A View from the Margins

Some years ago, not long after the close of Ramadan, the Huffington Post published a piece** about a rabbi dad at an interfaith iftar [break-the-fast celebration in the evenings, during Ramadan]. The dad described how his seven-year-old, baseball loving son experienced a spiritual awakening while watching a young, soccer-loving Muslim boy call worshippers to prayer at the iftar.

The dad’s view inspired a powerful interfaith message: “I think to myself, yes, sometimes God is great, when we find the Divine Presence in the eyes of strangers, and in the loving words of long lost cousins.”

It was a message nearly obscured for me at the time by my own experience of the same event. And my experience that same night helped inspire this new forum, “Interfaith and Gender: putting gender on the table.”

For many readers the iftar essay was a lovely story with a peace-building message at a difficult time. (It was the week of the planned Qur’an burning in Gainesville, FL, and the violent reactions abroad). But it was a long time before I could truly appreciate the message, because I was experiencing another story, one that took place at the margins of this tale.

As it happened, I was a guest at the very same iftar described in the HuffPost piece and watched many of the same events unfold. However, from my vantage point, the view was heartbreaking: While the rabbi was marveling as his son watched the little Muslim call everyone to prayer, my thoughts were on the boy’s sisters. Having lived through decades when women’s leadership was far from a reality in all Abrahamic religions, I couldn’t help thinking of all the girls, no matter how well prepared, passed over through the years for the kind of religious role the little brother was experiencing.

The imam father is famous for defending women’s rights within Islam and for promoting co-educational prayer environments. Equal space right behind the men was provided for women to participate in formal prayers. The girls ably presented English readings during the interfaith prayers. And some things may yet change in those girls’ lifetimes. Still — from my view, not that of any girls at the event – the daughters have already missed the chance for a publicly-affirming moment at the formative age of the little soccer lover.

Not every aspect of religious experience is governed by gender, of course. But I am convinced that any girl watching that scene took away something very different than did the baseball-loving Jew. And what views of men and women did both little ball players take away that night?

A New View

When my son (now and adult — and very tired of hearing about this) was very young, he asked me one day: “Do you have to be a mommy to lead [Jewish worship] services?” The question was undoubtedly motivated by the fact that I was active in our egalitarian worship community while his father, a non-Jew, was not. Nonetheless, I was bowled over by the powerful difference between his view of the world and the one I experienced at his age.

I continue to marvel at the world my son and his older sister inhabit. And they continually puzzle over how aware I remain of a gender considerations they think long gone. I meet young women considering the rabbinate who have never known a world where they were deemed constitutionally unfit for the role; I see male rabbinic students “celebrating female clergy” and acknowledging gender-specific disparities they face.

I am not yet clear on how young people raised in this alternate universe experience events in which prayer leadership is gender-determined. But I confess that I am not (yet?) adept at handling situations which toss me firmly back to the margins of religious life which I inhabited as a girl. And I know that this situation affects dialogues in which I, and others like me, participate.

I do not wish, for a moment, to diminish the rabbi dad’s spiritual and peace-making message. He writes beautifully:

I watched a second birth, the birth of a human being who seeks out what is beyond, at first through the worship practices of the fathers and the mothers, through the ceremonies of the ancients, through engaging what has come before.

And I do not want, for a moment, to detract from the imam’s peacemaking and equality-supporting messages.

I do, however, want to ask how we can work together to develop a gender-sensitive view of those “worship practices of the fathers and mothers” and find ways that allow both halves of the human race to engage them fully.

The right time?

There is a principle in interfaith relations that the most controversial issues should be avoided at the start of a new dialogue. Tackling the most sensitive issues before there is trust can be disastrous.

I personally am no expert in managing interfaith dialogues. But I do know, from first-hand experience, that it is difficult to hear from out at the margins. So, how can we work together to ensure that no one is left out there, even at the start of a dialogue?

** “Thanks to the Imam, My Little Son Got Serious About Synagogue,” Marc Gopin, 10/6/2010

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