Gender Considerations for Dialogue Guidelines

Many communities within the Abrahamic tent exclude women from some aspects of religious life. Abrahamic dialogue, therefore, faces this issue on a regular basis. Dialogue may, in fact, precipitate experiences of exclusion to which some participants are unaccustomed. Leonard Swidler’s popular set of guidelines, “The Dialogue Decalogue,” suggest some avenues for exploring the interaction of gender with inter-religious dialogue and for addressing issues of exclusion.

Dialogue Between Equals
Views From Within
Conclusion with Proposal


Recognizing Oneself

Swidler’s “Fifth Commandment” says that “each participant must define himself,” adding: “Conversely–the one interpreted must be able to recognize herself in the interpretation.”

Women and men often live very different religious lives and must be offered opportunities to define themselves and recognize themselves in dialogue. Where gender-segregation in worship and other aspects of communal life is the norm, it is important to recognize gender-based religious sub-communities. In such cases, men and women participating in inter-religious dialogue with other faith communities may need to engage in some degree of “inter-religious” dialogue across gender divides in their own community as well.

An example: In some Jewish communities, the ritual bath [mikvah] and observances at the new moon [rosh chodesh] play key roles in the spiritual lives of many women, individually and communally. In addition, many Jewish women regularly recite psalms for a list of individuals, loved ones and strangers, in need of healing or rescue and connect with one another around this practice. Men might find meaning in mikvah, rosh chodesh and/or reciting psalms, but these would not likely be defining elements for a male Jew. Therefore, an inter-religious dialogue focusing on “the (male) essentials” of Judaism might never mention practices which are defining for some women.

  • Thus, without careful attention to gender, some participants might never recognize themselves in the dialogue’s portrait of “Jew.” On the other hand, a woman who prepares for daily prayers with a prayer-shawl and tefillin (ritual items used only by men in some communities) and defines herself in terms of contributions to the local minyan [prayer quorum] would not recognize herself in a gender-specific portrait of a Jew.
  • Are men and women, especially those from communities with strong gender divides, both given opportunities to define their own experience?
    When a woman does not recognize herself in an interpretation of her faith, is her experience understood as variant or even aberrant? or accepted as an equally valid experience of that faith?
  • When a man does not recognize himself in an interpretation of his faith, is his experience adopted as traditional or more correct? or accepted as an equally valid experience of that faith?

How can inter-religious dialogue ensure that both men and women have an opportunity to define and recognize themselves? top

Between Equals

Swidler’s “Seventh Commandment” states that “dialogue can take place only between equals.” It is clear that the author had in mind that no broad religious category — Jews, Christians, etc. — should view itself as superior to another. But gendered experience complicates the challenge of meeting as equals.

An inter-religious dialogue can acknowledge gender-based differences of experience within a larger faith community, treating all as equally valid. Or it can affirm, however unwittingly, experiences from only one side of a religious gender divide.

  • Where women’s and men’s experiences differ by religious law as well as custom, are both sets of experiences presented and represented in dialogue?
  • Are men’s and women’s experiences treated as “equal”?
  • Or, is one gender’s experience deemed “alternative” and one “normative”?
  • Is the weight of gender-based discrimination, historical and contemporary, acknowledged?

How can inter-religious dialogue allow women and men to meet as equals across gender divides within and beyond our own faith communities?   

From Within

Swidler’s “Tenth Commandment” requires participants to “attempt to experience the partner’s religion or ideology ‘from within.'”

“Religion or ideology is not merely something of the head, but also of the spirit, heart, and ‘whole being,” individual and communal,” Swidler adds. He cites Raimundo Panikkar (1918-2010), a prominent Roman Catholic proponent of inter-religious dialogue: “To know what a religion says, we must understand what it says, but for this we must somehow believe what it says.”

But the view ‘from within’ can be very different for women and men. And this raises a number of issues for dialogue.

An example: Not too long ago, I helped organize an inter-denominational Jewish worship service, led by women. The service was in solidarity with Women of the Wall, an organization dedicated to women’s prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. To accomplish such an undertaking requires dialogue across communities with different practices and beliefs; of primary concern in this case were women’s leadership and counting of women for a prayer quorum.

After much discussion about inclusivity and equality, a planning group chose to adopt a version of the “women’s prayer” structure used by Women of the Wall. This allowed orthodox women to participate but involved conducting the service — contrary to practice of many involved — as though there were no minyan present. This meant asking women who ordinarily participate in services without gender-based restrictions to agree, for the purposes of this service, that they “do not count” and, therefore, would not constitute a minyan. It also meant asking men involved, regardless of their regular practice, to adopt the “non-counting” of women and related limitations on the worship service.

