Jewish Feminism: Go To Yourself!

Laura Geller, 6/17/2005

The question that I've been asked to reflect upon is, "If we are only for ourselves, what are we?" I have been asked to reflect upon it as a Jewish feminist. But it is the wrong question because feminism is about wholeness. It is about overcoming dualities, about not being locked into false choices. Feminism simply can't split Hillel's first and second questions because unless we have thought deeply about the fast question "If I'm not for myself, who will be for me?" then we can't reflect on the second.

Tonight I want to reflect on Jewish feminism and spirituality because, for me, wholeness is connected to spirituality. It's about being for myself and not only being for myself. It is about who will be for me and about who I am.

Spirituality is connected to the core of me. The self from which meaning, self and life understanding are generated. It's a nice night to talk about this. It's erev Shabbat. We can feel the feminine energy of the Sabbath Bride as she begins her transformation process into the Sabbath Queen we'll escort tomorrow night. And tomorrow is Rosh Chodesh Av, the new moon, a woman's holiday when we celebrate the cycles of rebirth in the moon. And this month we celebrate the month marked by death and rebirth, the destruction of the temple and the promise of redemption in the same month.

Tonight I speak from a religious perspective, and I know that's not a language that all of us share. But although the language we use may be different, I suspect that all of us do struggle with the same kinds of questions about meaning, about self and about life understanding.

It seems to me we can talk about Jewish feminism in two stages. The first stage was the stage we might label equal access or justice. The questions were: Can women be Rabbis? Can women be counted? Can women wear tallesim? The same kind of work was being done in secular feminism. The issues are still with us and are still unresolved issues of reproductive freedom, of lesbian and gay rights, of adequate childcare. Until they're given, until there's no possibility that they will ever be taken away, there is no possibility for wholeness for anyone.

The second stage is beginning to unfold. We now ask different kinds of questions. What is the nature of women's religious experience? What will Judaism become as women's experience begins to be heard? It is the beginning of a new process.

How can we understand women's religious experience? It seems to me we have to begin with the experience of women's marginality. There are hundreds of examples of women's marginality. Let me give you two of them. The first from the Book of Genesis, chapter 7, verse 1; a classic statement of Jewish spirituality:

"Adonai said to Avram, "Go, really go from your land, from your birthplace, from your fathers house to a land I will show you. And Avram took Sarah, his wife and Lot, his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered and they went to the land of Canaan."

The paradigm of Jewish spirituality and yet, where am I in the story? The woman, not addressed by God, who goes along passively. I have to become Avram for the story to be about me.

We experience that over and over again. Perhaps nowhere more clearly than in the description of the epiphany at Mount Sinai, Exodus 19. The moment the Jewish people werecreated, as we stood at the foot of the mountain amidst thunder and lightening and the hearing of God's voice. And then the words, "Be ready against the third day. Do not go near a woman." I have to become a man for this story to be about me.

Women's marginality is the understanding that the models of normative religious experience are male models. We must find other models. How do we find them? For me the key is in the the first biblical text, Lech Lecha. It can be read "Go, really go" or it can be read "Go to yourself." The second step of the process which has to do with overcoming marginality has to do with going to ourselves. Women going to their own experience as women and labeling that experience as Jewish. Let me give an example.

When I was a rabbinical student there were no other women in my class. There was one occasion in a liturgy class when we were learning about the tradition of occasional blessings, the notion that there is no important moment in the lifetime of a Jew for which there is no blessing. And the teacher went on to explain that when you see a friend you haven't seen for a long time, you say a blessing. When you wear new clothes, you say a blessing. In the middle of an earthquake, you say a blessing. And I thought to myself, this is wonderful, this is what Judaism is about for me, the idea that all of life is holy. Then I thought to myself, wait a second, that is not true. There were moments in my life that weren't sanctified by a blessing. And I remembered, while sitting with my male colleagues and male professors, the moment when I got my period for the first time and what it was like not to have a blessing to sanctify that.

And I learned a bunch of things from that experience. First, I learned one of the unanticipated consequences of admitting women to rabbinical school, and second I began to understand that my experience as a woman begins with the experience of my body. To listen to that experience and understand it as Jewish experience. And so the first insight, concerning menstruation, has become, for me and for many women, an involvement with the task of creating new rituals that celebrate the important moments in the experiences of women. Moments like birth or menarche or lactation, weaning, menopause, abortion, miscarriage. Moments that, by and large, the tradition ignores because the tradition isn't particularly concerned with women's experience.

But there's a problem with this question because for so long men have been accusing us of being human beings who bear children, who lactate, who menstruate. I don't want to say that that is all that I am. But I do want to say that it's part of what I am. Some women may choose not to bear children. But for those of us who want that experience, it is important for us to claim that our bodies are who we are.

Once we start to experience and sanctify moments that start with our bodies we can begin to sanctify other moments in our lives. Moments connected with growing up, autonomy, work -other parts of a woman's life which the tradition also does not pay attention to. We need to start with our own experience. And for me, the knowledge that I am a human being that inhabits a body and that my experience of the world is connected to that body raises important questions about the connection between sexuality and spirituality. A connection that Jewish tradition is on the edge of, but seems to be afraid to really get close to.

The relationship with God is not just a cerebral relationship. It involves every aspect of ourselves. The best statement of it is from the book The Color Purple in which the narrator talks about feeling God in her fingertips.

There has been a lot of work by psychologists and sociologists that deals with the possibility that because of the way boys and girls are parented in our culture, boys and girls grow up with different kinds of comforts. Girls are more comfortable with connectedness and boys are more comfortable with separation. The theological implications of this possibility, for me, are quite profound. Because separation is one way to think about the notion of transcendance, the God over and above us. And connection is another way to think about immanence, the God within andamong us. Feminist theology in Christian and in Jewish circles is about immanence - the experience of God within us and among us. It is best articulated by the line from For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enough. "I have found God in myself and I loved her, I loved her fiercely."

There has always been a tension in our tradition between transcendence and immanence. Rabbinic Judaism begin the classical manifestation of transcendance, mysticism manifesting immanence. What feminism has done to our theology is to pull the pendulum back from the excesses of rabbinic Judaism and raised the issue that we need to experience God, no longer over and against us, but within us.

Lech Lech, go to yourself. Find yourself in the tradition, in the texts of the tradition. But we have to read those texts with new eyes and ask different kinds of questions. And if we do it we find startling images. Different images, not only of human beings, but also of God. The amazing image of God as a nursing mother who takes out her breast to give us Torah, an image of the Shekhina, the feminine presence of God that hovers within us. If we listen for our experience in the stories of our mothers, we read things we never saw before.

But that raises a very important and scary question: What are our texts? Certainly the Torah, the Midrash, the Talmud, the classic texts of the tradition. But if we can't find our experience in these texts written by men for men, we need to discover other cannons, more sacred texts. Our experience as women is part of our sacred cannon. It needs to be studied, valued, commentaries need to be written on the Torah of our experience as women. And if we do this seriously and lovingly, we will ask new questions and find some of the old questions. These questions lead us back into tradition and out again, always dialectic, always moving back recovering, discovering, remembering and if all else fails, inventing.

If you let yourself really think about these questions, I think they bring us to a radical transformation of Jewish life and Jewish institutions. Questions of spirituality that are generated by women's spirituality pose for us an important religious task, really a messianic task, as the task of collecting the sparks of divinity in our own experience, of overcoming dualities in ourselves in God, in the world. If we want to become whole as individuals this is the step that we need to begin to take for ourselves, for each other and for the world in which we live. And if we don't do it now, when?

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