Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Give me a good reason why not

September 15, 2010 · 7 Comments

Within the overarching theme of  “Community” in our London course, we have talked almost ad nauseam about religion. Not only have we visited churches, a Hindu mandir, a mosque, and a synagog, but the topic of religion and its related issues come up daily in discussions amongst ourselves. (Completely unprovoked by Professor Qualls!) Several members of our group are particularly religious, and their world views and values reflect this. The strength of these individuals’ faith and beliefs fascinate me. It amazes me that people my age seem to have already got it all figured out, they know where they stand, when I haven’t even really begun to piece things together.

Religion has always been a topic of interest to me, because I have always struggled with it. There are just so many questions that can never really be answered in indisputable, concrete fact, not to mention so many faiths to choose from. Somehow, I always have a hard time… well, buying it. So for a long time now I have pushed religion to the back of my mind, I’ve tried to avoid the uneasiness and discomfort that comes with thinking about it. But now, in this environment, it is unavoidable. As a Jew (at least secularly) this is a particularly hard time of the year for me, as Rosh Hashanah has come and gone, unobserved by me, and Yom Kippur fast approaches. Since I have gone to college and it has been up to me whether or not I attend services for the high holidays, I so far have not. This does not mean, however, that I haven’t still felt pangs of guilt when I have watched the holidays come and go, no matter how hard I try to feign indifference. I feel deeply connected to my Judaism culturally, and I would consider it my ethnicity more so than generic “white,” but it feels decidedly half-hearted without the spiritual connection.

Since I’m already on the brink of pouring my heart out on a class blog, I may as well just tip the whole damn pot over. As some of you may have noticed, I became visibly upset during our visit to the synagogue the other day. I’m not sure what came over me, exactly. I was shocked that I reacted so strongly to something I’ve seen before. At every religious institution we have visited, we have seen very blatant physical manifestations of the subjugation of women. Although my synagog at home does not separate the men and women, and we have even had a woman rabbi, the fact that such discrimination (and for me, outright belittlement) occurs anywhere in the Jewish faith AT ALL deeply upsets me and creates an enormous obstacle for me to be able to come to full acceptance.

It’s not just the head coverings and other “modesty” clothing articles, even the separate seating I can almost tolerate, (separate is NOT equal, think back to the treatment of African Americans in the U.S. not long ago) but its the fact that women are denied leadership positions and the top level and most sacred aspects of the religion. (We have seen this in every religion we have looked at.) As Jews, we are taught that the Torah is the most sacred, wonderful thing we could ever experience. It is supposed to hold all of the information we need, all the rules by which to conduct ourselves, all the history of our earliest ancestors. In Orthodox Judaism, women are not allowed to read from the Torah, and they are not allowed to have a bat mitzvah, the rite of passage comparable to a bar mitzvah which marks a Jew’s transition from child to adult. (The rules vary from congregation to congregation, but I am speaking here of the most extreme, by the book, traditional interpretation.) If there really is a god as we are made to believe, I cannot accept that such a “perfect” being would condone sexism in any way, shape, or form. How is it at all logical, that something such as the Torah should be denied to half of the Jewish population? (as the orthodox see it).

Our guide at the synagog only increased my distress with his attempts to convey that Judaism is a matriarchal religion. It’s really not. Judaism is traced through the mother only because it’s always obvious who the mother of the child is, whereas the father was much dicier to verify before the age of paternity testing. At the synagog we visited, women are not allowed to read from the Torah. They may be bat mitzvahed, but it is a much shallower, lesser version. I tried to speak to our guide about this after he had given his long-winded, unbearable shpiel and he literally walked away from me. I have witnesses. It could have been that he just needed to catch up to lead the group, but instead of saying so and offering to discuss it further later, he simply ran away. I have tried to ask these questions numerous times, to many different people, and never, ever have I gotten a satisfying answer.

We have heard the argument that it is cultural rather than religious, but, looking at it pragmatically, culture should be adapted to contemporary times if there is no conflict with the scriptures. Why wouldn’t you move forward if nowhere does it say you can’t? Why do women put up with this? Open, institutionalized racism has been virtually wiped off the map, why hasn’t sexism?

