Some years ago my lovely niece Shoshanna had her Bat Mitzvah along with a dozen or so of her friends. These bright-eyed, beautiful and intelligent twelve-year-olds with their lives in front of them each spoke about their favorite heroine, the woman they most wanted to emulate. Some picked the big women in the Bible—Sarah, who leaves security and home behind to found a nation, Deborah, who leads a nation, Esther, who saves a nation, Ruth, who introduces the Gentile nation into King David’s family tree. Others preferred the little heroines with the cameo parts—the clever women who save the day: the woman of Thebez in the Book of Judges who drops a millstone on Abimelech and saves her city, Jael, who kills General Sisera with a tentpeg, Abigail, who outwits her twit of a husband and takes food to David and saves her household. Ah, such women! Intelligent enough to understand that, in extremis, brain is better than brawn every time. A few of the girls chose contemporary women, holocaust survivors, dissidents and wives of dissidents, leaders and martyrs.
The Rabbi rose to his feet to address them, and every eye turned to him, waiting for his words of wisdom. “Girls,” he said, “today as you embrace womanhood, remember only this. Your greatest contribution to Judaism will be as a wife and a mother.”
My heart bled for them as they stood stoically in front of him, without a flicker of an eyelid, their disappointment registering only in the slightest hunching of the shoulders. My heart bled for my cousin, who sat watching them, whose only child had just been killed in a car crash, and for all the women in the synagogue that day who had never found Mr. Right, or had struggled with fertility issues.
Then, I reflected, their heroines, biblical and contemporary, were so fearless, determined, and feisty, such trailblazers; it was hardly surprising that the Rabbi was afraid of them, and afraid, perhaps, of what might come from following their example. Yet, it also occurred to me that, perhaps, given their courage, women of faith everywhere owe it to them to walk in their sandals.
On my way into work one morning I listened to the great doyenne of British politics, Shirley Williams, taking listeners’ comments and questions.
“I am so disillusioned I just won’t vote anymore,” one caller declared.
“You won’t vote!”
The irritation in Shirley Williams’ voice almost crackled on the line.
“Do you know what it cost the suffragettes to win that vote for you, a woman? How dare you not vote!”
That is exactly how I feel about my biblical sisters. What if Mary, mother of Jesus, had said, “No thanks, God, I won’t do it—too difficult”? But of course, God knew what sort of a woman she was, and how can we today not rise to the challenge her life presents? Whether we have risen and we do rise is for each of us to decide.
And so, I shall take you on my journey from Jewish home to ripe Christian womanhood in stages—role by role, not defining myself by those roles, so much as exploring how I had to find my God-appointed place, in, and sometimes despite, each of them. It has often been a lonely road, but, surprisingly, there appear to have been biblical women accompanying me at every stage of the way.
I was a first child and my father, a doctor, like most Jewish men, desperately wanted a boy to carry on the family name. In fact he had a bet on it—£5 each way—with his father-in-law. So, when the nurse informed the expectant father that he had a lovely daughter, he was so shocked he asked, “Are you saying it is a girl or you only think it’s a girl?”
“Doctor,” she said disparagingly, “we do have ways of knowing these things.”
Though he wanted a son, my father soon learned to adore his daughter. On the one hand he desperately wanted me to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor. On the other, he constantly told me all women doctors were horses. Perhaps, to survive in those days, they needed a certain mule-like masculinity. But he believed there was nothing I could not achieve, given the best education, and I have now come to see how important that was. There is not nearly enough emphasis on the role of the father in building a woman’s self-respect and confidence. The first man in our orbit has a sacred calling to make his daughter feel beautiful, valued and competent.
My sister-in-law belonged to that generation of women who grew up without fathers because they were away at the war. If they spent their lives seeking male approval, how much more is that true for today’s girls who so often are the victims of poor or absent fathering. And what a vital role for men to assume in the church to be surrogate fathers in God to girls who grow up in a world without Dad, without his love, support, nurture, respect, and admiration.
The Apostle Philip had five daughters, all single, all prophets. The fact that they are mentioned in the Book of Acts means they must have created an impression. I suspect they adored their father and often accompanied him on his evangelistic trips. I imagine him coming home at night, weary and footsore, and one of them saying to him as his meal is put in front of him, “Thus saith the Lord, Dad.” He probably said, “Just give it a break tonight, will you, girls?”
