Faith & Feminism: On Joy, Identity and Patriarchy

This provocative and brave guest post from Anna Batler continues our Faith & Feminism series. See Anna’s full bio after the jump, and be in touch with Courtney_at_feministing.com if you’d like to contribute a future column.

While studying at an Orthodox Jewish women’s seminary in Israel, I attended a series of lectures by prominent Orthodox women with impressive careers.  One speaker in particular was an accomplished senior partner at a prominent Wall Street law firm. In the early seventies, she was the second woman to make partner in any law firm of such caliber. She worked without end–communicating with her children by writing them post cards and leaving them on the kitchen table. She discussed the isolation of being the only woman partner and the prejudices she faced while climbing the ranks. After the lecture, I went up to her and I asked what she thought about the prohibition on women becoming Rabbis in Orthodox Judaism. Her answer:  why would a woman want to spend so many years studying the ins and outs of religious law? Men are better equipped for this work. I was floored to hear this response coming from a tax attorney.

What would this woman say about the intersectionality of feminism and religion?

That summer I stopped identifying as an Orthodox Jew. I had become like the tax attorney, comfortable with patriarchal control over my religious world, while denouncing gender injustice in the secular world.  I cannot sustain two radically different versions of my own identity.  I need my religious practice to reflect the best of me and the best of us–the egalitarian best.

This is the problem of the religious-secular divide.  There are many women living in this divide and leaving it wholly is rarely possible. I enter it again each time I dance at a friend’s wedding on the women’s only side of the dance floor. I dance joyfully, because my first dance, my bat mitzvah and my wedding all occurred on the women’s side and I was joyful in those moments. I dance before the bride and I believe that her joy is real and true, just as mine had been.  There is joy in the religious life and that joy is not dependant on ideological or theological purity.

The community of traditionally religious women is as intellectually and spiritually diverse, and as inconsistent as the rest of our communities. Women stay because they believe that real change can only happen from the inside:  a different theology to be written one life at a time. And so they stay. These women need greater access and opportunities to study their traditions. Women stay because they believe in the authority of traditional sources and spiritual authenticity of patriarchal religion. And so they stay.  And other women just want to be tax attorneys and have neither the time nor the inclination to dig deeper into these matters. And so they stay.  Women stay because these are their rich, contradictory, uncertain, joyous lives. And so they stay.

I was able to leave because I am privileged enough to live in a metropolitan area with a large Jewish population where I can join an active practicing egalitarian Jewish community. When, visiting my partner’s family, I am back on the women’s side of the divider. When my baby daughter learns to speak, she will ask me why women cannot lead equally at grandma’s “shul.” I will tell her that community, faith, life, family…it’s all very complicated. I will also tell her that grandma’s community is practicing a form of Judaism where women have fewer rights than men, where men make the rules and women follow them.  This cannot be whitewashed.

Anna Batler is a writer, a new mom and a recent graduate of the George Washington University Law School, residing in Washington, DC. She has conducted ethnographic research focusing on the lives of traditionally religious women attending Rutgers University. Anna blogs on faith, feminism and culture at sotah.net and writes a weekly feminist Torah commentary at gatherthejews.com.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    When we discuss the need for reform, each faith, I find, has trigger points. Quakers, for example, have very long fuses when it comes to fellow Friends who are disruptive during worship or the greater Meeting. This is partially because many came to the faith from religious traditions who were often unnecessarily punitive towards people who did not walk a narrow line.

    However, Friends tend to have extremely short fuses when it comes to topics like politics and activism. This lends itself to its own sort of split identity. Both are integral to the faith, but they are not proportional to each other. On mattes of theology, Quakerism, like Judaism, has splintered in several branches over the years. Evangelical Friends are very conservative. Conservative Friends are Christ-centered. Liberal unprogrammed Friends (of which I am one) are more inclined to focus upon the Inner Light of the Divine rather than adhere to a strictly Christian orientation.

    But I long ago accepted that there will be occasional contradictions or puzzling parts to what I believe. I’m a member of a faith that embraces the mystery of direct revelation to the self. I simply can’t see it any other way.

  2. Posted January 22, 2011 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Sigh.

    Women stay because they believe in the authority of traditional sources and spiritual authenticity of patriarchal religion. And so they stay. And other women just want to be tax attorneys and have neither the time nor the inclination to dig deeper into these matters. And so they stay. Women stay because these are their rich, contradictory, uncertain, joyous lives. And so they stay.

    This view is so … ridiculous. It’s ridiculous because it’s narrow and it assumes some kind of power granted by “leaving” what you consider an oppressive and ignorant version of Orthodoxy. A Wall Street success story is not synonymous with what you assume is common sense or world experience. You also demean the choice of that woman to do her Judaism in the way she chooses. Do you chastise women who choose to be stay-at-home moms because they’re oppressed by the patriarchal system that keeps them at home?

    There are a bajillion Orthodox women who own their Judaism, their learning, their place within Orthodoxy. I could point you in the direction of dozens of blogs that these women write where they are beautifully powerful through prayer, through home life, and through business. Successful but sensible. I am one of those women.

    It’s about choice, and there are women in Haredi communities that are held back because of a misunderstanding that Judaism insists on keeping women in the dark. But that is a small majority of the greater Orthodox community. Likewise, there are women are perfectly happy being the at-home learners and teachers, and that’s super.

    We’re not all as ignorant and oppressed as you make us out to be, unfortunately. And I’m sorry to burst that generalized overdone bubble.

    • Posted January 27, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

      Replying as the author of the post…

      In fact, in the very passage you reference I emphasize the “rich, contradictory, uncertain, joyous” existence of religious women. I also describe my own continues ambivalent presence in the orthodox community.

      But those poor haradi women are living in the “dark”, with their “misunderstanding of Judaism (I am sure they too have blogs where the speak to the contrary ). And I have a “ridiculous” view of orthodox women. – btw you did not reference the entire paragraph, as you may remember the first women who stay are those who believe in the possibility of an evolving non-oppressive Orthodoxy.

      It’s a very narrow perspective you have on both women to the right and to the left of you.

  3. Posted January 23, 2011 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    great article.

    (Aside from the part about being a parent) I totally relate. I tried hard to stay Orthodox, but the pressure of it increasingly not aligning with my beliefs and values got to be too strong. But it wasn’t an easy transition, and it took a while to stop missing it. Now when I go back to Orthodox communities, I know the routines, but it fits badly.

    And I’m also lucky to have found the egalitarian religious communities that you have.

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