By Chance

I (Cami) came home yesterday to see the following (see picture) sitting on my sofa. When my husband came into the room I said, “That’s crazy, isn’t it?”

“What?” he asked as he leaned over my shoulder to look at the images of our book cover and the National Geographic picture of a woman in a burqa with caged birds on her head. He hadn’t even noticed the uncanny similarity! The placement of the two pictures side by side was a complete coincidence.

image

As you might imagine, I sat for a good long time studying the similarities and the differences here. I posted the picture on Facebook immediately and sent a note to the designer (who also happens to be a contributor to the book). I wanted everyone else to be as taken with the coincidence as I was. What strikes me are the birds.

In one image they fly free; in the other, they live in a very, very small space.

There was a time in my life when I lived in a small space, too—when I looked at the world through the mesh of a limited theology and worldview. In truth, I (like everyone else, I assume) still have plenty of self-limiting beliefs that sometimes make me feel like I don’t have enough room to spread my wings. As Susan and I are fond of saying, “You can take the girl out of the religion, but you can’t take the religion out of the girl.” The “total depravity” doctrine still haunts me at times, even though I’ve consciously given it up.

But seeing our book cover sitting beside the image of this covered woman with the birds on her head made me remember how much range of movement I actually do have. For me and for most Western women I know, the limitations we have live mostly IN our heads, rather than being forced burdens placed ON our heads. I don’t know the life story of the woman in the National Geographic picture above, of course, but I do know there are plenty of girls and women who don’t have the option of choosing their lots in life (whether they cover their bodies or not).

Today I will be thankful to be an uncaged bird, and I will ponder how I can support those who are not so free.

Note: I hope in addition to reading Beyond Belief, you’ve all read Half the Sky by Kristof and WuDunn.

Dancing With the Torah

Dancing With the Torah

Women of faith and feminists have more in common than they have differences.

While popular wisdom has it that being a feminist and a woman of faith are incompatible my experience as an Orthodox Jew tells a different story.  Some of the most ardent feminists I (Susan) ever met were Orthodox Jewish women in my community. Some considered themselves feminists and some did not, but when I think about what it means to be a feminist these women fit the bill.

Like all good feminists they are committed to affirming the full humanity of women but they do so within the context of their religious belief system. They strive to build a community that treats everyone fairly.  They do not view their gender as an obstacle but embrace it and live a full life as a woman and as a believer in their faith.

Today almost every major and minor religion has a growing and active women’s movement within it. From Mormonism to Catholicism to Judaism religious women are seeking to address issues of inequality. They are pointing out how discrimination is not consonant with deeper ideologies, questioning how, why and who made the rules that disenfranchise them. Women are pointing to scripture and other religious teachings to make their case and ask for change. These religious women are not walking away from their faith but are working within its structures in order to make change happen. They are feminists.

In my Orthodox years I ran up against a number of laws that I felt were discriminatory. Women couldn’t sing or dance in public. Women couldn’t participate in certain rituals or prayers. Many of these rules were explained to me as ways to safeguard women against bad male behavior, i.e. the sound of a woman’s voice could arouse a man and distract him from prayer. I was taught that these laws were not devised to oppress women but to elevate them and prevent them from being regarding as sex objects and thus devalued.

Many of Judaism’s laws appear discriminatory by secular standards but understood within the religious context may give women more chance at true equality. By downplaying a woman’s physical appearance she has more opportunity and encouragement to develop herself and self worth in other ways.

These arguments were a hard sell for me. Having been brought up in a very liberal, secular home the idea that a restriction could be a freeing force was an entirely new concept. One restriction that particularly bothered me was a law prohibiting women from dancing with the Torah on a special holiday called Simhat Torah. Once per year, on this special day, the Torah was paraded around as men and boys hugged it tight and danced with it in their arms, shouting, sweating, vying for their special moment with the sacred parchment while we women were shut out. Women didn’t touch the Torah much less dance with it. It wasn’t allowed, it wasn’t done, end of story.

I asked but did not receive an adequate explanation. I was angry. I became determined to find out where this law came from and why. If I had to accept this prohibition, I needed a reason, an argument, something to take the sting out of it. And it had to be a damn good one.

Four of us formed a study group and began learning the laws that prohibited us from touching the Torah. We met every Sunday morning for over four years and educated and empowered ourselves about this issue and many others pertaining to women in Judaism. We learned that the prohibition of touching the Torah was on precarious legal ground and was more a matter of precedent and custom than hard and fast law. The more we studied, the more we came across leniencies and examples of Orthodox communities that allowed women to touch and dance with the Torah. Eventually, we were able to convince others in the community that women should be able to dance with the Torah.