My mother grew up during the war, when there were few opportunities for women. Once it was over, my grandfather could not see the point in letting her go to university. After all, she was going to get married and be a mother. So she married the much sought after doctor at nineteen and was indeed the quintessential “desperate housewife” with the perfect home and apparently perfect life, that was a mask for the profound unhappiness and listlessness of someone who was never able to use her razor sharp intelligence and business sense.
The problem was that for men of my father’s generation, a wife at home was the badge of a successful middle-class man. In fairness to him, after he learned of an innocent, though close-run dalliance, he did allow her to have her own shop, but gynaecological problems put an end to that short-lived freedom, when the consultant told her that her ovarian cysts were caused by being on her feet all day!
She compensated by ruling the roost, as so many Jewish Mamas do. Perhaps that is why Judaism seems to have become matriarchal—so that there is a place where frustrated women reign supreme and dissipate creative energy that could fix nations by struggling to make her home more museum-perfect than anyone else’s.
Here is a recipe for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and just about every other neurosis known to woman. I was terrified of it. I did not want to play the power game, or grow up manipulating men. I asked Mother one day, as she straightened the Sabbath candles on the sideboard for around the tenth time that day, what life was all about, and she said, “You find a nice Jewish boy, you have a house, two children, a car………”
“Oh, you! You ask too many questions,” was all she could reply.
She remarried quickly after my father’s death, but when her second husband died, she said to me as we chatted in the kitchen just before the funeral, “It wasn’t really much of a marriage, I suppose—but it passed fifteen years.” It reminded me of Shirley Valentine in the film of the same name, standing in her kitchen saying wistfully to the wall, “Mine has been such a little, little life.”
Instinctively, I knew there has to be more than this, and, when I found Christ, I found my instincts were sound.
The Liberal Rabbi, Julia Neuberger, claims that since the biblical matriarchs were so manipulative, she no longer prays every Sabbath Eve that her daughter will grow up to be like them. She prays instead that they will grow up to be as assertive as the daughters of Zelophehad. Their story is in Numbers 27. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah are indignant that, on the death of their father, tradition insists that they cannot inherit his estate, but that it must pass to a male cousin. These feisty women decide to air their case before Moses and the entire wilderness congregation. It must have taken some courage to challenge the status quo. No doubt it raised a laugh or two in the men’s club. Moses decides to consult a higher authority. And God says something like, “Moses, do me a favor, don’t argue with assertive women like that!” or words to that effect. Not only is their case upheld, but from then on Jewish women would have the right to inherit and own property, with all the freedom and status implied. By the time the Book of Proverbs is written women are actively involved in running the family business and bartering for land.
The Young Woman
As a young woman I had no career plans or ambition. A career adviser at school had offered me teaching, nursing, or the army, as she did to every schoolgirl, but none really appealed. I worked for a while, half-heartedly, as a youth worker, but had never found my chosen metier when I married in my mid-twenties. At the free evangelical church I attended there were only limited opportunities for women. There was no status if you were unmarried and very little more if you did. Having come from another, completely different cultural background where I was no longer acceptable, I badly wanted to conform to the standards of my new community to be accepted and was a complete pushover. The assertiveness of the daughters of Zelophehad came very slowly.
It horrifies me to hear my son say that even today Christian young women have little self-confidence or sense of their own beauty and worth. We, who have gained it painfully and at great cost, need to help younger women to find it. When, several years after I dared to acknowledge the career that had always been there in my heart and became a broadcast journalist, I decided to use my skills to resource communications in the public sector, I ended up working for the Teenage Pregnancy campaign. The UK has the highest rate of unwanted conception in Europe. I learned quickly that it is not enough to tell our young people, particularly our girls, to say no to sexual relations before the right time. We have to teach them the negotiating skills and the assertiveness they are going to need under pressure. We have to give them the confidence to stand for what they want and believe. And the less education they have, the more important that is.
The woman who let down her hair to wash Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:38) was so overwhelmed by what redemption had meant for her—freedom from servicing men to a life of service to Christ—that this young single woman braved all mockery, hostility, and criticism to express the love that bubbled up in her heart.
“Yes, I will darn your socks and iron your shirts,” I said to my man shortly before we married, the lovelight shining in my eyes.
