Rabba Sara Hurwitz declared, “There’s no such thing as pluralism, if one part of the population isn’t allowed to sit at the table.”
Hurwitz was a part of Friday’s panel in the Hall of Philosophy, “Jewish, Christian and Muslim Women Seeking Clergy Equality,” which included a moderator and three clergywomen breaking down societal barriers in their pursuit of leadership and service.
Nadine Epstein moderated the panel. Epstein is the editor and publisher of Moment Magazine, originally founded by Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate.
The panel consisted of three women transcending boundaries within their Abrahamic traditions. Professor Amina Wadud led the Muslim call to prayer. Rabba Hurwitz is the first woman to be ordained by a mainstream Jewish Orthodox rabbi. The Rev. Mary Ramerman is a Catholic priest with a thriving parish, the largest Catholic congregation comprised of non-Roman Catholics.
Hurwitz is a member of the rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York. She also is the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, an organization that seeks to train women to be ordained rabbis.
Ramerman is the pastor of Spiritus Christi Church in Rochester, N.Y. Three thousand people attended her ordination, risking excommunication. Her congregation is an inclusive one.
Wadud is an Islamic scholar with a focus on gender and its presence in the Quran. In 2005, she led the Friday Muslim prayers publicly in New York City.
Epstein’s first question was for Hurwitz.
“Did you know you wanted to be a rabbi at a young age?”
No, Hurwitz said; as a woman, she understood that the option of becoming a rabbi was nonexistent. Her family raised her in a tradition of equality; they relocated from apartheid South Africa to Florida. Before Hurwitz entered Barnard College, her vocational test results demonstrated the clergy would be a good fit for her. The community life of the synagogue appealed to her; she began an internship at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale under Rabbi Avi Weiss, with whom she tested and studied for eight years before becoming a rabba. The decision garnered much criticism.
Ramerman, on the other hand, knew she wanted to be a minister by the age of 7. She received a degree in theology and took up ministerial work. The Vatican made no secret of its dislike for her involvement or the liberal attitudes of her church, especially its open offering of the Eucharist and its acceptance of gays and lesbians. In 1998, a popular priest at the parish where Ramerman worked was removed. Ramerman and others — who worked in different ministries, including prisons and with the homeless — were fired.
A strong contingent of the congregation wanted Ramerman to lead a new church. Spiritus Christi was formed in 1998. Over the course of three years, Ramerman met monthly with different spiritual authorities and congregation members, trying to determine how she could be ordained legitimately. Many ministers and Catholics outside of Roman Catholicism came to support her; three thousand people attended her ordination.
“No theory is any good if you cannot put it into practice,” Wadud said.
After years in academia, she became an activist. Progressive Muslim men in Cape Town, South Africa, invited her to lead Friday prayers. She pondered her decision for almost a decade.
“I did more research and did more soul search,” she said.
She wanted to make sure her decision to lead the prayers would be for the right reasons.
“There is very, very little precedent for it, but there is no textual restriction — that is, women are not prohibited by the sacred texts, the Quran, or even by the Prophet’s statements. Nor are men specified by the Quran or by the Prophet,” Wadud said. “Yet, the way the law was encoded 300 years after the Prophet restricted women from this position by a majority rule, and that rule has been what has been in practice. That practice continued up until the 20th century.”
Epstein referenced Monday’s lecture about the divine feminine by Sister Joan Chittister and inquired what unique qualities women in clergy can provide.
Ramerman responded with a powerful anecdote of a woman who came to a reconciliation service. The woman had been abused by a priest and felt safer giving her confession to a woman. Ramerman was able to help: She heard the woman’s confession, and the male priest gave his blessing. Afterward, dozens of women sought out Ramerman because they felt more comfortable in spiritual intimacy with a woman.
“(This) captures the essence of why we need women priests,” she said.
All three women have encountered powerful obstacles as they’ve transcended boundaries as clergy members.
