Women in Religious Leadership

I had the marvelous opportunity Thursday night to travel up to Belmont for the second Peninsula Interfaith Dialogue sponsored by the Islamic Networks Group (ING), the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and a number of religious groups (see list below).

We met at the Yaseen Foundation, and were welcomed graciously by the community there. The early beginning of daylight savings time meant that the time for evening prayers (mahgrib) came at the beginning of the gathering. Guests were welcomed to observe the forms of the Muslim prayer, and an explanation of the ritual was provided for all.

The subject for the evening was the changing roles of women in religious traditions. Speakers included Rabbi Karen Citrin of Peninsula Temple Beth El, Dr. Jyoti Lulla, a Hindu who helps to organize the annual Gandhi Camp for youth, Berget Jelane, a Vipassana teacher, therapist, and jail chaplain, Rev. Melanie Donahoe, Episcopal priest at Transfiguration Episcopal Church in San Mateo and Ameena Jandali, Senior Product Development Manager for Islamic Networks Group.

Rabbi Citrin described how women had not been permitted to serve as leaders or teachers until 1972 in the Reform branch of Judaism. Now, some 450 women serve as Rabbis, nearly 1/4 of Reform congregations. Despite elements of the tradition that place women in a secondary role and resistance from some today, women are coming into more visible roles of leadership in all but the Orthodox branch of Judaism.

Dr. Lulla traced the history of Hinduism in India from the early years, when women were considered as able as men to be spiritual leaders. Over the years, the status of women declined until by the 19th century, their role was minimal. Since then, however, women have moved upward and have found respected roles in the professions, government, and religious leadership.

Berget Jalane related that in her own experience of Buddhism, women have been fully honored and respected. The Buddha himself, although reluctant at first, ordained his stepmother, who, it is said, brought 500 women with her. Some branches of Buddhism have become acculturated, and with the local culture, have included restrictions on the roles of women. This has not been her experience, however.

Rev. Donahoe described how women, specifically Mary Magdalene, had played a significant role during Jesus’ time and in the early church. Later in the development of the church, the role of women was closely confined, and Mary herself was tagged as a “prostitute.” In many Christian traditions it is still not possible for women to serve as priests, but in the Episcopal Church, the first women were ordained in 1974 by two retired bishops.

Ameena Jandali described a historical path similar to the Hindu with regard to the leadership role of women in Islam. The Qur’an essentially grants women equal status with men, allowing them to work, to hold property, and to inherit. As Islam spread through the world, it absorbed a number of cultural practices that do limit the lives of women. However, in the modern period, women have served as key political leaders of such Islamic countries as Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia.

Following the presentations, there was an opportunity to gather in smaller groups to talk more personally and learn from each other. Our group included Christians (Catholic and Protestant), Muslims, Jews, and a Buddhist. It was an opportunity to ask questions of one another and it was clear that many people found out things they had never understood before about the others’ traditions.

The evening concluded with each of the speakers offering a brief prayer for peace and understanding from her tradition.

Don’t miss the third (and final) session of this series, “Is There Room for Fundamentalism in Religion?” with Rev. Steven Brown (Nazarene Church), Rabbi Alan Berg, Imam Alauddin Elbakri, as well as Hindu and Buddhist representatives. Wednesday, May 9th, 7:00- 9:00 pm at New Vision United Methodist Church, Millbrae. [details]

In addition to the Islamic Networks Group (ING) and Silicon Valley Community Foundation, sponsors of the event included:Peninsula Temple Beth El, San Mateo; New Vision United Methodist Church, Millbrae; Yaseen Foundation: Muslim Community Association of the Peninsula; Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC); United Religion Initiative, San Francisco Peninsula Cooperation Circle; and Silicon Valley Conference for Community & Justice (SVCCJ).

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