Tapping the global might of the feminine spirit

As hope wrestles fear for a grip on our imaginations, conversations with family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors circle the violent juggernaut that we feel increasingly unable to influence. What, in God's name, we ask one another with each day's headlines, can ordinary people do as our leaders plan to unleash destruction?

As the spiritual leader of a small congregation near Santa Fe, N.M., who found her calling late in life, I'm keenly aware of both my influence and my limits. But even as I feel far from the decisions that may transform my world, I see a ray of hope, a place to begin.

On Monday, I will join several hundred women religious and spiritual leaders at the United Nations in Geneva for the first Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders. This is a direct outgrowth of the 2000 UN Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, which inspired a commitment to build a network of women religious and spiritual leaders who can support UN activities aimed at eliminating conflict.

As an American rabbi, I'll go with a freshly cleansed and hopeful heart. In the Jewish tradition of Yom Kippur, I have just asked forgiveness and I have given it. I have looked deeply at myself and found ways that I can do better. I am ready, indeed eager, to act differently.

Despite grim news on war with Iraq, I pack my bags with hope. The results of such a gathering have profound potential: As nurturers, healers, and educators, women leaders of all faiths have a special role to play in bringing the universal values of religion – not the beliefs that divide us – to the fore.

While the feminine dwells in everyone, women's expression of it is distinct. Followers of women spiritual leaders say that women tend to listen better, are more empathetic, less hierarchical, and more approachable in their style.

While women of faith have for centuries worked for transformation at the grass-roots level, we've been denied or have shied away from leadership roles.

Now, our skills and attributes are desperately needed to build a more just, caring, and peaceful world. I hope what we can create in Geneva is a tent where we have gathered – first, to be honest, and second, to seek commonalities.

While there have always been representatives of the divine in feminine form, never have so many women entered the realm of religious and spiritual leadership as today. Our presence comes at a time – even before the watershed of Sept. 11 – of heightened yearning for what we offer.

That our time has come is evident by the UN's imprimatur on our gathering. Some may dismiss us, insisting terrorism heeds only military force. I am convinced we will prove them wrong.

I look back at those brave souls who resisted Nazism. In 1992, I wrote a book about a group of people who, like today's women spiritual leaders, acted independently when called to a higher service.

For my book, "Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust," I interviewed scores of ordinary people – largely non-Jews – who risked their lives to save Jews.

Women rescuers equaled men in number and in courage. Irene Opdyke slept with a Nazi officer to keep him from turning in the 18 Jews she had hidden. Marion Pritchard shot a man to save three children.

Religious and racial intolerance resulted in genocide in World War II. Since Sept. 11, such evils feel quite present.

Today, in the US, far from the usual battlegrounds of religious wars, we've learned we can't escape the global reach of hatred. Increasingly, we hear the language of religion used to divide us, to turn us into people bent on mass killing in God's name.

But women spiritual leaders are a community of courage. Among my peers, I find a similarity of experience.

Whether I sit with a native American elder, a Wiccan, or an Episcopal priest, I feel the presence of a common message and style that reminds me of historic "feminine" precedents: the quiet courage of rescuers who stood up to evil with small acts of large consequences, and the determination of women spiritual leaders to redefine faith as a bridge to peace, not fuel for war.

The ancient sages called the Bible "black fire written upon white fire." If women of different faith paths can unite through the white fire of the divine feminine, women spiritual leaders could prove to be our saving grace.

• Rabbi Malka Drucker is the author of 'White Fire: A Portrait of Women Spiritual Leaders in America' (Skylight, 2003).

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