Making change, inside or out?

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All week I’ve been fascinated by the reports of Catholic women being ordained as priests – 12 women were ordained on a boat outside of Pittsburgh on Monday (these “irregular” ordinations take place on rivers, which are beyond archdiocese jurisdiction), and last week another secretly ordained woman priest “came out” about her ordination and resigned from her position in the Archdiocese of Boston. These ordinations on the margins remind me of the ordination of Haviva Ner-David by an Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem and raise some of the same questions about how we make change in our communities.

In all Jewish denominations except for Orthodoxy, women became rabbis by seeking change from the inside. With varying strategies and degrees of politeness – from Sally Priesand simply applying to the Reform seminary to Ezrat Nashim presenting a “Call for Change” to the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement – they lobbied for and gained acceptance to the official seminaries (though real equality in status, access, and pay remains elusive).

The model of the womanpriests movement is one of making change from the outside – flouting the law and expecting to change it through facts on the ground. This approach can succeed (as in the case of the Episcopal Church), but is often perceived as marginal. Change from the outside can come from urgency, civil disobedience, or the basic belief that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (as the writer Audre Lorde put it).

The success of making change from the outside is beautifully illustrated by new rituals in the Jewish community. The Miriam’s Cup, for example, which was created by a women’s group outside of Boston, is now sufficiently mainstream to be available for purchase in Judaica shops across the country.

I’m moved by the courage and ingenuity of those who make change from the outside, and I’m also impressed by the determination and resilience of those who battle institutions to make change from the inside. Both approaches have appealed to me at different times. I see my professional work as an educator as an example of “making change from the inside,” but I’ve mostly given up on that approach in my own religious life. What’s your approach to making change?

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