Rabbi Tully Bryks, Pope Francis and Barbara Zigmund Speak on Women’s Role and Religion
Women have been fighting for their rights in the West for over one hundred years. Beginning with the suffrage movements of the early 20th century, to the bra-burning 60s and the “equal pay for equal work” movements throughout the 70s, 80s and beyond, women have been struggling with improving their place in society. The struggle for equal rights for women has been widely acknowledged and discussd in the spheres of economics and politics, but what about the world of religion? What attitudes exist in the three major faiths represented in the United States towards the woman’s role within each religion?
No religion is monolithic, of course, and there will certainly be a large number of opinions and points-of-view when it comes to women’s role and rights. The following quotes from the representatives of Judaism, Protestantism and Catholicism will be main-stream and will avoid extremist perspectives, whether to the right or to the left.
Rabbi Tully Bryks, author of the informative website, “The Rabbi with Answers,” addresses the issue of why Jewish women are exempted from many of the commandments which men are compelled to follow. Here is part of Rabbi Bryks answer as published on his website:
“Ironically, it is precisely because Judaism holds women in such a high esteem that they are exempt from many of the commandments. Keep in mind that an exemption from time-bound commandments does not mean that women are prohibited from performing them. Rather, it just means that they are not obligated to do so. But should women choose to perform these optional commandments, they are even rewarded for them. It is sort of like a teacher who announces that students who already have a B+ average are exempt from the final, but they may still take the exam if they choose, and raise their score even higher. Girls start off with a B+. Boys, on the other hand, start off life with a circumcision, showing that they have a longer way to go to achieve that “A”. Another example of a girl’s head start is that she is ready to become a woman and accept the associated responsibilities at age 12, while a boy is not ready until age 13.”
Barbara Brown Zigmund is dean at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. In the following exerpt she addresses the question of why more women have been choosing the ministry than ever before, especially when it is a field historically dominated by men.
“People are always asking why this change has come about so quickly. Why do women choose ministry? Why would a woman today seek out a career so obviously dominated by men? Yet it makes sense. As women have moved outside the home to seek employment, the church has offered great appeal. Many women have received excellent educations. In the economy of American Protestant values, when one has a talent or a resource, it is wasteful not to use it. Women are seeking meaningful ways to use the benefits of education. Women are newly aware of their talents. Furthermore, the inflationary spiral has forced many women into the marketplace to supplement shrinking family incomes.
“Historically, women have been the backbone of American churches; their volunteer efforts have kept many mainline churches going. Consequently, when women begin looking around the society for employment outside the home, the church is very appealing. Women know the church. They know that they can carry on its ministries effectively, because they have been serving the church as volunteers for years. And when the church preaches a theology that celebrates the gifts of all people, regardless of race and sex, women feel comfortable openly seeking more direct leadership. Women who have never claimed their sense of calling are coming forward to do what they have thought about for years.
“Although women are challenging the sexist patterns of the past, most women who choose to prepare for ministry are not on a crusade. They are responding to a genuine call to service. While they are hurt and angry that the church has limited the exercise of women’s talents in the past, they are hopeful that a new era for women’s ministries is emerging.”
Who is a better representative of the point of view of Catholics than the Pope. The following is taken from an address given by Pope Francis during his weekly general audience in Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on April 3, 2013.
“In the Church, and in the journey of faith, women have had and still have a special role in opening doors to the Lord. In the Gospels, however, women have a primary, fundamental role … The evangelists simply narrate what happened: the women were the first witnesses. This tells us that God does not choose according to human criteria.”
In a different context Pope Francis related to the question of women’s role in the church. He began by admitting that he is suspicious of what he called “female machismo,” because “women have a different make-up from men”. But he then goes on to say that he wants to “investigate further the role of women in the church … The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.”