Religions and secular societies do adapt and change. For us — women of faith AND secular feminists, we can more effectively foster that change together than apart.

 

 

 

Heaven

Yesterday I attended the funeral of the mother of a friend. The service was a beautiful tribute to a woman who was committed to her family and community and who made an impact on everyone she met. Though I didn’t know her personally, I was touched by the obvious love and affection everyone in the audience felt for her. I wish I’d had the chance to get to know her, and I’m grateful to know her daughter.

During the service, there was a lot of talk of heaven. I could see that the hope of eternal paradise brought great peace to the grieving family–and a much needed promise of seeing their beloved again that allowed for a celebration in the midst of their deep sadness. I do not begrudge anyone this faith in the afterlife. In fact, I well understand it and have respect for those who live their lives today for the reward they will receive in the hereafter. Most of my friends who believe in heaven are people who bring consciousness and intention to their lives.

The ceremony invited me to reflect on my own history. I once (for about twenty years) filtered all of my decisions through a narrow focus on the afterlife. For me (and I’m only talking about myself here) such a focus was very stressful. I never felt the comfort others talked about when discussing heaven. Instead, I worried about the eternal to the detriment of the “now.”  I feared making mistakes–particularly in my dogma–because everything I did or thought or believed was so dire in my mind. The years I was involved in a literalistic way of understanding God were years spent being very serious, and very frightened of failure. I was particularly terrified of failing to tell others about my faith because I believed that those who didn’t share my doctrine, would go to hell. The idea of hell and of anyone going there being intolerable to me, I think I must have been terribly tedious to unbelieving friends as I insisted they convert to my way of thinking. Not all people of faith who look forward to heaven are primarily trying to avoid going to hell, but I was.

In the years since I realized I needed to unpack my doctrines and loosen up my literalistic thinking, I’ve come to understand that we all make sense of death in unique ways. We have to. Death is always with us as one of the surest things in the human experience. As I sat in the memorial service yesterday and watched the slide show of my friend’s mother roll out the chronology of her life, I realized that she’d brought “heaven” into the lives of those she loved as surely as they hoped for heaven for her now. Because I sit much more in a place of not knowing (and not needing to know what I don’t know) than I used to, I was able to stay in the moment with those gathered, to tippy toe between the grief and the joy palpable in the auditorium, and to feel happy for the hope of reunion the family held.

This is progress for me, and I’m glad for it. In my religious days, I was activated by fear when I was with those who believed differently than I did. And then for many years after my “shift,” I was activated by anxiety when I encountered anyone speaking my old language of eternity. My heart was happy yesterday that I was able to enter into the essence of the memorial without any inner gnashing of teeth. It felt like heaven.

My questions for you: What still hooks you? What have you made peace with?

Beyond Belief Interviews Nikki Smith

Beyond Belief Blog Tour Continues!

Follow our month long blog tour line-up and travel with us to some fabulous sites. 

Friday, August 30 @ Steph the Bookworm
Get in on the giveaway and join Stephanie as she reviews the anthology,Beyond Belief, The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions by Cami Ostman and Susan Tive.
http://www.stephthebookworm.com/

Monday, September 2 @ Women on Writing, The Muffin
Read what Susan Tive writes in her guest post about “Feminism and Religion” and get in on the giveaway and your chance to win a copy of the anthologyBeyond Belief; The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions.
http://muffin.wow-womenonwriting.com/

Wednesday, September 4 @ Renee’s Pages
Read what Renee’s thoughts were after finishing the anthology, Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions and partake in the giveaway for an opportunity to read this one for yourself!
http://www.reneespages.blogspot.com/

This Week Beyond Belief is happy to welcome writer and BB contributor Nikki Smith. As a former Seventh Day Adventist Nikki has a unique and thoughtful perspective on the questions of women and extreme religion. She has written for academic publications and lectured for both local and national educational organizations.  She was a Loma Linda University professor and Seventh Day Adventist missionary in both South Korea and Guam.  Nikki currently lives in Southern California and is working on her memoir about a tightly wound, off-kilter family and a severe, absolutist religion.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat interested you in contributing to the anthology? Life within the Seventh Day Adventist church has rarely been examined in secular literature or other faith-based writings, for that matter. Beyond Belief presented a model venue to share my insight into a faith that demanded stringent obedience. My particular story as an earnest believer who was church-schooled, and served as a missionary and then went on to teach as a professor within it’s premier university gives me the credentials to shed light on this little known but growing protestant sect.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? Recalling my experiences within the Seventh Day Adventist church brought me face to face with the reality of how immersed I had been. This is a church that requires its members to not only believe in its theology but to also practice its strict lifestyle. Adventism believes in a very literal Bible, including the strictures within the Old Testament along with the New Testament gospel and the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. As I write about my life within this structure, I am struck by how my strict adherence to the Church’s rules kept many of us from reaching our full potential and becoming self-reliant.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? Leaving behind my community of believers was the most painful part of my journey. There is a unity of spirit when everyone in a group believes the same way. It billows one’s soul to know that when you look across the aisle, each person has the same beliefs as you do. I lost many friends. My journey was lonely but also very freeing. For me to realize that I could make my own decisions without the heavy blanket of dogma is a precious gift that still delights me daily.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? Extreme religions promise answers. That reason alone can be a shelter that many women feel they need. I had always yearned to know “the truth” and thought I had found it and life’s answers within my strict church. All the explanations were in black and white and you didn’t have to evaluate for yourself. There was a certain comfort in knowing that the Bible and your church had figured all of the hard stuff out already. But then life happened with all its messiness and the answers I had been given just weren’t working anymore.

