Category Archives: Feminism

Feminism* and Terminology

I’ve had this argument… well, I won’t say countless times, cause honestly, if I could remember each instance, I’m sure I could count them… I might need to reuse my hands once or twice each. So, more than a handful of times, but not countless times .It is something that keeps coming back though. The argument is regarding the term “feminism” and the ostensible problems with it.

I’m sure we’ve all heard it before. Come on, say it with me. If you believe in equality for all humans, then it should be “humanism,” not feminism. Feminism is unfairly weighted in favor of women, and thereby necessarily devalues men. You can’t call yourself a feminist unless you’re in favor of female supremacy. It’s not just idiots and MRAs who make these arguments and claims. No, men and women whom I love and respect and who are generally reasonably intelligent people have said these things to me, or in earshot of me. It’s a problem because despite the wide availability of literature that defines various flavors of feminism and outlines feminist goals, the image of feminism in the popular imagination all too often comes down to Straw Feminists.

We have to keep saying it until it makes its way into peoples’ brains: The reason it is called feminism is not because it is an ideology that seeks dominance of women. It is called feminism because even the harm caused to men and boys by the gender imbalance of our society is rooted in misogyny. The folks who eschew the term feminism because it seems to imply imbalance, and focuses on women rather than equality? What they don’t understand, is that the lack of equality, even where the advantage seems to go to women, traces back to deeply rooted hatred, mistrust, or paternalism towards women and femininity, and a generally positive view of men and masculinity.

What does this look like? Well, let’s take one of the complains leveled against feminism by MRAs… one of the ones that actually might have some basis in reality, that is. It is claimed that men are at a disadvantage when it comes to custody battles over children. This may be true, I’m not sure. But I have seen men who care for children rendered invisible by a society that doesn’t expect men to be involved in childcare. Let’s for the moment assume that it is true.

If you’ve ever seen Kramer vs. Kramer, it becomes obvious how unfair and painful are the situations that such entrenched social and legal attitudes precipitate and exacerbate, but also where the roots of these attitudes lie. Women are favored when it comes to child care and custody because child care is “women’s work.” Kramer vs. Kramer is set in a world in which men are expected to be the primary bread winners, women in the corporate sphere are still a rarity, and the roles of parents are strictly dictated by social and gender norms. Of course Dustin Hoffman is going to have a harder time taking care of his kid, if he can’t get off from work to pick him up if he is sick. This is not a problem that is in any way exclusive to men, but it is certainly exacerbated by the fact that the corporate sphere in which he works is one built upon deeply entrenched and rigid notions of masculinity.

Kramer vs. Kramer, of course, was made in 1979. It is both sickening and heartening to watch this film, in the same way that it is both sickening and heartening to watch Mad Men. We can see how far we have come, and we can see where attitudes have not changed much or at all. We can also see, more importantly I think, from whence come the attitudes that are now more subtly expressed in our society, and the elements that have flowed with the progress of feminist influence on society, and the elements that remain stubbornly tethered to the androcentrism of the past. Men are not expected to be able to take care of children as well as women are not because women are seen as superior, or more deserving, but because we still cling to the idea that a woman’s place is in the home raising children, not indulging in career goals… while a man’s most valued role takes place out of the home, having a career, building an identity and a reputation in the world, while his family responsibility is primarily to provide for their material needs, and maybe see his children for a few minutes when he comes home from work before they go to bed. A man’s role traditionally is not defined by family the way a woman’s role traditionally is. A wife and family for men is supposed to be an acquisition, like a house or a car. For a woman, the family is supposed to be the meaning of her life and the source of her identity.

This is obviously not how we are expected to live today, at least not in the absolutist way of the past. Women have more choices, workplaces are slowly becoming more friendly to women, to people of color, to people with disabilities, to people of various sexual and gender orientations. Slowly. More slowly for some groups than for others, and more slowly in some geographic regions than others. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on where you stand, not every segment of society moves at the same pace, and the attitudes about gender remain entrenched in certain areas in ways that do harm both to men and to women. However, it is unquestionably an attitude that sees men as independent entities and women as tethered to housekeeping, men as strong and women as weak, men as intelligent, logical, and rational, and women as light-headed, emotional, and irrational, Men as stoic and women as hysterical, that is the genesis of the vast majority, if not the entirety, of gender inequality, regardless of whom it is seen to “favor.”