People who believe that women cannot read from the Torah, or be rabbis, or become a priest, or the Pope, or an Imam, need to quit squirming around the issue and say outright the clear message they are sending: You are less.

Categories: 2010 Rachel
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7 responses so far ↓

  •   Elizabeth Barr // Sep 19th 2010 at 08:01

    Bravo, Rachel for putting it all on the line and saying what you feel! I’m right there with you! I too was upset and irritated by the guide’s attempt to convince us that Judaism treats women as equals. Here’s a newsflash for everyone: no major religion- with the possible exception of paganism/wicca- treats women as equals to men. I’d like to say that’s one of the main reasons I cast off organised religion in adolescence, but really it was just the icing on the cake of what made me a confirmed agnostic.

  •   battilaj // Sep 19th 2010 at 23:29

    I just wrote you a really long comment, and it keeps accusing me of spamming you, so I’m checking to see if a shorter comment will work.

  •   battilaj // Sep 19th 2010 at 23:34

    Rachel, this is one of the most difficult topics to talk about, and I often think there is no satisfying answer, especially for women who are observing a religion from the inside.

    I’ve read a few interesting explanations for head coverings and separate seating. Both men and women in Islam have a particular area that must always be covered in the presence of anyone who is not in their or their spouse’s family (I can’t remember the terms for these because I don’t have my notes, but bear with me). The areas are related to sexuality, and women’s hair is traditionally a sign of sexuality. While the areas that men must cover are different just because men are biologically different, and for whatever reason, male hair does not symbolize sex. Even though the body parts covered are slightly different, these rules are enforced for both sexes equally to promote modesty and to help establish social spheres (who you show your hair to establishes who is your familiar).

  •   battilaj // Sep 19th 2010 at 23:34

    I say this not to argue, but to hopefully make you feel a little better about religion (since I’m a giant feminist and a religion major, I’ve struggled with this plenty, too) because some traditions are sexist, but some really are separate but equal (I know you don’t like that phrase. Bear with me). Separate is not equal when opportunity hoarding occurs. When men and women sit in different places, but do the same thing, like praying, no subjugation is taking place. It’s just like having separate bathrooms.
    I have no reason why women can’t read from the Torah, unfortunately. Are most of the laws about female limitation not in any of the Scriptures? If so, the only thing I can really say is that ritual is one of the most important aspects of religion. It’s not a very good excuse to keep things the way they are, but it is an alternative explanation to the idea that Jews don’t value women.

  •   battilaj // Sep 19th 2010 at 23:36

    Liz, I disagree with you. I can’t think of a single structural limitation that Protestantism places on women. Paul writes about female deacons in the epistles. I understand where you’re coming from because there are a lot of sexist things written in books like the Bible, for instance, but I can think of as many examples of egalitarianism in the New Testament in particular (that’s the one I’ve studied most recently) as I can sexist passages.

  •   battilaj // Sep 19th 2010 at 23:37

    Sexism pervaded the society in which the Bible was written and it pervades modern society. It seems besides the point to say that religion is sexist when it’s really the exercise of a sexist eye on a text that is so contradictory that it can easily support either viewpoint. I think your problem should be with the people interpreting religions, not the religions themselves.

  •   brownrac // Sep 20th 2010 at 08:10

    Jesse, thank you for all of your insight. In regards to separation, the head coverings and what not really don’t bother me so much nor does separate seating, but the fact that the seating or prayer area for women is so obviously inferior, at least of what I have seen. When I was in Israel I of course visited the Western Wall, the most important site for Jews where a lot of people come to pray daily. The space in front of the wall is divided for men and women to pray separately. Now, this would be acceptable to me if it was a 50/50 split, but in actuality the men’s side is about 80% of the space, and all of the women are shoved into the remaining little corner bit. The men have all of this room to spread out, they have plenty of space, while the women are practically piled up on top of each other, forced to wait for space to open up or push their way to the wall to slip in a piece of paper with a prayer written on it. This shows up again when we see women having to sit up in the balconies, or behind the men. If men’s uncontrollable sexual desires are really the reason for the separation, as our guides said, why not divide the space straight down the middle, with a partition high enough so that they can’t see over it? This seems like an obvious solution to me, so clearly, enforcing women’s second class status IS the reason for the separation.

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