If a woman is born into an authoritarian church it is especially hard for her to forsake her faith and become an outsider. She has to be very strong to withstand the direct and indirect ostracism. When you leave your own kin don’t trust you anymore. For many women, staying within the confines of their church even though they may not believe is just easier and they don’t have to deal with the guilt and judgment that comes along with leaving.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? My reverence for our magnificent earth and all its wonders and the love I have for my fellow man certainly continues. I now understand that I can choose to be good and to do good things because they are the right thing to do and not because of a reward in the hereafter. To help my fellow man, to care for my family, to aid the downtrodden, and to help protect the world around me gives me a deeper joy because I am doing it with no feeling that I will be reimbursed.

What advise do you have for women struggling with their faith? It may seem like an overwhelming and bewildering predicament, but by searching within yourself for your truth, the truth of who you are and not what a church or an orthodoxy or set of rules tells you, is key. I have been through this struggle and it is not easy. It took me years to finally leave my church home. I lived through it and I know you can live a very fulfilling and wonderful life “beyond belief.”

Going on Tour!!

Firework

Hurray. We are very excited to announce that Beyond Belief is going on tour!! That’s right, we have a blog tour coming up, and we invite everyone to follow us as we travel to 15 bloggers’ sites for reviews, interviews, give-aways, and guest blog posts. Take a look at the schedule below, come along, and join the discussion. Susan and Cami would like to thank Women On Writing (particularly Crystal Otto and Angela Mackintosh) for scheduling our tour and designing our bookmark for their page.

Monday, August 26 (today!) @ The Muffin
Stop by for an interview and book giveaway!
http://muffin.wow-womenonwriting.com/

Wednesday, August 28 @ My Fiction Nook
Join Cami as she writes about the insightful topic of “Remaking Yourself After Divorce”.
http://www.bringonlemons.blogspot.com/

Thursday, August 29 @ CMash Reads
Join Susan and Cami as they enjoy the author spotlight at CMash Reads today. This is your chance at a giveaway for the anthology Beyond Belief, The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions. Cheryl has done a fabulous job with an in-depth author interview and excerpt especially for you; enjoy!
http://cmashlovestoread.com/

Friday, August 30 @ Steph the Bookworm
Get in on the giveaway and join Stephanie as she reviews the anthology, Beyond Belief, The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions by Cami Ostman and Susan Tive.
http://www.stephthebookworm.com/

Monday, September 2 @ Words, Crazy Words
Read what Susan Tive writes in her guest post about “Feminism and Religion” and get in on the giveaway and your chance to win a copy of the anthology Beyond Belief; The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions.
http://wordscrazywords.blogspot.com/

Wednesday, September 4 @ Renee’s Pages
Read what Renee’s thoughts were after finishing the anthology, Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions and partake in the giveaway for an opportunity to read this one for yourself!
http://www.reneespages.blogspot.com/

Tuesday,  September 10 @ All Things Audry
Don’t miss your chance to win a copy of Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women of Extreme Religion and enjoy a guest post by author, Susan Tive with the intriguing topic of “Motherhood in and out of Religion”
http://allthingsaudry.blogspot.com/

Thursday,  September 12 @ Margo L. Dill
Don’t miss your chance to win a copy of Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women of Extreme Religion and join Margo as she shares her thoughts after reading this thought provoking anthology.
http://www.margodill.com./

Friday,  September 13 @ World of My Imagination
Don’t miss your chance to win a copy of Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women of Extreme Religion and join Nicole as she shares her thoughts after reading this touching anthology.
http://theworldofmyimagination.blogspot.com/

Monday, September 16 @ I’d So Rather Be Reading
Don’t miss this opportunity to win your own copy of the moving anthology Beyond Belief; The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions this is one book you don’t want to miss. Read a review just as expertly written as the book as Kelli shares her thoughts.
http://www.idsoratherbereading.com/

