Are the growing numbers of women rabbis and ministers devaluing the power of the clergy? That was among the issues raised at a thought-provoking two-day conference recently on women and religion sponsored by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.
The conference at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York , titled "Women Through the Prism of Religion," featured some of the top women theologians and religious activists from Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.
It kicked off on a Saturday night with an evening of multicultural entertainment featuring an African women’s drum circle, an Arabic folklore ensemble, animated Hindu prayers and Middle Eastern dancing.
The next day was devoted to the serious issues, said Georgette Bennett, president of the center named after her late husband, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, an interfaith pioneer who worked for the American Jewish Committee. He died 11 years ago.
Despite their diversity, each female speaker provided insights into how her faith treats women unequally.
For example, Sister Mary Boys, professor of practical theology at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan and a prominent voice in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue, noted how "a big problem in my tradition [Roman Catholic] is the exclusion of women from preaching."
But there are even problems after women clergy are officially accepted.
Feminist writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a Conservative Jew, said she is concerned about a growing notion being pushed in Judaism about "the devaluation of the rabbinate the more women are in it.
"There are those claiming we are losing Jews because so many women are in the pulpit. We have to confront this and challenge it," she said.
Rev. Chloe Breyer, an Episcopal priest at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, agreed that in areas like salaries, "the clergy as a profession has been devalued" with the influx of women.
Sumi Loundon, a Zen Buddhist, revealed that Buddhism shares similar problems.
"The most senior nun must bow down to the most junior monk," she said, noting that those enforcing such rules quote "the works of the Buddha himself." Loundon added that women leave Buddhism because they are "painfully oppressed," including being the victims of sexual abuse by charismatic male leaders.
Muslim Lobna Ismail noted that anyone in a position of religious authority in Islam is male.
Virtually all the speakers agreed that the key to future equality is better religious education for women, particularly understanding the sacred texts as well as the men.
Judith Banki, Tanenbaum’s program director, noted that while Islamic women can cite the original words of the Koran for proof that women are allowed to wield greater religious authority, Jewish women must reinterpret the Torah to advocate for equality.
Said Blu Greenberg: "What was sociologically truth for a particular time became codified into halacha [Jewish law]."
Bennett said she plans to develop the conference further through a new project, "Women’s Peace Initiative for the Middle East."
To commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day, veteran interfaith expert Rabbi Leon Klenicki went to the Interchurch Center in Manhattan and talked about searching for God after Auschwitz.
Rabbi Klenicki, the former longtime interfaith director for the Anti-Defamation League, this year became the first scholar-at-large at the Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute in Garrison, N.Y.
The 36-year-old group is headed by Father Jim Loughran, the late Cardinal John O’Connor’s liaison to the Jewish community.
Rabbi Klenicki, a native of Argentina, related how during Passover 1945, word spread about what happened to the Jews of Europe.
"My father … raised his fist to the ceiling and started screaming to God, ‘Are we your children? The Chosen People? Why have you allowed that? Why should we believe in you?’ My mother tried to calm him down while she was looking at us with tears in her eyes," he recalled. "That night changed our lives."
Rabbi Klenicki said the last time he was in Birkenau, "I was with a delegation of 75 Jesuits from all over the world. We shared tears and prayers."
He then explained how the Holocaust marked the end of the classical approach of theodicy, the study of evil in a world created by a good God. The rabbi outlined the differing approaches by modern Jewish thinkers in searching for the meaning of God after Auschwitz, including Bernard Maza, Ignaz Maybaum, Emil Fackenheim, Eliezer Berkovits, Richard Rubenstein and Elie Wiesel.
"I personally search both for a new understanding of God and a way to express my covenantal relationship with God," Rabbi Klenicki said. "It is not an easy experience."
Citing his late friend Rabbi Walter Wurzburger, the noted Orthodox interfaith expert, Rabbi Klenicki added: "Religious faith involves a perpetual quest. It does not purport to offer ready-made answers to all questions.
"Faith," he said, "may even give rise to agonizing problems. What distinguishes religious faith is not so much the answers it provides as the nature of the questions it asks in various situations, especially, ‘What does God demand of us?’ "
About 75 leaders of American religious life (Christians, Muslims, Jews, Unitarians, Buddhists and Hindus) met in Chicago last week to "examine what our traditions teach about the present stance of the U.S. in the world," including the Iraq war, reports Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of The Shalom Center, a Philadelphia-based interfaith project.
In the end, the "Domestic Interfaith Summit" called for the U.S. government to "draw back from the use and threat of first strike war" and bring the U.S. occupation of Iraq to a prompt end by transferring to the United Nations and other global groups "the authority to work with the Iraqi people for its own reconstruction."
"We called for local interfaith committees in communities all over America to bring together town meetings, teach-ins and similar gatherings to reflect on what kind of society we want America to become," said Rabbi Waskow, a leader in the Jewish Renewal movement.
Participants included the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches; Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Dr. Sayid Muhammad Siyeed, secretary-general of the Islamic Society of North America.