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.