Larry Christenson had just written his The Christian Family and I was seriously submissive. My parents were horrified. “You can’t marry a goy,” my mother said. “They don’t know the rules about who is really head in the home.”
Why does the bridegroom stamp on a glass at a Jewish wedding? It is the last chance he gets to put his foot down, according to the Jewish joke, which is more than just a joke.
But I was happy as a full-time housewife. The choice itself was a luxury, with a cost. We sometimes had no idea where the next meal was coming from. But in a world gone mad with materialism, where many have no food on their plates, I am so glad I had the chance to discover what you can do with a dollar. “If you want nice clothes, you’ll have to learn to sew,” my beloved said to me and bought me a sewing machine. I was an immensely creative homemaker, a real professional, and I sometimes look back at those days with regret, as I juggle the plates today.
Then one day I picked up the biography of Catherine Booth, founder with her husband of the Salvation Army. That book did for me what Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room did for my secular friends. It was the wake up call. As a very young woman, Catherine argued with her pastor that woman was a man’s moral equal in every way and should therefore minister fully, both separately and at his side. This was dynamite for me. I had begun, completely unsought, to be invited to speak to church groups, both single sex and mixed. I had discovered that the church was completely out of touch with its Jewish roots and had therefore lost about 40% of its comprehension of the New Testament. Inside me was a growing urge to share some of my insights as a Jew, but there were few role models, few women with upfront ministries prepared to speak and preach.
It was a vast relief to know that Catherine Booth also at first resisted the idea of preaching. At Pentecost 1860 she rose to her feet in the church where her husband was minister and shared her testimony. It was an immensely powerful moment and William announced, “My wife will finish her sermon in the evening service.”
That was the beginning of a preaching ministry that saw thousands come to Christ, but that exposed her to immense criticism and pain. When she died of breast cancer in her early sixties, she said, as she prepared to face her Savior, “What would I have said to Him if I had not been faithful to the heavenly vision? What excuses would I have given for all that wasted fruit?”
As William opened the door for Catherine, so my beloved Peter began to push me through the doors that opened for me. As I revisited Proverbs 31, the description of the perfect wife, I realised this was not a rationale for the sweet little woman at the sink. “How can we go to war leaving half the army at the sink?” William Booth stormed. The Christian woman has a much greater responsibility than does the wife described by Laura Schlesinger in her best-selling The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands (which sounds like looking after a dog!). For the truly Christian woman, the kingdom of God comes first.
Some of the attributes of the vigorous (this is the meaning of the Hebrew) wife almost sound very male to our culturally conditioned ears. The adjective “strong” is repeated time and time again. This woman is like a ship in full sail, powerful, striking, unmissable. She has organizational, managerial, accounting, and budgeting skills. She is rational and risk-taking, fearless and daring, dignified and dauntless. She runs the family home and the family business, juggling all her responsibilities in and outside the home with grace and wisdom. This is real leadership.
She reminds me of Helen Taylor Thompson, the businesswoman, who led a long and hard campaign to save Mildmay Christian Hospital in London and turn it into one of the foremost centers of care for people with HIV and AIDS in the world. To ensure it opened on time, she rolled up her sleeves and cleaned five year-old-meat off the mincer, five-year-old crumbs out of cake tins and was about to clean the toilets, when some of the men decided to stop her and do it themselves.
In this day and age, when a woman is valued by her looks and her figure, what a relief it is to read that in God’s eyes external beauty and charm are not what matters. God’s values are very different.
Motherhood did not live up to the ideal in my mind, created by the soft focus images presented to us by art and the media. The Virgin Mary, with halo round her head and serene smile on her face, manifestly never had to deal with sleepless nights and cracked nipples! My creative homemaking was reduced to finding a thousand ways to fold a diaper and putting away a post-box toy in three seconds—with all the pieces in the right holes. If one person had told me I might make a better mother of teenagers than babies, it would have released me from the guilt induced by the stifling boredom I felt. But, blessed with the ministry of encouragement, friends simply said, “Just wait till they’re teenagers, it gets worse.” It never did get worse. I loved having funny, quippy, bright, and loving teenagers. Somehow, my children managed to grow into adults I liked and enjoyed, despite the fact I was catapulted into the workplace when they were still quite small.