The term feminism will not be outdated until these deeply rooted attitudes change. Like with institutional racism, you can’t just say “Everyone should be equal” and ignore what lies underneath the current state of inequality, historically, societally, and anthropologically.

* It is important to note that there are more than a few problems within the disparate groups that make up what is understood to be the “feminist movement.” Institutional racism and the resultant silencing of women of color within the feminist world, “rad-fems” who reject trans women as fellow women, separatists (though they are rare these days), etc. all really exist, and are really a problem. While I identify as a feminist because I believe that the term is not and should not be defined by those elements that ruin it for the rest of us, I acknowledge that not everyone who I would understand as a feminist can associate with the term. I do not feel that it is my place to identify personally as a womanist, being a white woman, but I strive to be a womanist ally, as I understand it as part of my feminism, and my duty as a human being striving for general decency to ally with those who are marginalized.

Matriarchs in Liturgical Setting

I don’t add Imahot when I daven the Amida.

Okay, so, there’s terminology. My guess is that the vast majority of people who might read this will know already what all of those words mean. But, I guess the nice/kind/polite thing to do would be to try to notice define terms that may be jargony and opaque to folks not in the know. I’m not going to be able to do that with everything. But meantime, here it is, fast and sloppy.

Imahot means Matriarchs in Hebrew. Daven means “pray” in Yiddish. The Amida is the central prayer in Jewish liturgy. It is basically fixed in content, though there are variations for different days, but the first section is always the text that invokes the Patriarchs, or Avot in Hebrew (Abraham Isaac and Jacob) and their relationship(s)/covenant(s) with God. In the past few decades there has been a move in some communities to include the names of the Matriarchs in this section as well. What names are those? We’ll get to that.*

In my mind, in the liturgical and scriptural narrative, the relationship between the Avot and God represents something (or some things) specific and archetypical, like for instance in a Joseph Campbell sort of way, and that those symbolic relationships mean something in the context of this specific prayer.

What exactly are those archetypical roles? I won’t pretend that I can answer that question in any definite way. There are multiple possible  answers. One way to look at it is through a Kabbalistic lens wherein each patriarch represents a specific attribute. Another is to connect them with the mythical establishment of the three daily prayer times, and draw meaning from that, and the Midrashic narrative context given for those events. Another is to glean from the narrative itself what they represent: The Covenantal Partner, The Sacrifice, and The Conduit; The Originator, The Progeny, and The Disseminator; The Innovator, The Acceptor, The Wrestler; Three stages of life, Three stages of faith, Three stages or forms of relationship in various respects. I think that there is probably real power in that particular grouping.

My feeling is that perhaps, instead of inserting the Imahot into the beginning of the Amida, the relationship between God and the Imahot can and should be invoked for other liturgical contexts based on their own various narrative and archetypical roles.  I struggle with that though because it still puts women in one category and men in another which may or may not be harmful to the communal psyche.

Things get really difficult for me here. The fact of the whole tradition being patriarchal is something that really breaks my brain about my Judaism sometimes. That is a deeper element of my reluctance to add the Imahot to the Amida specifically: It doesn’t fix or change everything that underlies the development of the liturgy and the texts and the laws and everything else upon which Judaism is built. That makes me sad, and angry, and scared, because as Jewish women, no matter what we do, we are only building on top of a system that doesn’t see us, at least not as active participants.

I posted about this on Facebook and elicited some wonderful insights and perspectives from some very wise friends. These two appeared one after the other:

My kavanah in the first paragraph of the amidah is in essence to be able to approach the divine not just as myself but as the child of those who have tried this before. I can’t say that my father has more weight in this than my mother; I can’t say that being a child of the avot is more important to my ability to approach God than being a child of the imahot. I have never said an amidah without them — this is how I learned it as a five year old by heart. I’ve kept it to just Sarah Rivkah Rachel and Leah (though I’d be inclined to include others) to be an inheritor of the praying tradition of Jewish women who have invoked these four for generations in tehinot and other liturgies.

