Republican Congressman Darrel Issa deserves our gratitude for his selection of an all-male panel of clergy witnesses to testify at the recent congressional hearing on reproductive rights and religious freedom. He has unintentionally sounded a startling and overdue wake-up call concerning the face of religion in America. Thankfully, our country is finally able to appreciate the deep disparity in the ranks of our spiritual leadership. According to a 2009 finding by the Census Bureau, women comprise only 17% of our country's clergy.
As a young Orthodox Jewish clergywoman and former intern at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, I am especially grateful to the GOP. It has drawn national attention to the need for women religious leaders. Particularly, when our reproductive rights are continuously imperiled in the name of religion.
Whether you believe that the debate surrounding President Obama's contraception policy actually concerns religious freedom or smacks of ugly election year political ploys, the increasing role that religion plays in America's public discourse is undeniable. It is hardly news that Americans are a religious people - since our very founding, religion has played an important role in this country, for better or for worse. A mere glance at the months long Republican presidential race is a compelling case in point.
The gender disparity amongst clergy is not simply a concern to those among us who belong to synagogues, churches, mosques and other houses of worship or who are actively engaged with our faith. Rather, it affects all Americans, believers and atheists alike, whether we like it or not.
In fact, we are all guilty parties in perpetuating gender disparity in the clergy. Media, political institutions and the public are all responsible for failing to include women as religious thought leaders in our national discourse. The absence of women witnesses at the congressional hearing is only compounded by the media's coverage of the entire contraception debate, which appears to interview and publish the thoughts of predominantly male religious leaders. The lack of visibility of female clergy only perpetuates the perception that women do not belong on the pulpit.
It is time for all citizens to take claim over religious leadership in our country and to push for gender parity throughout its ranks. Obviously, the congressional hearing would have gone very differently if a female rabbi or minister were among those testifying. More significantly though, it is likely that the policies of the Church and other religious bodies might begin to evolve if women were among the decision-makers. Perhaps engaging the other half of our population in the spiritual ranks might even ameliorate the religious fundamentalism and extremism we have come to take for granted here in America.
Together with my female colleagues, on a daily basis, I am engaged in the arduous task of breaking the stained glassed ceiling. However, our efforts will prove unfruitful unless there is cooperation across the denominational, religious and secular spectrum. Faiths and society at large must unite in working towards gender parity in the clergy, for all of our benefit. Religion will only continue to play a role in America's public sphere and it is high time for all of us to ensure that this influence represents and speaks to the interests, experiences and concerns of the entirety of our population.
Let us capitalize on this national moment of frustration and revelation and commit to concrete action in promoting women as religious thought leaders in our faiths, culture and society. We might even be so successful that next time around Congressman Issa or whomever is at the helm, may not even have a choice of whether to include women witnesses or not - they will be the obvious choice.
Gilah Kletenik is the Congregational Scholar at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where she is also a Talmud and Judaism instructor at the Ramaz Upper School. Gilah is one of The Jewish Week's "36 under 36," and is a recipient of The Covenant Foundation's inaugural Pomegranate Prize for emerging Jewish educators.