Wadud described the disconnect between her belief she is doing God’s will and the community response.
“The most difficult part of the journey for me is recognizing that when you give a service to God, it does not always have to have the manifestation of this world. Nevertheless, it is this world where we are called upon to do our service to God,” she said. “Sometimes I do feel a split between the service to God and the recognition by community.”
The three women described the effects of their decisions on their families.
“In making the public statement, I did put myself and my family at risk,” Wadud said.
For that reason, she rejected media attention.
“If you are a believer in the context of your faith, and your faith has some traditions that reflect not the essence of your faith … but instead reflect the patriarchy that happens to be a part of all of our pasts and many of our presents … it is not about what you can get from it; it is also about the service that you can perform,” she said.
Ramerman said the hardest part of her transition to priest was its effect on her children, who were harassed by their fellow students and even their teachers. “It’s painful to take a stand and hurt people close to you,” she said.
Hurwitz agreed with Ramerman, recalling a time her 6-year-old son stood up to one of his friends on her behalf. She also has dealt with those who accuse her of pursuing full clergy status to make a statement or garner attention.
“What is the danger of continuing to exclude women from leadership positions?” Epstein asked.
Ramerman explained that the church’s current actions do not demonstrate imago dei, that all people are created in the image of God.
“It goes into everything we’re doing in the world,” she said, including society’s priorities and the country’s foreign policy. “It’s not just about who you’re listening to on your Sabbath day, but what happens the rest of the week after that with that message you have internalized.”
Nadine Epstein is editor and publisher of Moment, an independent Jewish publication and influential voice for diverse, often provocative ideas and opinions. She has been a journalist for nearly 30 years. Her articles, essays and op-ed pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Smithsonian, Christian Science Monitor, Ms. and other publications. She covered politics and news in the Chicago bureau of The New York Times and worked as an editor and reporter at The City News Bureau of Chicago. She has published three books, contributed to several anthology collections, and co-wrote a documentary film which was selected as a semi-finalist at the 2001 Academy Awards.
A former Kellogg Fellow for Public Service in Journalism, Epstein was also part of the Michigan Journalism Fellows program, now known as the Knight-Wallace Fellowship. The recipient of many grants, including the D.C. Commission on the Arts/National Endowment for the Arts and the Fund for Investigative Journalism, she has taught journalism at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She has a B.A. and M.A. in international affairs from University of Pennsylvania and was a University fellow in the political science doctoral program at Columbia University.
Rabba Sara Hurwitz
Rabba Sara Hurwitz is a member of the Rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx. She also serves as Dean of Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox school to confirm women as Spiritual and Halakhic leaders. Holder of a B.A. from Barnard College, Columbia University, Rabba Hurwitz graduated from Drisha's 3-year Scholars Circle Program and studied for 5 years under the supervision of Rabbi Avi Weiss. She also helped to create JOFA's Gender and Orthodoxy Curriculum Project.
Named as one of the Jewish Week's "36 under 36", Hurwitz was also chosen as a top pick in the Forward50 most influential Jewish leaders and as Newsweek's 50 most influential rabbis. She is also a Bikkurim fellow.
Rev. Mary Ramerman
The Rev. Mary Ramerman is a Catholic priest and the pastor of Spiritus Christi Church in Rochester, NY. Spiritus Christi is known for its outreaches to the poor, including a prison ministry, mental health center, recovery house, and projects in Haiti and Mexico. It is an inclusive parish that has taken a stand on ordaining women, celebrating weddings for gay and lesbian couples, and welcoming everyone to the Eucharist. Ramerman was ordained on November 17, 2001. Three thousand people attended her ordination against the threat of ex-communication by the Roman Catholic diocese. She has a masters degree in theology from St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., and over 30 years experience in ministry.
Amina Wadud is an Islamic feminist, imam, and scholar with a progressive, feminist focus on Qur'an exegesis.