Female religious leaders push against tradition for equality

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer


The presence of various leaders from the three Abrahamic religions inspires a lot of “rabbi, priest and minister” jokes. They walk into bars, play golf, share meals and get into car accidents together.

And though Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the Rev. Mary Ramerman and Amina Wadud, an imam, will convene at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, it won’t be to crack jokes.

The reason for their lecture is that women within all three religions are facing similar instances of inequality, both overt and subtle. In November 2010, Moment Magazine published a story titled “Do 1 Rabba, 2 Rabbis and 1 Yeshiva = A New Denomination?” The story features Hurwitz, the first woman to become ordained in American Orthodox Judaism as a Rabba.


As a result, the magazine’s editor and publisher, Nadine Epstein, worked with Chautauqua’s Department of Religion to bring the three women to Chautauqua for their panel lecture, “Jewish, Christian and Muslim Women Seeking Clergy Equality.”

“I really believe that women bring a very unique perspective, and it’s very different from male clergy in that religion loses when women are not included,” Epstein said.

“Women bring a new perspective, knowledge and understanding in the world and a way of dealing with conflict (and) people that we’re missing,” Epstein said. “We don’t have enough of it.”

All three of the women bring different experiences to similar situations, and the goal is the women can learn from each other but can also teach and learn from the audience.


“I’ll get to hear how they handled that, and also how we deal with that from a faith perspective,” Ramerman said. “Sometimes our religions can support that kind of discrimination, like in the Catholic church. So that’s why it’s so important for me to be a priest, because … it’s very important that churches give the message that women and men are both created in the image of God.”

In 2008, Ramerman and others from her church left and formed the Spiritus Christi Church in Rochester, N.Y. Ramerman left her job at a Roman Catholic church when the Vatican started to weed out churches where women held prominent roles. When asked to either take a lesser role or step down, Ramerman made a confident decision.

“I could no longer be near the altar. I couldn’t preach anymore. I couldn’t be in front,” Ramerman said. “I said then, and I still feel the same way, that, that would be very bad for the congregation … and for the women of the church to see their pastoral leader not being able to be anywhere near the altar.”


After establishing the 1,500-member Spiritus Christi Church, Ramerman became ordained in 2011 and has been serving as a reverend since.

Hurwitz, the Rabba at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York, faced similar challenges that arose from a religion stuck in tradition.

“We’re up against thousands of years of tradition of the sort of role that women should not play in the Orthodox community,” Hurwitz said. “But I think that when we get … beyond that initial reaction, then I think we find that the community is really open.”

In Catholicism, people seem open to the idea of women in leadership roles, even if it does take time for them to warm up to the idea.

“In my experience, it takes people about 10 minutes to get used to the fact that it’s a woman, not a man, doing it,” Ramerman said. “So I always know that it’s going to be okay, but the first 10 minutes can be kind of awkward.”

There is backlash to the increasing role of women in religion, though. A columnist for Moment Magazine wrote about his fear that Judaism is becoming too feminized, Ramerman said.

“So here we are in this area where women haven’t even yet achieved equality and we have a liberal, outspoken columnist who is feeling uncomfortable … women have changed the conversation, and women have changed some of the rituals,” Epstein said. “Women have created a different feeling.”

Although solutions are numerous and differ among religions and communities, the first step toward equality is clear. Epstein, Hurwitz and Ramerman all referenced a sort of grassroots approach.

“Once women are serving a community, once women are out on the ground teaching and having a pastoral presence, people are open to the possibility to see what women can contribute and bring to the community,” Hurwitz said.