Mahara”ts and Mourchidates

Although I am the lone female voice writing for morethodoxy right now, I do not intend to share thoughts on issues relating solely to women.  However, as the lone female voice writing for morethodoxy right now, I will trust readers not to pigeonhole me when I write about women (“Oh, there she goes again, writing about women.  Must be because she’s a woman…”).  I will choose my topics knowing that whatever affects women, affects us all.

First I would like to thank Rabbi Kanefsy for his post yesterday in support of my rabbinic role and my position at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.  I too wanted to add some insight, but seen through a most unlikely lens.

Two weeks ago, the day after an attempted terrorist attack on two Riverdale synagogues was averted, and 4 Muslim men were arrested, I found myself sitting on a panel with three Muslim women.  The panel, organized by American Jewish Committee, was titled “Women’s Spiritual Voices: Crossing Continents, Finding Common Ground– Exploring the roles of women religious leaders in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.”

On the panel was myself (an Orthodox women functioning as a rabbi), three Muslim women in the position of spiritual leadership in Morocco, and a female Episcopalian priest.  (I know, it sounds like a good opener to a joke…)

The three Muslim women, dressed in traditional Muslim garb, covered from head to toe, represented the forward thinking revolution in Morocco.  Our cultures seemed to be worlds apart.  Their dress, and interests, and mindsets were foreign to me.  And so I found myself thinking that I, dressed in my modern American clothing, with my modern sensibilities have absolutely nothing in common with these women.

I was totally wrong.

First, some background:

Not long after King Mohammed VI of Morocco ascended the throne in 1999, he challenged society with a very difficult question:

“How can society progress while women, who represent half the nation, see their rights violated as a result of injustice, violence and marginalization, notwithstanding the dignity and justice granted them by our glorious religion?”

The first step to answering this question was to reform Morocco’s family code. King Mohammed VI proposed reforms to give Moroccan women equal access to marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, and called upon leading Qur’anic scholars to ensure that the proposed reforms be in harmony with Islamic principles.  While the proposed measures initially met with strong opposition, government leaders, civil society, and religious scholars came together to debate and closely examine the proposals—something unheard-of in the Muslim/Arab world. King Mohammed VI dispelled myths that Islam was incompatible with the protection of women’s rights, providing citations from the Qur’an to support each proposed reform.  Broad agreement was reached across Moroccan society and in 2005 all of the reforms were voted unanimously into law by Morocco’s Parliament.

The next step was even more revolutionary—the King initiated a program to officially train and certify a select group women every year to be mourchidates, (pronounced: mor’shi’dats) or female religious counselors, to serve alongside imams, or traditional male religious leaders in Islam.  In 2006, the first 50 were chosen from a pool of more than 1,000 applicants to participate in an intensive year-long training program. They were then assigned to mosques and communities across Morocco to provide spiritual instruction, guidance and support, particularly to women, teens, and children.

Mahara”t.  Mourchidates.  This all sounded too familiar to me.  And in many ways, the experience of these three women have been very similar to my own.  One of the mourchidates, Ilham Chafik, said (through a translator) that her educational and career journey felt lacking until she discovered a place to fulfill her spiritual calling of ministering to others in her community. I too always felt that serving in the clergy was my calling, and the fact that when I began my studies, the option was not open to me, did not stop me form pursuing my dream.

A second similarity is that the mourchidates can perform all of the tasks and functions as imams, except lead Friday sermons and prayers. When asked if they would like to lead services, the mourchidates just shrugged, and explained that since the Qur’an does not allow women to lead prayer, they have no desire to break from tradition in this way.  I was struck by the fact that their very job is to push the envelope, and yet they recognize the limits that their tradition imposes. 

I find myself telling people that I function completely as a rabbi with the exception of a few public rituals—such as leading services. (I do of course give sermons). And, if I were asked the same question—if I would like to lead services, and count in a minyan, I think I might find myself saying something similar.  With a shrug, I resign myself to the stark fact that our tradition, as rich and flexible as it can sometimes be, still has its limitations—the cement ceiling, if you will.  And at this stage in my life, I can’t help but respect those limitations. 

I am sensitive to the fact that there are women, perhaps more musically inclined than I am, who would and do garner tremendous spiritual growth from the ability to lead tefila.  And I can see advocating for this evolution in main shuls, within the confines of halakha, when the time is right

Yet another similarity: the politics of a title.  The mourchidates are not called imams, although they perform many of the religious duties at the side of the imams.  The word “Mourchid” is actually found in the Qur’an, and means artisan.  The title was adopted and feminised, and now connotes a female spiritual leader.  I function as a rabbi, without being called “rabbi.” Mahara”t is a “newly discovered” word, and is an acronym for Manhiga, Hilchatit, Ruchanit, Toranit.  Whether the larger Orthodox community accepts my role and will associate the title “Mahara”t” with “rabbi” only time can tell.  In the mean time, like my sister Muslim Mourchidates, I spend my days engaged in spiritual pursuits, focusing not on what I cannot do, but on all that I can do to serve and build up my community and our people..

4 Responses to Mahara”ts and Mourchidates

  1. Asher Lopatin says:

    Fascinating! This post is relevant also because of President Obama’s address to the Muslim world. He should have mentioned Mourchidates! Maharat Sara, I plan to write further comments in a quick blog today.

    Kol tuv,


  2. Asher Lopatin says:

    By the way, there are opinions in the Muslim world, that a woman can lead services at home, but not in a Mosque – this is similar to the idea of “k’vod hatzibur” perhaps applying on in a shul and not in a hall, etc. I am trying to get an article published called The Synagogue Becomes a Home, which maybe can work for Islam to allow for more women’s participation.

    Asher Lopatin

  3. Abdul-Malik Ryan says:

    Rabbi Lopatin,

    I came across the audio lecture you gave on that topic somewhere on the net a while back at a conference…it was interesting.

    With regard to women leading prayer in Islam, there are two issues: one might be an issue of public/private distinction but the more pressing is one of gender, which is to say, it is largely allowed (although it is not necessarily recommended by all scholars) for a woman to lead other women in prayer. (Talking about the daily prayers — a woman only Jumu’ah prayer would seem bizarre.

    There is perhaps a minority view (although it is a view in an extreme minority that has not historically been acted upon) that a woman could lead members of her household in prayer even if that household may have included a male. This is a minority view and it is based on one possible interpretation of a hadith, but as I said, it was not acted upon in Islamic history.

    My main point here (although I’m resisting a temptation to go into a longer discussion re: the denominations in Judaism and how not having such formal divisions in Islam changes the nature of such discussions which I really would like to have with you sometime) is that if the congregation includes unrelated men it could never be considered ‘a home’ in the Islamic Shari’ah perspective in the way I understand you to be suggesting.

    Wa Allaahu Alim.

    • Asher Lopatin says:

      Imam Ryan,

      You may be referring to an article I’ve been trying forever to publish: Synagogue becomes a Home. Once it’s published and accepted, then I will push for “Mosque becomes a Home”!

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