SXSW Conference: “The Divine Feminist & Her Place in Modern Religion”

pictured with Rabbi Rebecca Epstein, Simone Talma Flowers, Rev. Joseph Parker


It was a great joy and honor to be on a panel at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference with these prophetic ministers doing remarkable work in the world: Rabbi Rebecca Epstein, Simone Talma Flowers, and Rev. Joseph Parker. It was good to connect with them and learn from their work for gender equality in various arenas.

People often misunderstand the term “feminism.” So panel moderator, Simone Talma Flowers, began by asking us to define “feminism” from the perspectives of our religious traditions and our personal experiences.

Rabbi Epstein responded:

As a rabbi, the way that I define “feminism” is the process by which I live in which I see the importance of lifting up women’s stories and women’s voices from our sacred teachings and giving them an important place. We continue to write the Torah by interacting with those ancient texts. I view feminism as a process by which we continue to write ourselves into the Torah by lifting up women’s voices and women’s stories from those ancient teachings and also weaving in our own experiences and stories. As applied to the tradition of Jewish textual interpretation, Jewish feminism is a powerful tool for incorporating women’s voices and perspectives into contemporary understandings of Torah and liturgy. Weaving women into Torah and liturgy – a movement which sparked the inclusion of other under-represented persons, including Jews of color, and LBGTQ Jews – has resulted in the ongoing formation of a Jewish tapestry in which all Jewish people are included, demonstrating the power of an inclusive, diverse, and just society.

Pastor Parker said that I had honored him by calling him a “feminist.” He acknowledged that he’d had some labels, but not that label and that he hadn’t used this word until he came across Gloria Steinem’s definition. “A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.” He continued:

When I read that statement, I recognized that as far back as I can recall, I have been living a life of feminism. I was raised around the issues of equality and justice, and cannot recall any time when I thought that a woman could not be a faith leader. My father, also a Baptist preacher, was involved in interdenominational work; he got his seminary training at a United Methodist seminary which recognized women in ministry. I never heard him say anything negative about women being in ministry or ordained. I came up around his interdenominational work and saw women in ministry. I may have been raised in feminism and not recognized it. It was not until I started preaching my last semester at law school that I heard opposition and didn’t understand it. But I came to know that our shared texts, particularly Genesis 1:27—we’re all created in the image of God— drives me in all ways about equality. And in the New Testament, Galatians speaks about no male or female in Christ.

This was my response:

Feminism is simply the equality of female and male, based on Genesis 1:27 that states that female and male are created in the divine image. It is thus essential to include female images of God in faith communities as a foundation for full gender equality. Theologian Leonard Swidler defines feminism as equality extended to women and as essential to the gospel of Jesus. In the Christian Scriptures, we find Jesus choosing Mary Magdalene as the first witness of the resurrection and Galatians 3:28 affirming gender equality: “there is no longer male and female, for you are one in Christ Jesus.” Another definition of feminism important to me is from journalist Linda Ellerbee: “Feminism is not turning tables on men but throwing out all tables except round tables.” Also, I’m guided by intersectional feminism that emphasizes the connection between gender, racial, and LBGTQ equality, economic and environmental justice and all justice issues.

Moderator Flowers moved on to a question about how our various religious traditions are incorporating feminism today.

Rabbi Epstein spoke about the traditional method of Jewish text study that she views as feminist. In Jewish tradition people study texts by sitting together with a partner, going through a process of close reading of the text, asking questions about the meaning, and then delving into the text deeply to discern what it’s teaching today. She illustrated this method of study with the first chapter of the book of Exodus, where we find the Israelites enslaved by the Pharoah in Egypt. The Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, initiated the process of the Exodus by defying the order of the Pharoah to kill all the Hebrew baby boys. Shiphrah and Puah, “who are the first named women in the book of Exodus, are described as knowing God and fearing God and going against Pharoah’s decree,” Rabbi Epstein continues. “These lowly midwives go back to Pharoah and say, ‘These Hebrew moms are just too fast. Before we can get there to get rid of their baby boys, they’ve already given birth and brought the babies to safety, so sorry we can’t follow through with your order.’ When we look at these lines in the text closely, we see some really interesting things about what it means to be a strong woman. There’s ambiguity in the Hebrew text about whether the midwives were Egyptian or Hebrew. I wonder if that ambiguity is there to get us to think about if it matters whether they were Hebrew or Egyptian in helping out the Hebrews, and that ambiguity brings us to that next level of understanding that feminist work can apply to everybody and can go across racial and religious boundaries. That’s there in the text of the Hebrew; when we as feminists sit together and delve deeply into it and start to ask questions, there’s a powerful lesson about who the midwives are and what they can teach us today.”

Pastor Parker acknowledged the slow progress for women in ministry in his Baptist church tradition, especially in the black church. But he celebrated the “breakthroughs” he was seeing of women becoming ministers, becoming faith leaders: “We now have women who are brave and courageous enough to acknowledge a vocational calling from God to go into ministry. And we have men who are courageous and have a willingness to take a stand, because we have been the gatekeepers as to whether or not women get the credentials and the entry into ministry. Increasingly, I’m seeing more of us who are willing to open the doors, to use the access we have.”

