Thursday, February 11, 2010

Feminine Spirituality and the role of Ritual

Some weeks ago, Rabbi Shais Taub published a short blurb on women, men and the role of Jewish ritual. He is an insightful thinker and an eloquent writer, when he wants to be. In this case, he merely made a few summary notes. His essential point was this:

Men need ritual to feel connected to G-d because men need to be active. Women do not need a program or a schedule for their Jewishness because women can just "be."

Having myself been burned, in the past, over telling other people what they do and don't need, women in particular(!), I challenged him to reconceptualize his approach to the issue. This was my initial response:

Everyone who knows you is nodding. Let's talk about everyone else...

There are women today who do feel they need Jewish ritual. We can discuss the underlying reasons for this, but it is a reality. Telling them they don't need ritual, when they feel that they do, can be needlessly confrontational. Those that accept it, fine. And those that don't?

There are men today who feel that they should help women be the women men want them to be by physically locking them out of Jewish ritual. Clearly, this is a brilliant strategy to ensure that Jewish women will demand participation in Jewish ritual, and with a determination worthy of a stiff-necked people.

Telling women how women should be, when you yourself say that they don't need instructions in how to "be", is perhaps not the place to start. We should first educate men how they should be, especially when it comes to dealing with women.

He did not respond, so much, as taunt back, still thoughtfully:

Good point. So how DO you convince a fish that it doesn't need a snorkel?

Having spent a year attempting to understand, in part, this very viewpoint, I opined:

All fish are not created equal.

There are some observant, highly learned Jewish women who wish to partake in certain Jewish rituals. They know what they're doing and why. If such a woman wants to put on tefillin every once in a while, stoning her is not the response we should be cultivating in Jewish men.

There are many more women who don't know what they doing or why, but who choose to emulate what men do because they accept male prioritization of Jewish ritual. In other words, men keep saying how important wearing teffillin is, how special being called up to the Torah is, etc. At the same time that the men have created this social awe for Jewish ritual, they exempt women from it. So, if a "modern" woman wants to be a respected member of the Jewish community, she immediately starts at a disadvantage, not being able to participate in the most socially respected activities that even unsavory Jewish men can do.

I think the first step is to de-exoticise male Jewish ritual. It's not special. We're talking about crude (physical!) measures of last resort created to ensure a modicum of compliance in people (Jewish men) who built a false god shortly after being delivered from Egypt with open miracles.

To be brutally honest, Jewish men need periodic colon cleanses to scrape out all the toxic crap their bodies and minds naturally produce. Jewish ritual for men is like dialysis for people without kidneys. Physically sick people need periodic medical attention. So too do spiritually sick people need periodic spiritual attention, in the form of Jewish ritual.

Obviously this isn't something that everyone will agree with, or that everyone needs to hear. For certain male audiences, Jewish ritual must be positively enforced in a social setting. But this positive reinforcement, and resultant feelings of self-importance should not be used to confuse women about what is really going on.

Think of male Jewish ritual like a bunch of dialysis patients carpooling to the hospital every week. The fact that they care about each other's wellbeing and enjoy the time they spend together is great. The problem is, they seem to have such a good time together, and they talk about it in such glowing terms to friends and family, that even perfectly healthy people are now going in for dialysis! Everyone has forgotten that dialysis patients are not picking each other up for a joyride, but going to the hospital to address a serious ailment on the instructions of their doctor, without which, they will get sick and die.

Disease is filthy, smelly, wretched... and medical treatments often elicit pain and suffering on the road to health. Why would anyone want to emulate sick people?

The next time a Jewish woman wants to put on tefillin, the response should not be: How dare you impinge on the holy and glorious domain of men?! To the gallows, woman!

Instead, we should ask if she is feeling ok (maybe she's not), and if there is perhaps medication more suited to her body chemistry which may be more effective that she doesn't know about.

Rabbi Taub is a teacher, often of women. In fact, he has just published a significant translation and adaptation of a Chassidic discourse, entitled Feminine Faith - L`Hovin Inyan Rosh Chodesh. Here is a literary summation:

When the Jews served the golden calf during their sojourn in the wilderness, says the Midrash, the woman refused to join them. Feminine Faith traces the roots of the feminine within the supernal realms, and explores its relationship to women and how it translated into their aversion for unholy and ungodly worship. Why are women more sensitive than men to G-ds role in earthly events and His mastery over creation? In this discourse, Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn, fourth leader of Chabad Lubavitch (1834-1882), explores G-ds unity and immanence in the world, and the innate sensitivity that women posses to spirituality.
I have not yet studied Feminine Faith - it is on a long list of priority texts I must learn first. Still, the reviews have been good. More importantly, I find it interesting that Rabbi Taub's first major published work is on the subject of women and feminine spirituality, and that he is returning to this theme in his blogging. I consider our conversation open, indefinitely, and eagerly await his thoughts on the matter.

1 comment:

  1. I liked his answer, "Good point. So how DO you convince a fish that it doesn't need a snorkel?" I think it's a great answer! I am a spiritual woman (but not a Jew, sorry) and I am just now, in my thirties, actively trying to learn what that means.

    Maybe his point - and the problem at hand - is that our culture has, for so long, extolled the greatness of male nature that we women no longer know what it means to be women (I assure you, this has been and still is true in my life). Maybe we are all fish who still THINK we need snorkels. Maybe, what needs to happen first is that we need to be shown that we are fish (what that looks like, what it means) and then come back and ask us if we still feel we need the snorkel...

    Maybe the Jewish women are looking for ritual because they are looking for their own connection to G-d and to feel that their relationship to him is as valuable as a man's. In which case, being allowed to practice ritual seems like the logical answer... If they knew how to "be" and that "being" was just as powerful and equal as ritual then maybe they wouldn't feel so strongly?

    I think I'll be thinking about this topic for the rest of the night. Thanks for the fodder!



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