Spiritual Women

See also: Video clip from Women in Spirituality, A Literary Salon with Rabbi Malka Drucker and Dr. Barbara Tedlock, 14 March 2006, Santa Fe, NM

White Fire: Women Spiritual Leaders, Hadassah Lunch, 20 May 2001

When I was ordained in 1998, I was hardly a pioneer–the first women rabbis were ordained in the early seventies in the Reform movement. Yet for many I am still a novelty. In the congregations I’ve served, I have been their first woman spiritual leader. Some liked the novelty because they found a woman more approachable and less hierarchical. A few left the congregations shaking their heads. Men are rabbis, not women. What does tradition mean, after all?

Conscious that gender is clearly an important issue in religious life not just for me, I began speaking to other women rabbis about their experience in the community and found their responses varied and helpful. Still, the question of whether women are making a difference when they actively enter religious life nagged at me. Are we destroying tradition or are we breathing new life through new vision?

The question led me to meet almost sixty women serving in many faith paths to hear how they understood themselves in their work. Did they, like me, wonder about what to wear when presiding, since a suit and tie was what most congregants expected? Were they called by their first names or did they adhere to their titles? What was their relationship with male colleagues? My curiosity led me to my current writing project, a manuscript called “White Fire: Women Spiritual Leaders.”

The Talmud describes the Torah, the five books of Moses, as being written “with black fire upon white fire, sealed with fire, and swathed with bands of fire.” This implies two texts, one with black fire and one with white fire. The black letters we understand as the text which begins, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” What does the white fire say? Maybe one day we will be able to read the subtle white language which surrounds the obvious black letters. In the meantime, one way to understand the Talmud’s words is to see the black fire as masculine and the white fire as feminine.

We are living in a remarkable time concerning the spirit. 95 percent of Americans believe in God, yet theirs is not necessarily the religion of their parents. Today’s God seekers want more intimate, personal religious experience than that of traditional institutions. The awesome, distant God has less appeal than the presence of the holy in day-to-day living. The face of American religion is changing and the most dramatic manifestation is that women are active participants not only as congregational members but as spiritual leaders. Perhaps this shift will begin to illuminate the hitherto muted white fire and offer us another part of God’s message to us.

Despite different beliefs, histories, and practices, women share a commonality of experience reflected in new liturgies and rituals inclusive of the feminine, therefore embracing all humanity. They offer an expanded vision of the holy, of women, and of how Americans see that which cannot be seen but experienced.

The women I chose to include had to meet the following criteria: first, they have to live in the U.S or have a following here. The reason for this is that this project is part of the National Millennium Survey, which has brought thirty writers and artists together to present work that reflects American at this time in history. Second, my women almost all represent traditional faith paths in which they either have communities or they are writing new interpretations of their respective sacred texts. Gay Block, who has photographed these women, and I have traveled throughout the country to interview leaders and, where appropriate, to attend their ritual gatherings. These women represent Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American traditions, Wikkans, Sufism and Islam, and Voodoo.

We found diversity and sisterhood among these women, who, by the way, often know each other. Some serve in denominations, such as the Methodists, who have ordained women for 100 years, others in religions such as Catholicism which do not allow women the right of priesthood. Some, such as nuns, live in traditional communities, others are reviving and creating radical new forms of faith groups. Some are media stars with a retinue of personal assistants, others work in obscurity and humility. Some are frank feminists, others bristle at the word. What they share is a passion and a calling to serve. Whatever my personal reservations, I never met a woman that I questioned her sincerity and,t o use the Talmudic metaphor, their burning desire to reveal a hidden face of God.

Not all these women are ordained. They may be writers, teachers with no liturgical function, and some simply imitate God by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. A few look after abandoned children who know no prayer except the face which shelters them.

Their disparate journeys reflect the narrative of Torah, the Five Books of Moses, and this work is organized similarly. The Torah begins with the birth of the world and ends with the Jews about to enter the unknown, promised land. Genesis ends just before the Israelites go down to Egypt; Exodus tells of their slavery and liberation; Leviticus delineates the laws a generation of slaves need to understand how to live; Numbers recounts their struggle to live the law; and Deuteronomy summarizes the Jewish journey with Moses retelling their story that they must remember if they are to survive as a people in their own land.

