. In 1967, the newly formed National Organization of Women established an Ecumenical Task Force on Women in Religion. By 1971, a dozen other Protestant churches were ordaining women or establishing task forces to study the role of women in their churches.
Sally Priesand wanted to be a rabbi since childhood, but the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, would not enroll her as a rabbinic student. Instead she was accepted as a “special” undergraduate student. The letter informing her of this decision appears word for word in my novel.
She was not formally accepted into the rabbinical program there until 1968. She credits Dr. Nelson Glueck, then president of the seminary, for pushing for others at the seminary to ordain her.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Rabbi Priesand’s ordination. The Reform movement has set aside an entire year from June, 2021 to June, 2022 to celebrate the historic occasion, honoring this humble and gracious woman at various events throughout the year.
A friend of my husband and I, she assisted me when I wrote the first article about women rabbis in 1979 for the now defunct Present Tense Magazine. This was long before our then sweet nine-year old daughter Eve followed in Sally Priesand’s pioneering footsteps.
Sometimes I am asked if I thought about becoming a rabbi after Sally paved the way. I was, after all, only thirty-two years old in 1972. And I had majored in philosophy and religion at Boston University and earned a joint MA in Religion, specializing in Philosophy of Religion, from Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary. It’s an interesting question. I’ve often wondered if I should have pursued that path. But it didn’t even cross my mind at the time. Too busy with a two- year- old who refused to be toilet trained (she’s now the rabbi, so she turned out fine), a newborn, and a constantly traveling husband. Also, I had already attended several years of graduate school and didn’t relish further academic endeavors.
But my congratulations to Sally and the other pioneering women rabbis and Protestant clergywomen. And hat’s off to the progressive and brave Catholic Sisters who are struggling towards equality in their Church.
Marcia R. Rudin graduated from Boston University and earned a joint MA degree in religion from Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary. She studied for a PhD at the New School for Social Research and taught history of religion. She was a resident in screenwriting at the MacDowell Colony of the Arts. Her plays have received productions in Manhattan, New Jersey, California, West Virginia, and Michigan.
Marcia is author of the novel Hear My Voice and coauthor of Why Me? Why Anyone? and Prison or Paradise? The New Religious Cults. Her articles have appeared in such publications as The New York Times and The New York Daily News. An expert on destructive cults, she was quoted in Newsweek and The New York Times and appeared on Dateline NBC, CBS Evening News and CBS Morning News.
She and her husband, Rabbi James Rudin, live in Manhattan and Florida. For additional information, visit www.marciarudin.com.
You can find Flower Toward the Sun and Hear My Voice, both by author Marcia Rudin, by clicking the links. And click to read the latest by Rabbi James Rudin, Pulitzer Prize nominated author and husband of Marcia Rudin, The People in the Room: Rabbis, Nuns, Pastors, Popes, and Presidents.