 

I don’t say imahot.. As an observant Jew, the way tradition regarded women in the past can’t be fixed post facto and adding some names to the amida doesn’t make up for the absence of women’s names throughout most of Jewish history. So just as with the rest of my engagement with traditional Judaism, i have to come to terms with these facts of history, I see amida as a representative of the many places where women’s potential contributions to the development of my tradition are lacking.

 

I relate very strongly to the techinas idea, mentioned in the first of the two above quotes. Techines, or techinot, are supplicatory prayers, and there has been a long tradition of women’s using and innovating supplications in their vernacular. These supplications often invoked the Imahot and related specifically to the real concerns of women in their day-to-day lives. The women of the Bible became, in a sense, the spiritual patronesses of the women in their eras… they shared their struggles as women, issues of family, fertility, illness, death, poverty, purity, nutrition, the messy stuff of life that falls on the shoulders of the keeper of the home. We are most of us no longer limited to “women’s realms,” but that doesn’t mean that those realms should be dismissed, or denigrated, or erased. Being a fully participating Jew should not have to mean becoming like a man, and what we think of as “real Judaism” should not be limited to the historical liturgical and ritual realms of men.

The invocation of Imahot in other contexts, contexts to which the Imahot are particularly narratively relevant, innovating new liturgy for the invocation of the prophetesses, who transgressed and transcended their traditional roles as women, makes more sense to me than trying to shove the Imahot into the androcentric liturgy, placed alongside the Avot, in a position that the Imahot themselves would not have understood given their context. This is where I relate to the second quote: we should not erase or gloss over where our mothers were to lend legitimacy to where we are and/or want to be. It is not that I want women to remain separate from men, and women’s stuff to be separated from men’s stuff forever. I certainly don’t want that which is normative to be equivalent to that which is male. But the men have a head start and an unfair home field advantage, as it were. Every time we add something on top of the existing system it feels artificial, not because it’s dumb or inauthentic, but because it is sitting on top of a system that actively looks up at it and says “What the hell are you?”

Lest you jump on me for denigrating the work done by feminists and allies to bring women into the androcentric world that we understand to be the “mainstream,” I don’t think that the work being done by egalitarian activists doesn’t, or won’t make real progress. At least, depending on what is meant by “real progress.” We already have made progress in that we’ve gotten women involved actively in the public mechanics of Judaism, which allows these ideas to even occur to us, and for these conversations to happen in the first place. However, I do think that too much of the cosmetic sort of change gives a sort of permission to not dig deeper, to not address the more core issues facing us as moderns, as feminists in a religion that developed over millennia from the active purging of the feminine divine, and asking hard questions about what we really mean when we say God, Judaism, Feminism, and what we actually believe, deep in the scary places of our faith and practice.

*Who are the Matriarchs and in what order will have to be another entry for another time. There is plenty to say on that topic.

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Separation of “Church” and Self

While I’m working on this stuff, I may as well repost some of my work from before/elsewhere.

This post originally appeared in The New Gay on August 16, 2011

*****

“Gella, I have a question, but it’s probably too big a question for right now, so maybe I shouldn’t bother asking.”

“Well, ask anyway, and maybe I’ll answer later.”

“Why do you think that Judaism is a good place to express your feminism and your queerness?”

You know those questions that just kind of smack you in the face? Not because they make you realize something about the way that you think, but because they make you realize something about the ways other people don’t think. It took a moment to sink in that my friend saw these three categories — Judaism, feminism, and queerness — as separate and independent entities, and believed that my combining them was a chosen path, one I could just as easily eschew.

I answered in that moment in the simplest terms I could: my Judaism, my queerness, my feminism, they are not discrete from one another. I cannot separate the part of me that is queer from the part of me that is Jewish, or separate the part of me that is feminist from either of these. All three of these things encompass the entirety of my being, and therefore must be integrated.

