This interview is with my dear friend Emily Manuel, who is the editor at Global Comment. A scholar, she’s always had a lot to say about theology, and we’ve been having the most wonderful conversations as long as I’ve known her. Emily has recently made the plunge into the conversion process for the Reform branch of Judaism. So, with my congratulations, here I present her answers to the Feminists of Faith questions. You can check out the rest of this series, and its purposes, through the Feminists of Faith tag.
1. Tell us about the formation and constitution of your feminist identity, and your faith one.
I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember, really. I was very aware of the ways in which women are materially and symbolically devalued from a young age and that knowledge spurred feminist commitments.
My faith, on the other hand, has been a much longer, more complicated road. I was raised in a pretty fringey form of Protestant Christianity, which didn’t have a lot of space for women’s participation and denied the very existence of LGBT people. It didn’t work for me in any way whatsoever, so I lost my childhood faith and left it in my teens.
Then I went to university and did my degrees in Literature and learned about textual analysis, historical materialism, all that good stuff, and then moved onto academic writing on the religious elements in literature and media in my postgrad years. Religion remained a pressing concern, but it was mostly critical, distant from me. Over the past couple years however, I’ve moved towards Judaism, started reading Torah regularly as well as much rabbinical commentary and recently theology as I could. This year I began converting to Judaism so it’s still quite new to me. As I offer my opinions here, I’m sort of painfully aware how much of the tradition I don’t know, as well as the diversity of opinion among Jews. But it’s exciting.
2. How is your feminism tied to your faith? Perhaps aspects of your faith inspire your feminism?
Aspects of my faith definitely inspire my feminism. There’s a strong current within Judaism that demands social justice, that suggests we have an infinite responsibility to one another. Kyriarchical capitalism does such tremendous damage to us and the world we live in, and so the Jewish idea of tikkun o’lam, repairing the world, is really powerful for me in motivating activism.
3. Have you experienced conflicts between your faith and your feminism? Have you had to make compromises? If so, from where did the pressure come, and was one aspect more difficult to compromise on than another?
I sometimes experience a conflict in Judaism in terms of the way we’re interpollated (to use Althusser’s term) as subjects, in relation to Israel and Palestine, as well as the heteronormativity involved in the imagining of the Jewish people. I do tend to stay away from talking Israeli policy (the humanitarian aspects which I think are a feminist issue) with most people, which obviously engenders a lot of passion among Jews. As someone very new to the religion, it’s something I’m quite aware of not knowing enough about the history and politics of to talk about properly. It’s something I’m still thinking over a lot.
4. What kinds of responses to your being a feminist of faith have you received? From feminists, your faith community, or others?
Well, I’ve mostly gotten support in both communities. Reform Jews do pride themselves on being liberal, and so many people do have an explicit commitment towards gender justice. My rabbi is great on that. On the other hand, there’s still the same everyday quotidian sexism you encounter in all communities. One time I suggested we read from a women’s Torah commentary and some men were pretty hostile about that. De-centreing male perspectives on the tradition is still an on-going project, as we saw recently with the controversy around the Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englader edited New American Haggadah where women were completely absent from the text.
A lot of the feminists I know have been very positive about my conversion to Judaism, though there’s been some reticence and anger. So many people have been traumatised by the faith traditions they were raised in, including myself. There are definitely distinctly religious forms of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc – religion is a filter – but then there are distinctly atheist forms, too (as people like Melissa McEwan have written about). So I understand the hostility, but I think that any religion is just a system of thought. Anything can be used as a tool for subjugation, and most have elements that can be used for liberation, too. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily oppressive about religion qua religion, and there’s a lot of women who join me in that.
5. What are the challenges you encounter as a feminist in your faith community and/or tradition, and vice versa?
I think that the real challenge for me lays in front of me – what type of a Jewish woman do I want to be? What can I add, in my own small way? It’s less in the communities than in the responsibility itself, to be faithful to the tradition and to the call of justice. When we see grown Charedim men spitting on little girls in Israel, is that justice? Is that faith? What about our tradition has led them to that place? Are we implicated, too? There aren’t always easy answers, or easy-to-hear ones, but confronting the difficult questions of belief and practice is what gives our faith life. But I think Torah is strong enough to handle it.
6. How can feminism and faith usefully work together?
Well, I think at the very least we need to be able to start from a position of basic respect. Atheists shouldn’t assume that women of faith are brainwashed, and women of faith shouldn’t look at atheists as sinful, damned, in need of conversion, or whatever. This is, I should point out, more a problem of Christianity than Judaism (Jews don’t actively recruit, in fact the Talmud says a rabbi should turn a convert away three times), but it remains a problem that Jewish women have to grapple with too because of the way Christian-centric ideas of “religion” circulate. A lot of the time when people say “religion” they really mean “Christianity.” Like when the Catholic bishops talked about the war on religion with the contraception debate – well, actually, no, it’s not a war on my religion. In cases like that, atheist feminists could amplify the voices of feminists of faith in making the argument that conservative versions of Christianity do not stand in for the whole of religious experience and practice, and that actually a lot of the way conservative Christians seek to conflate their church with the American state in fact tramples all over the rights of other faiths as well as atheists. The cultural heritage of the Abrahamic faiths is too precious to leave to the most extreme, poorly thought-out versions of faith in the U.S.