‘Change’ and ‘tradition’ are two words that don’t usually go together. However, Judaism in St. Louis has managed to keep its traditional faith practices while adapting to the modern times. One incredible woman who has worked tirelessly to keep a modern and accepting form of Judaism alive in the city is Rabbi Susan Talve. By using her genuine and admirable faith through difficult times, as well as her unrelenting efforts to embrace all walks of life, Rabbi Talve has built up a congregation, the Central Reform Congregation, that is an example of the type of welcoming religion that all should look towards. With a culmination of academic research and a personal interview with Rabbi Talve herself, it is evident that she has made a significant impact in the Reformed Jewish community of Saint Louis.
Rabbi Susan Talve was born and raised in the suburbs of New York City. Her passion and dedication to social justice developed during her teenage years in the midst of feminist, anti-war, and civil rights movements of the 1960s. Social justice and her faith developed hand in hand--in her own words, her faith journey has been “very integrated with action.” Although she was always spiritual, she didn’t intend to become a Rabbi. Jewish clergy was and still is a male dominated profession; as a feminist, Talve didn’t want to be “a token in a patriarchal profession.” However, she embraced the profession and now uses her position to broaden the roles of women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and many other traditionally marginalized people within the Jewish community.
Religion is often a defining part of culture; it shapes the values, beliefs, and attitudes prevalent in both the congregation and surrounding community. With its urban, diverse atmosphere, St. Louis encompasses various religions. To ensure the voice of one religion isn’t lost in the noise of the others, each religion must ask themselves if and how they should change with the times. Reform Judaism has done this by preserving tradition while also embracing changes in society and integrating faith with relevant issues. Nathan Rotenstreich demonstrates this idea in Tradition and Reality when he writes, “Judaism thus is not a religion in the narrow sense, or the history of a church which represents the development of a doctrine and no more. It is the evolution of a people as well,” (Rotenstreich 53). Defining Judaism as “the evolution of a people” allows for a perpetuation of the idea that the Jewish faith isn’t simply a text or set of spiritual guidelines; rather, it is a thing that lives within each individual. Because of this, the teachings of Reform Judaism are mindful of both tradition and society. Rabbi Susan Talve reflected upon this idea by saying, “Judaism doesn’t change; it is what it is, you know. What changes are our applications and how we keep it relevant.” Ensuring that Judaism remains pertinent in a modern community like St. Louis is a task in which Talve has remained an important figure since the creation of her congregation.
With a relentless passion for justice and equality, Talve’s congregation is a sacred and accepting body of people who yearn to build a strong community that embodies what it means to be a follower of God. Right when you walk in the door of this building, there are signs embracing women’s rights, the “Black Lives Matter” slogan, “Jews come in all colors,” and many other things that show off inclusivity, including a gender-neutral bathroom. Even the tiled floor of the main room is based upon women and children of color. Rabbi Talve explains, “If you’re a kid of color growing up in this congregation, you see your face reflected in the very building that you are coming into. You are not ‘other’ here.” Many wouldn’t expect a traditional Jewish congregation to be this open, but Talve understands that religion cannot stay frozen in time forever, but rather adapts with time.
In recent years, Talve has also made a distinct effort to be a resource for the LGBTQ+ community. Talve summarizes, “We made sure...that our kids were exposed to gay and lesbian families...we’ve really been on the front line of making sure that whatever your identity is, you’re accepted here; we have a place for you.” Even with all this modernity, Talve still hasn’t abandoned the traditions of Judaism, but embraces traditional beliefs and makes them applicable for today’s world. In other words, “We’ve been able to read the Bible in a way that helps it be relevant for today. Not in a way that stigmatizes or lessens the dignity of any one human being, but that raises up the ability that we all must have to see God in each other” (Talve interview). Although Talve has worked her hardest to create a loving home for her religion, things haven’t been easy.
Going against the norm is difficult in any situation, but especially when you’re against hundreds of years of tradition and thousands of people. Although Talve has integrated both tradition and modernity, her congregation has been vulnerable to a lot of hate. Seven years ago, Talve volunteered to have the Central Reform Congregation host an ordination for Roman Catholic women, which was incredibly unpopular in the Catholic community. In fact, Talve explained, “We had an archbishop at the time whose name was Burk, who tried to get me fired, who said that if any Catholic Church let me in, he would close them down. I really took a beating for that one.” All Talve was doing was extending her radical hospitality to those who wanted to reach a more profound relationship with God, yet because she was straying from tradition, she was deemed wicked for it. Another area that Talve is passionate about is the LGBTQ+ community, a group in which Talve has sacrificed her job in order to help. Talve hopes that one day Missouri will offer the blessing of marriage to same-sex couples, but for now she must fly under the radar because “when I officiate at gay and lesbian weddings in Missouri, I break the law by solemnizing a marriage without a license. Legally, I risk going to jail,” (Proposition 8). Although Talve is overwhelmed with challenges and difficulties in her fight to model a faith of acceptance, she somehow is unafraid of each day that lies ahead because of her strength in God. Talve is profound in her faith, explaining that “Sometimes you have to take a stand and be unpopular and risk sacrificing things in order to make a change. And you hope you’re making a world that’s better for your daughters and sons,” (Talve interview). Making a better world for future generations is exactly what Talve is doing.
Rabbi Talve has made a significant impact on Reform Judaism in St. Louis, as well as St. Louis as a whole. As the first woman Rabbi in St. Louis, she has changed the view of what a woman’s role should be in both congregations, and in the workplace in general. St. Louis has now progressed to have women Rabbis in “three major reform congregations” (Talve Interview). Rabbi Talve has also actively worked to lessen discrimination and promote acceptance throughout the city. She expressed how herself and her colleagues want the congregation to be used “as a shelter of peace” (Talve Interview). She has also advocated for legislation in Missouri to protect people’s rights, explaining, “No person should have to fear losing their job, being denied housing, or being bullied at school because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” (Proposition 8). Rabbi Talve has used her position and passion for social justice to enact change and acceptance throughout the St. Louis area.
Research and writing by Cayla Christopher, Kirsten Hale, and Casey Sowell
Meyer, Michael, and W. Plaut. The Reform Judaism Reader: North American Documents. New York: UAHC Press, 2001.
Rotenstreich, Nathan. Tradition and Reality: The Impact of History on Modern Jewish Thought. New York: Random House, 1972.
Talve, Rabbi Susan. “At Hanukkah, a contemporary battle against oppression.” Central Reform Congregation. N.p., December 18, 2009. PDF File. Accessed September 28, 2017. http://www.centralreform.org/sites/default/files/files/ST%20-%20At%20Hanukkah%2C%20a%20contemporary%20battle%20against%20oppression.pdf.
Talve, Rabbi Susan. Interviewed by Casey Sowell and Cayla Christopher. Central Reform Congregation. October 28, 2017.
Talve, Rabbi Susan. "Proposition 8." Opinion Editorial. Central Reform Congregation. N.p., November 14, 2008. PDF File. Accessed September 27, 2017. http://www.centralreform.org/sites/default/files/files/Proposition%208.pdf.
Talve, Rabbi Susan. “Rosh Hashanah Morning 5772.” Central Reform Congregation. N.p., n.d. PDF File. Accessed September 28, 2017. http://www.centralreform.org/sites/default/files/files/Rabbi%20Talve%20Rosh%20Hashanah%20Sermon%205772.pdf.