It has been bothering me though. This question, thinking about it, makes me tired. It reminds me, despite the advances of the past few decades, of how little has actually been accomplished. How can someone, even a heterosexual man, not understand that feminism is not a whim; that it is essential? That queerness is not just in my left foot, it is who I am? That Judaism isn’t just what I study in school or what I do in synagogue, but is the medium through which I see and understand my world and my life?

Perhaps I should have asked in response, “Why is it that you think Judaism is a good place to express your heterosexuality?” Of course, there is a simple answer to this question: because Judaism has developed in such a way to anticipate the lives of heterosexual people, especially of heterosexual men. Why do you think that Judaism is a good place to express your European heritage, as you do every time you use a Yiddish word or pronunciation, or pray in the forms that have come to us through Eastern European Jewry, as distinct from Middle Eastern or Spanish? Because mainstream American Judaism is rooted primarily in the culture of the European Jews who, because of their numbers and sometimes affluence, became the dominant voice in the religious expression of American Jews. But a Jew of Moroccan or Algerian or Ethiopian descent will express their own distinct heritage through their Judaism. One may as well ask why they think Judaism is a good place to express their cultural identity through differing customs, distinct forms of prayer, unique rituals.

Again though, despite the hardships of being a minority within Judaism, these categories of Jews still have a Jewish history, a story of ritual development, a narrative for how their Judaism shaped to their culture and vice versa. For queer and feminist Jews, we have no such advantage. At least, not yet.

The development of queer and feminist Jewish culture began only very recently in the grand scheme of things. From the ordination of the first female rabbi of the Reform Movement in 1972, to the Queer Jewish wedding ceremonies I witnessed a few weeks ago outside the New York City Clerk’s office, to the still emerging body of liturgy developing to meet the ritual needs of those who experience the lifecycle event of a gender transition, the whole of self-identified queer and feminist Jewish religious expression has only been in existence for about 40 years. And yet, when one of my professors wondered aloud why his class on Jewish Feminism had been under-enrolled and therefore cancelled, we heard a woman respond, to our amazement, “Well, that problem’s been solved, hasn’t it? I mean, there are female rabbis!”

The development of the heteronormative model of Judaism has been underway for over 3000 years, and is still developing. Yet there are people who believe that two score years of development of feminist Judaism has been sufficient to declare the problem “solved.” It’s like being told “But, we installed women’s bathrooms! How can you still claim that there is sexism at The Seminary?” Even more so, the development of queer Judaism suffers a dearth of development and attention. As much as “classical Judaism” has diminished women’s visibility, at least throughout Jewish history, it has been acknowledged (even if grudgingly) that women do in fact exist, and are an essential part of a Jewish society. Non-heterosexuality on the other hand, while acknowledged through condemnation or else vaguely alluded to, has been persistently hidden and swept under the rug.

Religions develop in response to peoples and their lives. We as a species have a need for ritual to process the reality of our lives, to acknowledge moments of change, to order our experience into a coherent picture. Unfortunately, religions can also be hijacked. Even a religion whose core prophetic principles are to address the needs of the weak and underrepresented individuals of the society, can make itself oblivious to certain elements of a population that those in control wish not to see. Judaism as a religion has only just begun to open its eyes to the existence of a woman accustomed to freedom and equality, and to the existence of non-heterosexual and non-gender-normative individuals who will no longer stand for invisibility, will no longer take condemnation for granted.

Religion is not a place where we may or may not express elements of our selves and our lives, religion IS the expression of ourselves and our lives. It is a communal expression of who we are – as members of that religion, and as people. I am a person who is a woman and who is queer. I am a Jew. My religion must respond to who I am, to who we are, or else it has no relevance, and a religion with no relevance is dead.

And so this is my response to my friend’s question. Why should I express my feminism and queerness in my Judaism? Because a Judaism that cuts off Jews is a Judaism that hacks off its own limbs.

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