Our interviewee today is Jay, who writes at Two Women Blogging. Jay, along with Nahida (whose interview is here), was part of the inspiration for this series, because I love how her religion and her sense of justice are infused in everything she says. Jay adheres to Reconstructionist Judaism, a movement originating in the United States, where she lives. Check out the Feminists of Faith tag for the rest of this series.
1. Tell us about the formation and constitution of your feminist identity, and your faith one.
There are some interesting parallels, now that I think about it. I didn’t call myself a feminist until I was 24, but I’ve always rebelled against the gender binary and the assumptions that go along with it. I began to call myself a feminist during my OB/Gyn rotation, which was also my first clinical rotation in med school. I found myself simultaneously confronted by the profound misogyny my patients were facing, and the fact that I was having a different experience than my male colleagues. It took me a long time to really feel that I was an authentic feminist – that rotation was in the summer of 1984, and I don’t think I really integrated my feminism into my politics and my worldview until the mid-90s. There are so many ways in which I don’t feel like a Real Woman that I didn’t believe I could be a Real Feminist, either.
My faith identity came later. I have always been Jewish, and identified as such, but for a long time it was a cultural identification and had more to do with family and food than with God. My religious education was shallow; I didn’t know much about Jewish history before WWII or about Jewish observance. I didn’t find the intellectual, performative services engaging at all and didn’t feel at home in synagogues that had more ruach (spirit) because I didn’t understand what was going on. In my early 30s, I found myself looking for a synagogue so I could attend High Holiday services and, simultaneously, in need of a spiritual path. I didn’t know that was what I needed – I thought I needed a place where I belonged – but as the emotional challenges of my work and my personal life became more complex, I did need something more. When I found Reconstructionist Judaism, I was immediately at home. There was lots of ruach – and no one cared that I didn’t know what to do. The prayerbooks explained everything. It was a door opening into a castle of wonders – but I didn’t feel authentic there, either. I was too uneducated, too white-bread, too intellectual, not Jewish enough, or not Jewish in the right way.
When I learned to read Torah, and realized I would have to stand up with a kippah (head covering) and tallit (prayer shawl), I went to the rabbi and said “I can’t do that”. She lead me, gently, to the understanding that many American Jews struggle with authenticity and that all of our Judiasms are authentic. It was years before I was fully comfortable in my tallit, but now I wear it without thinking about it – and I’m about to start making one for my daughter as we prepare for her bat mitzvah.
That’s Judaism. God is something different. I decided in high school that I was an atheist, and then one of my closest friends died when we were seniors. Her illness and death forced me to think about God again, and at that point I decided that if there wasn’t anything beyond our physical world, life would not be tolerable – so a cruel and unfair death led me back to God. I choose to believe because that belief gives my life order and meaning that would otherwise be lacking. God, to me, is that deep well of truth inside each of us, and the connections created when we see each other whole and with love.
2. How is your feminism tied to your faith? Perhaps aspects of your faith inspire your feminism?
My feminism and my Judaism share the underlying values of justice and equity. As Jews, we are charged to heal the world (tikkun olam) and, for me, that means confronting and challenging the kyriarchy in all its manifestations. My feminism is an act of gemlut chasidim (lovingkindness), which is a core value of Judaism. There are countless verses in the Torah commanding us to care for the weak and poor among us. That shapes my politics and my feminism.
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?
Traditional Judaism is profoundly patriarchal and misogynist, and that’s one of the reasons I wasn’t entirely comfortable with Jewish observance until I found Reconstructionist Judaism, which is not simply egalitarian but feminist – by which I mean that we are reconstructing Judaism to repair the harm done by the misogyny in the tradition. So at the moment I am blessed not to have any conflicts in my home congregation – but when I venture out into the wider Jewish world and find myself expected to worship in the women’s section, and not perform any of the Torah rituals, and not wear my tallit, I feel compromised.
There are some feminist spaces where anti-Israel political sentiment crosses the line into anti-Semitism, and that is also compromising. I can usually avoid those spaces, so I’d say I find it’s more difficult to compromise my feminism.
4. What kinds of responses to your being a feminist of faith have you received? From feminists, your faith community, or others?
I’d say the negative responses within my faith community are the same as the negative responses we see anywhere, and result from the discomfort of having one’s privilege identified.
5. What are the challenges you encounter as a feminist in your faith community and/or tradition, and vice versa?
Even in Reconstructionist Judaism, it can be challenging to voice feminist views to older and/or more traditional members. I think it’s the same kind of challenge we face everywhere – oh, it’s not that bad; that never happened to me/my wife/my daughter; I’m not sexist – my mother is the most wonderful woman in the world! The more specific challenges in Judaism consist of twisted exegesis of patriarchal practices – so it’s not that women aren’t allowed to read from the Torah/be counted in a minyan/wear tallit – it’s that we’re not required to because we’re already holy. And it’s not that woman are unclean during menstruation (despite the actual words in the Torah), it’s that we want to protect women from sex when they don’t want sex. Feh.
6. How can feminism and faith usefully work together?
By focusing on the underlying values – we all want to build a better world, and feminism and faith offer us tools to do so.