The decision and the reasons for it were included in advance publicity and in handouts and announcements on the day of the service. As the service unfolded, however, several women raised the possibility of following their own community’s practice for determining a minyan so they could recite kaddish, the prayer honoring the dead. During the brief discussion about how to proceed, one woman angrily protested that the service was being conducted “based on a fiction anyway”….

Most of the participants in this service later reported that they found the worship instructive as well as spiritually enriching. Even so, many egalitarian Jews said they experienced difficulty bringing themselves into a world where women were not counted…even temporarily and for a cause they supported. Meanwhile, some Orthodox Jews had trouble understanding why the “ordinary” practice of a women’s prayer group involved so much angst.

  • When approaching a gender-determined religion, how might someone committed to egalitarianism “believe what it says”? Is an egalitarian view optional for men? for women? 
  • When approaching an egalitarian religion, how might someone committed to gender-determining legal views “believe what it says”? Can full partnership between women and men be come and go?
  • What are the implications for a person’s ‘whole being’ in being asked to make this kind of shift?
  • Can a woman kept apart from worship action — in a women’s gallery or separate room — ever get ‘within’ the faith experience of dialogue brothers?
  • Can a man — kept away women’s prayer groups and worship spaces — ever get ‘within’ the faith experience of dialogue sisters?

How are egalitarian and gender-determined religious views explored through inter-religious dialogue? When these principle come into conflict, how is that addressed?      top

To explore the question just raised, consider for a moment “A Modest Beginning,” published by Esther Ticktin in 1973:

The social reality I speak of is the existence of a significant number of new Jewish women: women who have not been socialized to accept the traditional exclusion of women from full and equal participation in the spiritual and intellectual life of Judaism. These new Jewish women now feel like strangers in the house of Israel and are begging, asking, demanding or screaming (depending on their temperament and tolerance for injustice) not to be shunted off behind a mehitza (partition), to be counted as equals in minyan [prayer quorum], to be called up to the Torah, to be allowed and trained to lead the congregation as slichei tzibur [“messengers of the community”]…

“…The excluded are not, after all, the unknown and unknowing strangers; they are your mothers, sisters, wives and daughters whose eyes have been opened and who now know that they have been kept out…”

Ticktin argues that the injunction against oppressing a stranger prohibits excluding women from equal participation in religious life. Moreover, she explains, Jewish law forbids benefiting from another’s exclusion.

Back in 1973, Ticktin asked men to consider the effect of exclusion on their sisters and advocated for viewing egalitarian practices as more essential than custom, “based more or less on the prevailing mores of the non-Jewish world.” Instead, she said, egalitarian principles must have the weight of law. 

The article concludes with a proposal that the Jewish community “move in the direction of making [these new laws] binding on ourselves.” Nearly four decades later, the Jewish community has made substantial strides in this direction but has yet to meet this challenge entirely. 

“Partnership” practices have evolved in the Jewish community in recent years to allow women more leadership opportunities; a small number of orthodox women have been ordained with titles approaching that of “rabbi.” Women are still excluded from central roles in most Orthodox Jewish worship, however. Similarly, Muslim women are largely excluded from worship leadership as are some Christian women. Consequently, Abrahamic dialogue today still faces, and sometimes precipitates, the “stranger” experience Ticktin describes in “A Modest Beginning.”

Therefore, Abrahamic partnerships may need to consider proposals similar to those Ticktin made in 1973. top

Proposed guidelines for Abrahamic dialogue (based on the 1973 “A Modest Beginning”):

1)  Faith communities with a commitment to gender equity must represent that as a religious principle of weight, rather than a custom easily altered for the sake of cooperation. In the spirit of Swidler’s “Seventh Commandment” — meeting “equal with equal” — neither egalitarianism nor tradition should be understood to trump the other. Both must be presented, by their practitioners, as authentic expressions of faith.

2)  Where women are excluded from aspects of a community’s religious life — from physical prayer space, from worship leadership, from scholarship and teaching opportunities, from community leadership or ordination — acknowledge that. Let women and men express the effect, from within, of any exclusion they experience and define their own experiences, from wherever their religious life is centered.

3) Where inter-religious dialogue asks participants to understand and/or temporarily adopt practices and philosophies which exclude women, acknowledge that. Let women and men express the effect any exclusion they experience.

4) Where inter-religious dialogue asks participants to understand and/or temporarily adopt practices and philosophies which give men and women unfamiliar roles, acknowledge that. Let women and men express the effect of any alteration of roles they experience.




See also Toward a Gender Aware Approach to Abrahamic Dialogue published in the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies.

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