The Woman in Judaism, Christianity & Islam
A joint retreat of Hope Flower School and Interfaith Encounter Association
August 23-24, 2007 Austrian Hospice Guest House, Old City Jerusalem
The retreat opened with welcome greetings by Mr. Ibrahim Issa, Director of the Hope Flowers School, and Dr. Yehuda Stolov, Executive Director of the Interfaith Encounter Association. They welcomed participants, shared some background about their respective organizations and portrayed the ground rules for the retreat.
Then participants briefly presented themselves in the plenary and then moved to a more detailed self-presentation in small groups, presentation that included sharing with the other members of the group a story about a woman that was significant in their lives.
After a lovely dinner we started the first session, which focused on the Jewish perspective. Rabbi Bob Carroll started his presentation by stating that the Halacha (Jewish law) encourages, but do not oblige, women to be children's bearers and caretakers and therefore exempts them from certain commandments. For the believer – this is part of the divine plan and therefore a blessing and not a curse. It is possible to absorb ideas of equality but only if filtered in a way that they correspond with the Torah. This is unlike the modern approach, which allows religion only when in correspondence with its values (including equality). The actual duty to bear children is laid upon the man and in principle a woman can design a life course that does not include children. However, women are encouraged to marry and have children. Usually there is no prohibition on women if they wish to fulfill commandments of which they are exempt. In the Talmud Rabbi Eliezer said that one who teaches his daughter Torah it is as if he teaches her insipid content. But in the 20th century it was acknowledged that a situation where a woman can hold Ph.D. in Mathematics and at the same time have primary school level education in Judaism – is dangerous as it can lead to the perception that religion is for children only. Now there is prosperity of Yeshiva institutions for women.
The following discussion dealt with the possibility of different occupations for women, restrictions put on women beyond the religious requirements, women's singing, head covering.
In the following morning Dr. Taleb Al-Harithi presented the Muslim perspective. Prior to Islam the attitude towards women in Arabia – and perhaps the whole world: it was some 1500 years ago – was very negative. For example: there was a custom to burry alive baby girls. Islam strictly prohibited it and this custom stopped completely. Prophet Muhammad said that the one that treats women good will go to heaven. There were some ten cases of women who were queens in the Muslim world – in Egypt, Morocco, Andalusia, Iraq and more. There are two Suras (chapters) in the Koran dedicated to women: the Sura of Women, which is the third longest in the Koran describes the rights of women, how they should behave and how they should be treated. The other one is the Sura of Marry, who is very much respected in Islam. This is one example of how a woman can be a model for special connection to God. Other examples are the four mothers, the wives of the Prophet etc.
In the following conversation participants talked about divorce, inheritance rights, differences between Islam and tribal customs (that sometimes contradict), masculine and feminine images of God and his being beyond image and beyond gender, and more.
The Christian presentation started with Ms. Kristine Schnarr who talked about the fact that Jesus loved and respected women. In her Lutheran Church women lead the peace activities and are called to share their spiritual gifts. In some churches women can be pastors and in some not. Ms. Maria Anastasi added from her experience in the Greek-Orthodox Church that there is equality in the functions of women in worship and as part of the community but they can not be priests or enter the sacred area of the church. Also: the three most elite monasteries are such due to the fact that women can not enter them.
The following conversation went back to many of the themes already discussed – inheritance, divorce, dressing, mixed prayer etc. – with comparisons between the three faiths.
Before we went to the closing lunch we concluded in warm words, sharing the deep experience we had and the wonderful new friendships, committing to continue the process and thanking each other for their contributions to the success of the retreat.
(*** We are most grateful to the Austrian Hospice for their extraordinary hospitality!!)
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