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I mentioned in the previous post that it’s actually not uncommon for people who are just meeting me, knowing little more than that I’m Mark’s partner and I’m somehow attached to the same department as him at the University, to ask whether I’m studying to be a minister, too. It’s the sort of question that gets asked often enough that I’ve developed a long list of snarky responses:

‘Yes, I’m planning to be the first Jewish Presbyterian Pope… since Peter.’[1]

‘Oh, yes, because I could never make life choices without imitating my spouse!’

‘No, I have other ways of corrupting the minds of the youth.’

‘Why, do you hate your current minister’s sermons so much that you’re in the market for a new one?’

‘Nope, there’s a strict one-per-household limit!’

‘Oh, but if I did that, who would mind the children?’
(This must be said with a wide-eyed, faux-innocent expression, and more sarcasm than is likely to carry well in print. Sometimes I avoid it because I don’t want to answer an innocent inquiry with outright mockery; sometimes, it’s because I suspect the person I’m speaking to wouldn’t realise they’re being mocked, anyways.)

Et cetera.

Of course, I never actually USE any of these lines. A simple ‘No’ usually suffices; if the person to whom I am speaking presses further, I explain, as briefly as possible, that my interest in theology is more theoretical than practical (not quite true, as a fair amount of my work would fall under the heading of ‘Practical Theology’ if I were Christian, but for a brief exchange, it suffices). If they press further–and only a few people ever have–I’ll smile and add ‘And, besides, I’m Jewish.’

That is usually the opening of a much longer conversation than I’m generally willing to entertain at the sort of events where I get these questions (departmental wine receptions, tea in the church hall), which is why my first several answers are designed to deflect attention elsewhere. There are two questions that follow on to that statement, and they both point to the same issue:

‘Oh, so you’re studying to be a Rabbi, then?’

or

‘That’s very… interesting. Tell me, how did you come to be studying theology?’

Both of these statements assume, implicitly, that the study of religion is something done by and for people of the faith which they are studying. And, also, that the only reason to study religion[2] is to enter into ministry. (The second also seems to assume that only Christians study religion, but I’m leaving that alone for right now.) These are problematic assumptions on several levels.

First, the idea that you have to be religious to study religion damages theology as an academic discipline. This is old news for those of us who actually do this stuff for a living (well, mostly–I am aware that certain university departments of theology have been quite financially successful operating on the opposite assumption, but honestly? The work is boring), but bears repeating for people who maybe have a somewhat fuzzier idea of what the academic study of religion actually involves–and I assume that a not insignificant number of this blog’s readers fall into the latter category. There are a lot of reasons for this, and it’s worth a post of its own at some point, but right now, I’m going to have to let the assertion stand on its own merits.

Second, these assumptions sell religion short. Hatam-Soferet has been running a great series on the problem of religious professionalisation from a Jewish perspective. A world in which the only people who know anything about religion–their own or anyone else’s–are the people who are professionally trained and licensed to dispense it is not a world I would like to see.

Not only does the assumption that religious knowledge is the province of clergyfolk devalue the experience of interested and committed laypersons, it also cheapens a true calling to ministry. Fifty Percenters’ newest member, Bridget Wynne, has shared her story of a calling to the Rabbinate and the struggles she went through to get there. And I’ve had a front row seat to witness Mark’s daily wrestling with his own call and commitment. These are not things to be taken lightly. One does not take on the responsibility of spiritual care for an entire community just because they enjoy studying religion.

The background for this post, for all my musings on my position–as an academic, as a woman, as the partner of someone who does have a calling to ministry–is, of course, the recent resurgence of controversy over the place of women in (mostly Orthodox) Judaism: whether a woman with learning equivalent to a Rabbi might bear an equivalent title, whether a woman with a personal commitment (one might even write ‘calling’) to forms of prayer that are, arguably, traditionally masculine might be permitted an equivalent space in which to practice them. The former really isn’t my business; my branch of Judaism has been comfortable with female Rabbis since shortly before the Second World War[3], and while I might wish (insofar as a Jew is responsible for the ethical practices of the Jewish people as a whole, and the equal dignity of women is an ethical issue) that the other branches might follow suit, if Rabba (or Mahara’t) Hurwitz is happy, then I’m happy for her. My response to the latter is somewhat more lacking in nuance and charity, and really doesn’t bear printing; suffice to say, I really don’t have good answers to either of these–I’m not even quite able to articulate, yet, how they relate to me. But they’re there, at the edges of my mind, shaping the way I position myself in this conversation.

[1] Was Peter Presbyterian? Well, I would argue that’s only very slightly less historical than claiming he was Roman Catholic. And while I’m SO not a New Testament expert, I do have a fuzzy recollection that the communal governance described in Acts is a hair’s breadth closer to recognisable in the Reformed model than in the hierarchical model that most folks think about when they think of the RCC (though that, itself, is more complicated than it appears at first blush).

[2] I’m eliding between ‘theology’ and ‘the academic study of religion’ here mainly because I’m currently in the UK, where ‘Theology and Religious Studies’ are generally lumped together in the same department. In North America, there tends to be a stricter division between the two: ‘Theology’ tends to be the thing done by Christians, for Christians, usually in seminaries, and ‘Religious Studies’ tends to be more anthropological in nature, done by anyone so inclined. For a number of fairly complicated reasons, most of which boil down to ‘I’m currently in the UK and the rules are different here’, with a dash of ‘Rules? What rules?’, my own research and teaching tends to zig-zag between the two, and so I treat the boundary as fluid, and lump it all together under the heading ‘academic study of religion’.

[3] Regina Jonas was granted a semicha by the German Reform movement in 1935; she was deported in 1942 and died in 1944.
On a related note, Text and Texture has been running a lengthy series on the issue of women’s roles in Orthodoxy; the first post is here. Perhaps needless to say, I roundly disagree with most of the points made, but it’s still worthwhile reading.

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