In my response to the question about how various religious traditions are incorporating feminism, I talked about how churches and other faith communities are reclaiming multicultural female images of the Divine to affirm the sacred value of females. They are including Wisdom, Ruah, Mother, Divine Midwife, and other biblical female images of Deity to make powerful contributions to gender, racial, and environmental justice, I said. “More and more faith communities are reclaiming the power of the Female Divine in hymns and other sacred rituals. I discovered in research for my book She Lives! Sophia Wisdom Works in the World in the World many clergy and laypeople who are transforming their faith communities and the wider culture through rituals that include multicultural female divine images. One of these communities is here in Austin, St. Hildegard’s Community, with Rev. Judith Liro as priest.” To illustrate my belief in the power of music and visual imagery to move feminist theology from the head to the heart, I played a video with one of my songs along with visual images from various artists, focused on the female divine image of Midwife, found in Psalm 22:9-10.

Moderator Flowers prefaced her next question by commenting on the importance of male allies in her work as Executive Director of Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT): “I work with many diverse communities. I cannot work without men because so many faith leaders are male. So it’s really important to form relationships and to identify males who can be allies to support women in ministry.” She directed her question about the importance of male allies especially to Pastor Parker, the first leader in his 94-year-old church’s history to include female ministers, and board member of the non-profit Safe Place, an organization dedicated to stopping domestic violence. Here are some highlights from his response and from all panel members’ responses to the follow up question about the benefits of female leadership within and beyond faith communities.

Pastor Parker:

“I’ve been referred to as a ‘bridge builder,’ and when I hear that, my response is ‘when you are a bridge builder, you get walked on from both sides.’”

“One of the gifts I received from my parents was a willingness to have courage and stand alone. I grew up in segregated Birmingham. In 1966 I was among a handful of students to integrate a school of 2000 or so. Looking back now, I see that this terrible experience brought me to the place where I’m not afraid of standing alone for what I believe is right.”

“In 1996 I was elected president of the Austin Bar Association. I decided there were three issues I wanted to take on, and one was domestic violence. I led the lawyers and judges in the city to come together for a Domestic Violence Summit. Safe Place invited me to serve on their board. For 22 years I’ve been involved with this issue, and recently got involved with what they call the men of Safe. We sign pledges as to what we will do. Once I became more informed, I started preaching on preventing domestic violence and posted safety plans in our church.”

“Our church, in many ways traditional, had never had a woman in ministry and didn’t believe in it. It was my job to show them from Scripture why I believed in women ministers. In 1998 our church voted to call our first full-time woman minister. Now we have seven women ministers.”

“The presence and full engagement of these female clergy in our African American Baptist Church help to shift the ministry and worship atmosphere and perspectives, and expand the reach of ministry inside and beyond the local church. These clergywomen provide models for all generations.”

Rabbi Epstein:

“Women faith leaders model what it is to be a mother, to be a teacher, to be someone who officiates rituals and transforms people through rituals, who pastors at the bedside in the hospital, and who speaks for justice. It’s critically important that girls and women and all congregants see the many different ways that ministry can occur and see that women can and are and should be doing all of those things.”

“Jewish women clergy provide a powerful example of the diverse roles within the category of ‘women’s leadership.’ We all show that women’s leadership can take on many forms, and provide influence on many levels within the Jewish community and society at large.”

“I want to lift up this awesome memory I have of being together with Simone at the Austin Women’s March last year. We stood together and gave the invocation at the Capitol. We were among five women from five different faith traditions giving the invocation. We stood there in front of all the women and men who were gathered there to say that women’s rights are human rights. We were able to speak from our traditions and from Scripture and from our understanding, and connect what was going on in the public sphere to our ancient sacred traditions. It was such a powerful moment of bringing Scripture to life.”

“Bringing our understandings of Scripture into the public sphere—that’s what it’s all about. We’re not meant to be sitting in the sanctuary cloistered away, just making ourselves better. We’re in the sanctuary to become inspired to go out and change the world for the better. That is one of the main reasons I think it’s so important to have women in leadership, in the clergy.”

In my response I talked about the benefit of having women faiths leaders to empower women and girls to be all we’re created to be. I quoted Marian Wright Edelman: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” When females are free to develop and use our creative gifts, everyone benefits.

I emphasized that including female leadership and language in faith communities affirms the equal sacred value of females, providing a foundation for gender equality in faith communities and beyond. Gender equality in religious leadership and gender inclusive names and images of Deity provide a model of mutual, harmonious gender relationship.