I did not choose a career. It chose me. To get my hands out of the diaper bucket and stave off the boredom, I started writing. One day the phone rang and I was offered the career of a lifetime in radio and television, but it involved a fair amount of travelling. Peter was now a minister and at home for the children when they came in from school. Nonetheless, there were suggestions in the church that my little daughter was becoming insecure. What an affront to Peter’s parenting. In fact, she is such a secure, sensible, assertive, and God-fearing young woman, I sometimes wonder where I found her.
Nonetheless I wrestled with the guilt that many working women face. Craving human approval can be a terrible master! I listened to the voices that whispered it would be all my fault if my children grew into druggies or pagans. One day I sat in the bath, exhausted, and shouted back, “I don’t need anyone’s approval but God’s! And that I have, because of what the Son has done for me.”
Peter and I had to learn how to juggle our parenting and priorities. (The church can be more demanding than any child.) We learned to share the responsibility of hospitality.
“I’ve cleaned floor for you,” he said proudly one night, leaning on the mop.
“You’ve done it for us, not just for me,” I said.
“Oh yes,” he agreed, ruefully.
When our son arrived at Oxford University (I have to boast a bit, I am a Jewish Mama, after all!), he was horrified to discover that women were not regarded as equal. He has a much more sensitive, emotional, caring side than our daughter and had gained so much from the ministry of women. An evangelistic event for Jewish students he helped to organize was cancelled because the speaker pulled out and the committee could not countenance my standing in instead. “I know she’s my mum; but why is that a problem?” he asked.
“It’s not that she’s your mum, it’s that she’s a woman,” they told him.
It seems yesterday I held them in my arms. We turn around and they walk out of the door. “Thanks for a great life, Mum.” So what, then, is there for the woman who invests her all in motherhood? Most of us are young enough to have a great deal of living in front of us. My role model at this stage in my life is Mary, the mother of Jesus, not the sweet young Madonna, but the tough middle-aged Mary, who has lost what is most precious to her and learned to let go. She continues her journey alone without husband or son, a single woman, and discovers a new fruitfulness in later life as a keystone in the emerging church, first in Jerusalem and then in Ephesus. But this is only what Jesus would have expected of the woman whose name means “tough” (even obstinate or rebellious), and who was brave enough to raise the Son of God.
I never tell my colleagues I am a minister’s wife—well, not at first. It is just great to have the freedom to be me, without all the expectations that go with my husband’s role. When I first began to work for the media, a number of our congregation felt it was not the right job for a minister’s wife—it was glamorous, not useful like a nurse or a teacher. There was in fact little glamor in traipsing across fields in green wellington boots, freezing while a camera man or woman got the right shots, or a sound person was satisfied no plane or mower was buzzing in the background.
Now, as I use my communications skills to try and improve the service people receive when they are in need of healthcare, I feel I can be useful and strategic, and it is an immense privilege, earned for me by wonderful nineteenth century, pioneering women like Florence Nightingale, who fought ingrained prejudice to turn nursing into a profession. As a girl she wrote, “I would have given the church my head, my hand, my heart, but she told me to go back and crochet in my mother’s drawing-room. You may go to the Sunday School if you like, she said, but she gave me no training even for that. She gave me neither work to do for her, nor education for it.”
Florence Nightingale did not give up when the church refused to recognize her gifts. She used them to transform healthcare instead. The calling of God cannot be ignored. My work is a calling. I long to challenge the culture of the National Health Service, to help create an environment where the patient is given information, and therefore is empowered to make key decisions about his or her life. I want to encourage patients to be more assertive and not hand over responsibility for their wellbeing to the institution. Women are twice as likely to have surgery once they are referred to a medical consultant. They need to feel in control, but doctors often take it from them. Power is a wonderful resource when it is used well.
I thought that once there were more female chief executives working in healthcare, the service would become more sensitive to the needs of patients, but this is not the case. In leadership women can be as task-oriented as men. Equality is not enough in itself. To change private and public organizations, to change governments, to change the world we need godly, Christ-centred women, and godly Christ-like men. Jesus did not retain his equality with God, says the letter to the Philippians 2:6-11. He emptied himself of power to become human, then God raised him to the most powerful place of all.
My inspiration and role models have always been the great female campaigners and entrepreneurs of the nineteenth century, who, because of their faith, and at great cost to their reputation, sought to make the world a better place—Octavia Hill, who raised public awareness of poverty, Elizabeth Fry, who brought about prison reform, and Josephine Butler, who fought against the invasive examinations faced by young women in prostitution.
