Feminist Kaleidoscope

Thursday, June 3, 2010
This is an essay, apropos of nothing, that I originally wrote for another blog. I'm reprinting it here, because more than a year after writing it I am still proud of it and still grappling with these issues. 

"It's really important to make women in our community less invisible," the chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, said at a panel discussion in D.C. in advance of the release of a prayer book with his commentary. A murmur of approval rose from the audience.

"You can see it on the first page of my siddur," he said, referring to the version of the prayer book with his commentary. He has written the first prayer in both the feminine and the masculine grammatical forms. He has included a prayer of thanksgiving for the birth of a girl. He has -- as chief rabbi--fought for aggunot [women whose husbands refuse to give them a divorce] and for strong, religiously acceptable prenuptial agreements, and for communal lay-person leadership roles.

His prayer book still has the line "Blessed are you God for you did not make me a woman." In the American version, there is no commentary on that line. The editor took it out; it was too much apologetics, not enough explanation.

The murmurs continued, and I felt deeply sad. This is what constitutes progress in the religion that I am deeply committed to and deeply believe in: ensuring women can get a divorce (and thus avoiding a lifetime barring on re-marriage that does not ever apply to men), can say prayers with the proper grammatical endings, can be born with thanks. Changes dictated by the men.

Blessed Are You God for you did not make me a woman.

I imagined tiny pieces of glass falling on me from above, my hand bleeding and cut when I try to push on that ceiling from below.

The women say, "Blessed Are You God for making me as you willed."

I am intensely jealous of the women engaging in great discussions about what it means to be a feminist in the 21st century. I look at my feminism through a kaleidoscope. My extra lens of religion seems to make articulating my feminism exponentially more difficult.

(click to read full post)

In an interview, Barnard professor and poster child for cool women in science, Janna Levin said:

If I sometimes faced outmoded attitudes, they seemed outright silly. If there were darker times when the obstacles were far more destructive than merely silly, I at least never doubted that they were wrong. So, yes, there are gender issues to deal with whether I want to or not, and there have been very tough times. But mostly I feel fortunate. And at the end of the day, instead of talking about gender, I'd rather talk about science, about writing, about writing about science or even about art. Those are the subjects I've spent my life thinking about.
On first reading this, it seemed easy to say, "yes! I totally agree! On the few occasions when I was told I couldn't do something because I am a woman, I either ignored the person or used it as an educational opportunity."

But on a second reading, I am hit with a yearning, a jealousy. I want to actually feel that way. I want to feel that I am not constantly proving myself, that I do not feel like I need to be armed with twice as much Jewish text information as my male peer if I want to win my argument, that arguing for an expanded role for women in Judaism (I'm talking equal leadership roles, public speaking, and learning opportunities. I'm not even getting into the Rabbinate) gives me the derogatory "feminist" label.

I do not resent my religion. I was lucky to be raised in a family, school, and congregation where women did have leadership roles, where I learned exactly the same thing that the boys did, where women were respected scholars, where our voices were heard. Not counting as part of a prayer quorum also does not bother me. For various reasons that's not a battle I choose to fight; I do believe that sometimes you need to swallow the bitter parts of tradition in order to partake in its strength.

I was lucky that the sheltered life I lived until I got to college taught me that I was strong, smart, and valued independent of my gender. And then I got to college. And then to real life. The biases I met ran deep.

A boy once told me he was scared of me -- that he had rarely debated someone who he thought he might lose to. And I wondered did he mean I was smart for a girl? I cursed myself for second guessing him and therefore for second guessing myself.

I insist on leading the grace after meals when there are three women in the room, and I can hear the mutters about "Barnard" as if I have caught some contagious feminist virus rather than having learned the sources that tell me I -- like the men-- have to engage in communal grace if there are three women present. Every time I do something that I believe in -- learning Talmud, making the communal blessing over bread--every time I make a decision about how I lead my life as a Jewish woman, it becomes a religious, political, and feminist statement. It's pretty exhausting.

As a woman in the secular world my feminism is about choices and about equal opportunities in practice as well as on paper. Those are assumptions that I can carry without a lot of thought. I move through the secular world assuming I can do it. I rarely worry about my gender.

As a Jew, it's much more complicated. I am still sorting out the dangerous biases from the silly. I am decades behind my secular self, and looking at through that kaleidoscope is making me dizzy.

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Written Pyramids is a blog written by a journalist living and working in Washington D.C.

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