The Spirit Knows No Rules
Earlier this week I (Susan) had the pleasure of joining a wonderful local book group to talk about Beyond Belief. Over a lovely meal served on the deck of our hostess, Tiana Melquist, the group discussed the anthology. All six of the members attending generously shared their thoughts about the stories that had touched them and passionately talked about the mix of emotions that they had experienced while reading the book.
It was gratifying for me to hear that Beyond Belief had resonated with these readers. For each of them there were a few stories that felt especially relevant, and for all, the anthology had elicited a variety of strong emotions ranging from anger, to sadness to empathy. The conversation about the stories was a natural segue for each woman to talk about her own experience with religion. Through the course of the evening it became apparent that everyone in the group had either had a brush with an extreme religion at some point in her life or knew a close friend or family member who had been or still was involved.
For the working mothers in the group Stephanie Durden Edwards’ A Mother in Israel hit a particularly sensitive chord. Stephanie’s story tells of her struggle accepting the Mormon teaching that it is immoral for a woman to work outside of the home and send her children to daycare. In her piece Stephanie beautifully depicts her love of her faith and her devotion to staying within the safety of her community while at the same time struggling against rules that seem irrational and possibly even harmful. This is the quandary many women face when their religious community asks them to follow rules that force them to choose between being faithful and taking care of themselves and their families.
Other readers commented on Swan Sister by Yolande Brener and expressed a deep pathos for Yolande’s need to find a deeper meaning in her life and help her older brother. Alongside this empathy the group expressed anger and frustration that her spiritual quest had been coopted by the Unification Church. “What does shaving your head and begging for money have to do with becoming a better person and finding a spiritual path?” one of the book club members asked.
Like many of the stories in the anthology Stephanie and Yolande’s experiences cannot help but make a reader wonder how the rules of extreme religion help a woman in her spiritual quest. A woman’s impetus for seeking meaning in her life is genuine and vulnerable and often the religious structure she chooses appears to do little to respect her need or honor her choice. How do religious rules, all the dos and don’ts, which seem harmful or tedious really help a woman attain well being or spirituality?
In my own experience as an Orthodox Jew the rules were paramount. In fact I spent way more time concerned with following rules, often about the most mundane of tasks, then I ever did thinking about spiritual matters. In Jewish practice the laws or mitzvahs that command us to act in certain ways are the paths by which we attain spirituality. Though we may not understand how eating or dressing in a particular way is helping us to become more spiritual we are asked to accept this truth without question.
For me the rules were, at first, a huge help. They gave me relief from the overwhelm of choice and confusion, they helped me uphold the dignity of my role as a wife and mother, and they gave me guidance to grow into an adult with the ability to take the needs of the greater good into consideration in my thoughts and deeds.
Many of the rules of Orthodox Judaism felt arbitrary and outdated. Ultimately though, like in Stephanie’s story, it was the downright harm to me and to my family that blindly following any and all rules beyond common sense, intuition and rationality that led me to leave the practice behind.
When a religious practice keeps women so busy with rules that it actually prevents them from becoming good, independent and educated people it is time to step back and ask some hard questions. Following rules, religious or otherwise, is not meant to be the end all of our actions or a deterrent from living a spiritual life that feels honest and well meaning. Rules, when served in moderation, are supposed to free us and provide the security and structure we need as human beings to reach our fullest potential.