I have met one or two such women today—Nellie Thornton, the first woman to set up a fashion consultancy for women with special needs, who made jeans for teenage girls with spina bifida and smart suits for women bent double by osteoporosis, because she understood the importance of body image; Ruth Winterbottom, the first female superintendant of police in the UK, who said her most important gift to the police force was to create an environment where a man was not demoted if he cried; and Jan Ransome, a Lieutenant Colonel in the army, who tried to match a soldier’s posting to fit the needs of the entire family. They did not change the entire world. They just made a difference to their bit of it. As for them and for Florence Nightingale, my secular work is my Christian ministry.
The world of work is not easy for anyone. It is hard not to be drawn into criticisms of the boss, grousing among the colleagues, and the intrigues which are an integral part of any miniature society. Every day I ask for guidance through the shark-infested waters, for the strength to guard my tongue, for protection from the flattering advances of attractive men, and from the temptation to jostle for promotion. But in that world there is no male or female, all are equal, which makes it harder to find oneself in a church where that may not be so.
Jesus never held fast to being the breadwinner because it was his duty as a male. He allowed his female disciples, Luke tells us (8:3), to fund and resource his ministry—not just with their cooking, but with the cottage industries that bought the food.
The first apostle in the New Testament is a woman. Jesus meets a despised Samaritan woman at the well. “He told me everything I’d ever done!” she says in John 4:29. All he had said to her was that she had had five men. That was the entire content of her life—pleasing men. But Jesus liberates her and she goes back to her village and tells everyone the good news of what he has done for her.
My calling has always been to be prophetic—to encourage the church to live authentically in the world. The workplace, our world from Monday to Friday, is often dreary, demeaning, and demoralizing. What do we have to offer? We have true celebration, for a start—the key to the work-life balance. People need festival, sabbath, color, candles, and life-enhancing liturgies. They need to let their hair down, to laugh, eat, share fellowship, and relax. I brought a work colleague to a Christmas party at our church. “Oh, I want to belong to a community like that,” she said. And now she does. Her life has been transformed. And that to me is the essence of what I am called to be and do.
I write books about celebration that are accessible and easy to read, rather than academic, and am often dismissed as lightweight for it. But the church is made up, in the main, of ordinary people, who hunger to live a life that is authentic and whole and real. God loves the ordinary people.
Irma Kurtz, the journalist, wondered why there were so few obituaries for women. “Could it be,” she wrote, “that men die, while women go through the change!”
I am not dead yet! And many of the women I most admire achieved most in later life, but I suppose that they, as I do now, have to decide whether we spend our days fulfilling human expectations and playing the paragon—or living a life of service to Christ. How often do the demands to be what I think I should be silence the quiet call to follow? Are the new freedoms women have in the workplace simply an opportunity for men and women to go on living the rat race, or can we learn to model a different way of being and live prophetically?
I may well have gained a reputation for being the Ruby Wax of the church—a bit New York Jewish—but I am not naturally combative. I want equality between men and women, not for its own sake, but because of its potential for the redemption of the world. There is no equality in orthodox Judaism, in Hinduism, or Islam. This was a precious gift entrusted to Christians, first before the fall, when God made us male and female in his image and gave us domination over creation, not one another; then again at the cross, when Jesus emptied himself of power and showed us how not to lord it over one another; and then again at Pentecost, when women were filled with the Holy Spirit and from then on ministered alongside the men. But the church dropped the ball, and the feminists picked it up and ran with it—way beyond where God intended it to go when they suggested men were morally inferior. Now we have a chance to pick it up again and model what God truly intended—men and women standing side by side, complementing, nurturing, and supporting one another as they spread the word of the kingdom.
It was not easy for the biblical women to do what God had called them to do. Esther, Ruth, Mary, and the daughters of Zelophehad faced scorn, misunderstanding, and a loss of their reputation, but they were never passive victims of circumstances. They grabbed their destiny by the throat, and said, “Let it be to me according to your will”—what I always wanted or never wanted, what I asked for or never asked for, what I hoped or never dared to hope. I want the courage to refuse the stereotyping and the expectations imposed on me just because I am a woman, and to follow my Master wherever He calls, and live a life of service—whatever it means.