Another benefit I mentioned is that equal representation of women in religious leadership contributes not only to gender equality but to racial equality and to interfaith collaboration. In my experience people advocating equality for women also advocate equality for all races and genders. I gave the example of Equity for Women in the Church—recognizing the connection between sexism and racism, working to eliminate these interlocking injustices, advocating and networking on behalf of women of all races and cultures, modeling inclusiveness of gender and race on our board. I quoted Rev. Sheila Sholes-Ross, cochair of Equity, on the importance of male allies: “I believe it’s vital for men to be involved in the gender equity movement. This involvement is not for validation, but as allies in addressing inequity.”

Female leadership also creates and strengthens interfaith communities. In seeking opportunities to exercise our calling, women often embrace ecumenical and interfaith ministries. Interfaith Action of Central Texas, directed by Simone Talma Flowers, is a wonderful example of the benefits of female leadership as she works with people of diverse faith traditions to cultivate peace, justice, and equality.

Before moving to the audience Q & A, Moderator Flowers affirmed the benefits of female and male faith leaders working together: “Rabbi Epstein mentioned that we were together at the Women’s March to do the invocation. That was through an invitation of a male ally who was asked to do the invocation and said, ‘This is a Women’s March; I know some women who can do this.’ We need each other to lift each other up because our work is so important, and we are all important, regardless of who we are and where we come from.”

You can listen to the recording of this panel here.

Simone Talma Flowers

Simone Talma Flowers is the Executive Director of Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT), whose mission is to cultivate peace and respect through interfaith dialogue, service and celebration. Simone Talma Flowers brings over 26 years of extensive experience in non-profit management. Simone promotes a culture of high performance, support and collaboration. She advances the mission of the organization by bringing people of diverse faiths, cultures and backgrounds together, to break down the barriers that divide us. Passionate about diversity and inclusion she believes everyone—regardless of age, gender, religion and culture should have access to opportunities, so they can live up to their fullest potential. Simone has a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a Master of Business Administration from St. Edward’s University. Simone is a member of the Austin Area Research Organization, Town Lake Chapter of the Links Incorporated and Impact Austin. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for; Community Advancement Network, serving as the Immediate past Board Chair, Austin Housing Repair Coalition, One Voice Central Texas, St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Texas Impact, National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation, and formally Urban Roots. Simone serves on the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities and on the Mayor’s Health & Fitness Council. In 2017, she received the Gulen Peace Award from the Dialogue Institute of Austin. And in 2018 Simone will receive Leadership Austin’s 2018 Outstanding Alumni Award.

Rabbi Rebecca Epstein

Rabbi Rebecca Epstein decided to pursue a career as a rabbi, as a personal response to witnessing the aftermath of the tragedy of 9/11/2001 in New York City. At the time, she was teaching Hebrew school at a synagogue on the Upper West Side. Rebecca concluded that she could connect both students and adults to the wisdom of Jewish tradition as a way to deal with these demanding times. Concurrently, Rebecca explored Eastern spiritual traditions through her study of yoga. She concluded, however, that Judaism and the path of the rabbinate were the right fit for her. She began her rabbinical studies in 2004 at the Hebrew Union College, and was ordained in 2009 after completing studies in Jerusalem and New York City. Upon ordination, Rebecca served Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, New Jersey as Assistant Rabbi. There, she pioneered a teen mentorship program, a women’s spirituality group, a Jewish yoga class, and a comprehensive environmental certification process, in addition to directing the religious school. Rebecca and her family arrived in Austin in 2012, where she has served in various roles in the Austin Jewish Community, as well as national Jewish organizations including the Association of Reform Zionists of America and as the Convention and National Events Vice President of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. Rebecca is proud to be a part of the Congregation Beth Israel community, where she strives to connect people of all ages to the wellsprings and challenges of Judaism and Jewish life, through her current role as Director of Education which she assumed in 2014. Rebecca grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and attended Vassar College, graduating in 2000 with honors in Cognitive Science. At Vassar, she also pursued a life-long passion for modern dance and choreography. Rebecca is proud to be married to Barak Epstein and to share in the parenting of their three daughters.

Rev. Joseph Parker, Jr.

Rev. Joseph C. Parker, Jr., Esq., D. Min. has been the senior pastor of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church since 1992, having become a minister at David Chapel in 1982. He has been described as “called by God, shaped by experience, a man of action, and a Renaissance man.” He has been a licensed attorney since 1983, having been a litigator and a mediator, now with a part-time mediation practice. In 1996 he was elected the first African-American president of the Austin Bar Association and has been honored as a “Trail Blazer” by the State Bar of Texas. In 2018 he received a “Distinguished Lawyer Award” by the Austin Bar Association, which previously named the “Joseph C. Parker, Jr. Diversity Award” in his honor. Further, he has taught preaching at Baylor University and trial advocacy at the University of Texas School of Law. He has been a board member of Safe Place (Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Survival Center) and a Community Advisor of the Junior League of Austin. He has held several faith/interfaith, legal, and community leadership positions. He is a graduate of Morehouse College, University of Georgia, University of Texas at Austin School of Law, Baylor University (Truett Seminary), and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.





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