Peta Jones Pellach
Teacher and activist in Jerusalem

Women want their day

“In spite of precious ancient religious resources that may be cited to support gender equality in the religious sphere and noteworthy female leaders as examples, the .. tradition is culturally patriarchal and this has meant the historical exclusion of women from leadership and equal participation in [the] religious life… There are signs of change .. that allow women positions of ritual leadership, but these are still exceptional.”

These words were written by Professor Anantanand Rambachan with respect to the religions of India but they could have been written by a scholar examining almost any of the world’s great religions still today, in the 21st century.

Christian, Jewish and Muslim women facing common issues, Sydney 2009. Peta Jones Pellach
Christian, Jewish and Muslim women facing common issues, Sydney 2009. Peta Jones Pellach

Perhaps the term “gender equality” is threatening to some. But “equality” in this context does not mean doing away with differences. Women are seeking ways to lead as women, sometimes exploring the very question of how women’s leadership differs from men’s. Women can be “equal but different” from men. Men should not assume that having women religious leaders would simply double the number of candidates. It would open up different styles, different approaches, different skills, different insights — and make all of those available to the entire congregation.

However, women are struggling to make their contribution. The question of ordination of women has split some of the Christian Churches — most notably the Anglican Church, where its branches in Africa and Asia have rejected the move whereas it has been embraced by Western churches. Certainly in Islam, there are no avenues for women to take leadership of a community in prayer, even though there are powerful examples of women taking lay leadership.

Even in Buddhism, where the physical body is of little interest, scholars such as Michael von Brueck identify the exclusion of women from some monastic orders and positions of leadership as one of the important challenges to the tradition. Like in some other faith traditions, he cites social factors rather than doctrinal ones.

Writing about my own Jewish tradition, Rabbi Meir Sendor said in 2009, “In the Orthodox community, leadership is largely a male prerogative, based on legal tradition and cultural predilection. The problem is that a male-dominated hierarchy is often not sensitive or informed regarding issues vital to the religious lives of women.”

Rabbi Sendor has identified the nub of the issue. Highly educated, modern women continue to struggle for their places within religious hierarchies, not in order to usurp power from men or to upset ancient traditions. They do so in order to advance their own spiritual lives and the lives of other women, who feel alienated when their issues are ignored.

The first rabbinic cohort of the Har'el Beit Midrash. From left: Rabbis Ariel Mayse, Har'el founder and head Herzl Hefter, Eliezer Lev Israel, Rahel Berkovits, and Meesh Hammer-Kossoy. (Sigal Krimolovski)
The first rabbinic cohort of the Har’el Beit Midrash. From left: Rabbis Ariel Mayse, Har’el founder and head Herzl Hefter, Eliezer Lev Israel, Rahel Berkovits, and Meesh Hammer-Kossoy. (Sigal Krimolovski)

For Orthodox Jewish women, this past year has been historic. Orthodox women in both Israel and New York were ordained as with a variety of titles from Maharat to Rabba to Rabbi, but effectively all as rabbis. Yeshivat Maharat in New York is the veteran institution, with five years of ordaining women into religious leadership positions. Yeshivat Har’el in Jerusalem this past year decided to bite the bullet and to call women who completed the rigorous course of rabbinic training “rabbi” or “rabba.” These institutions represent a small segment of Israeli and American Orthodoxy.  However, due to their actions, it is no longer possible to contend that there are no Orthodox female rabbis — and that represents a revolution.

But, of course, the news is not all good. The Rabbinical Council of America, one of Modern Orthodoxy’s key umbrella organizations, passed a contentious resolution prohibiting its member congregations from employing women if they have been ordained with the titles Rabbi, Rabba or Maharat. In Israel, the official (state-run) rabbinical institutions do not recognize them at all and there are few places for women who have been so ordained to use their titles when applying their skills. Some are starting their own institutions. Others simply are continuing to work within established frameworks and not flaunting their achievements.

In all religions, there are new institutions, sometimes outside the established frameworks, where women find expression and assume leadership. It seems to me that there is something sad and potentially dangerous when women feel they have to leave the core community in order to pursue their spiritual lives. While, of course, such branches of the religions (in Judaism’s case, non-Orthodox branches) benefit, it is not something that all women feel they can do and still be authentic in their religious lives.

On International Women’s Day, it is time for religious leaders of all faiths to realize that women — more that 50 per cent of their communities — not only have spiritual and ritual needs that may not be met through male leadership but that they also have a tremendous amount to offer. Rather than shun or ignore women who seek to enhance their own spiritual lives and to help other women do so, seek ways for the entire religious tradition to benefit from their energy, their intellect and, most importantly, their female wisdom.

There is a Jewish tradition that says that women have “bina” — an instinctive insight into the Divine will, that men lack. What is amazing to me is that the men who espouse this belief don’t seem to want to hear from women giving expression to their insight. For centuries, women have kept their spiritual lives private. Now that they are finding ways to articulate them, it behooves men to listen and learn, to open themselves to another source of wisdom and to appreciate a perspective different from their own.

It is time to give women their day.

About the Author
A fifth generation Australian, Peta made Aliyah in 2010. She is Senior Fellow of the Kiverstein Institute, Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, secretary of the Jerusalem Rainbow Group for Jewish-Christian Encounter and Dialogue, a co-founder of Praying Together in Jerusalem and a teacher of Torah and Jewish History. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia and Iceland to participate in and teach inter-religious dialogue. She also broadcasts weekly on SBS radio (Australia) with the latest news from Israel. Her other passions are Scrabble and Israeli folk-dancing.