Our first group of women are in the chapter, Beginnings, and they are the pioneers in their respective traditions. They represent the first to be ordained or the first to break the glass steeple by leading large congregations. The next group, in the chapter called Journeys, are writing a new interpretation of their sacred texts. These women are often theologians, writers who have changed the consciousness of both male and female pulpit leaders. This book, modeled after Exodus as a time of exile and liberation, is the book most women described as their experience.

The third section, Tradition, includes the leaders who uphold the tenets of organized religion and work within the confines of the law. While they may not transgress the familiar boundaries of gender, their perspective as women still makes a difference. For example, we met a group of sequestered Carmelite nuns in Indianapolis who have edited a gender neutral, Jewish-friendly companion to the Breviary used by hundreds of thousands as an alternative prayer book. Despite objection to much of the male bias of their religion, many of these women would rather fight loudly or quietly within their faith to effect change than to leave it.

The most poignant and heroic stories can be found in the fourth section entitled Wilderness. These are the leaders who have struggled not only as women but as women of color or lesbians. Finally, the last section called Harvest, has gathered the women who have recently entered spiritual leadership and are the beneficiaries of all those who came before them. Some are newly ordained and some are in the foreground of what is called millennial religion. This is sometimes called new age, is part of the human potential movement, and borrows wisdom from many sources.

What I’ve learned from my experience as a practicing rabbi and what I’ve absorbed from these women is still in progress, but this I know. Airport bookstores abound in titles which reveal our spiritual yearnings, interests, and need. Words like soul, heart, and path jump off the covers. Find God to find yourself. If you believe in God, you’ll prosper on earth. Despite the solipsism, the quest is health, because the limitations
of the material world, including science, technology, possessions, and even relationships, have left us empty and ready to look beyond the earth.

What does being a woman have to do with it? Many of these books are by women. Even today we are vulnerable financially and socially. We are born outsiders to power. So are people of faith. In a secular, material world we have a strange obsession: to look for the elusive, hidden God and they beckon fellow travelers. Why the sudden presence of so many women in this realm may have to do with two social movements, one being the women’s movement begun in the seventies and the second is the phenomenon of women entering declining institutions such as medicine, law, religion. Minorities and women are always let in when white males find greener pastures. Whatever the reason, their presence as spiritual leaders may bring a necessary balance to our minds and hearts.

Most are not blazing successes by the usual measures. For every canon or best selling author like Marianne Williamson, there are hundreds who carefully prepare teachings and services for a handful of people. I wonder how many women we’ll never meet because they simply couldn’t continue to fight gender prejudice.

One face of God is mighty and transcendent, the other close and intimate. The risk of being a leader is to separate oneself from the people. While we met some women who played the game as well as any man and looked as elusive and distant in their robes, most didn’t hide behind title, dogma or costume. They revealed their doubts and frustrations, yet also their joy and gratitude for their work.

I invite you now to (a) of sampling of these women and I’ll tell you a little about their work. Let them push your own boundaries and allow them to take you to a new place within yourself and within your relationship to the divine. As I mentioned before, we were surprised by how many knew each other and they taught me the importance of sisterhood. They strengthen each other as women, people of faith, and in their shared experience of attempting to shift patriarchy and hierarchy as models.

While the presence of women in spiritual life may seem new, it is actually old, a return to a primordial time. Histories of matriarchies and the ancient world’s pantheon of goddesses as well as gods remind us that once upon a time the presence of the feminine as divine was normative. Perhaps the rising of the feminine in religious life today reveals a deep need to return to a world where every human being, not only one gender, reflects God’s image. A couple of years ago, I heard a little boy ask his father after leaving a service I’d led, whether men could be rabbis, too. How our children will imagine the holy when they see women as equals within our churches, mosques, and synagogues, and how that perception may change the world is the day I eagerly await.