Tuesday, September 17 @ CMash Reads
You won’t want to miss today’s giveaway for the moving anthology Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions and read about what Cami has to say about “Being True to Yourself”!
http://cmashlovestoread.com/

Wednesday, September 18 @ Words from the Heart
Giveaway and review of Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of women in Extreme Religions. Find out more about the powerful words of this intriguing anthology!
http://contemplativeed.blogspot.com

Thursday, September 19 @ I’d So Rather Be Reading
Don’t miss this giveaway and review of the touching anthology Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions.
http://www.idsoratherbereading.com/

Monday, September 23 @ Mom-E-Centric
Today is a don’t miss day for a giveaway of the intriguing anthology Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, and guest post by Cami about “Being True to Yourself”
http://momecentric.com/

Wednesday, September 25 @ Choices
Today is your day for a giveaway of the anthology Beyond Belief, The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions. This is also your opportunity to join Susan and Cami for a guest post titled: “Why Women Stay in Religious Communities”
http://madeline40.blogspot.com/

What Remains?

Last week Pam Helberg and Grace Peterson, two Beyond Belief writers, suggested some important additions to my list of Questions I Wish They’d Ask. One of them, how are we all still impacted by the religious communities we left, I’d like to speak to today. This question resonates strongly with me (Susan) and is made even more poignant because my 21-year-old daughter is visiting for a few weeks before she heads back to college several thousand miles away.

Like most parents with almost-finished-with-college, almost-an-adult children, I cherish every moment I get to spend with my daughter knowing that as her life takes shape into the future our time together will become even more rare. In my case, however, I feel a deeper sense of gratitude about our relationship. I have a sense of pride that we both made it through not just the normal pushes and pulls of the mother/daughter relationship as she entered puberty, individuated, rebelled, etc., but that we survived the very real danger that we may not have had a relationship at all because of the decision I made to leave Orthodox Judaism.

When I left Orthodoxy I chose to leave largely because I was concerned for the long-term mental and emotional health of my children and myself. I had to get the hell out of the situation first and then go back for my children, it was not ideal, nor pretty. It was triage, it was why they instruct you on an airplane to put on your own mask first, because if you pass out you won’t be much help to your children.

Leaving was risky, extremely risky because not only did I have to believe that I had the strength to do it but I had to believe in my children. I had to believe that they could sort out the situation for themselves, that they knew who I really was despite what they were being told.

The very rules of orthodoxy that I had followed to help keep my family together became barriers used to keep me from my children. The tight knit fabric of the community I had worked so hard to create and weave my children into morphed into an impermeable net that separated us once I was on the other side.

And while I respect and understand that the rules of Orthodoxy were only trying to protect them, I knew better. I knew that the connection we had as mother and child was more fundamental, more holy and vital than the religious overlay that was being used to keep them away from me. Religion should be part of what strengthens and protects families, and for many years I experienced just that support in my Jewish life.

In order to leave I had to believe in my children far more deeply than I had ever believed in Orthodoxy. I took a huge risk. I walked away with the hope that I would eventually be in their lives in a real, and for lack of a better word, natural way.

Yes I often feel guilty for having put my children through the pain and suffering of what took place when I left Orthodoxy. But as the years go by my trust in them has been justified. Today I may act just like any other mother with almost-adult kids home for a visit but what remains inside me, what has become an intrinsic part of me is the visceral memory, the fear, of how close I came to losing them.

 

Questions I Wish They’d Ask

Questions I Wish They’d Ask

Don’t get me wrong. I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to write, edit and currently promote Beyond Belief. The topic of women and religion is one that I have given a great deal of thought to and lived firsthand for many years. I am deeply appreciative to everyone from our publishers and editors at Seal Press to our authors, who helped make the anthology a book that I am proud of. I am also grateful to those in the media who have reached out to Cami and I (Susan) and invited us onto their TV and radio shows, interviewed us for publications, book reviews and blogs and shared our thoughts and the stories in the anthology with their audiences. (Check out our media page to read and watch the clips yourself.)

That being said I have to admit a bit of frustration. Each time a new opportunity to share the anthology arises I find myself excitedly preparing answers to a growing number of questions that I think are interesting and important. More honestly, I find myself preparing for all the questions I wish someone would ask. These tend to be juicy, more controversial questions that reach into a gray area where religion is explored with curiosity and openness without preconceptions that it is either the one true way or else a dead end.

Some of these questions are: “What was better in your life when you were religious?” “What do you miss the most?” What do you think religion has to offer women that secular society doesn’t?”

But no one we’ve talked to in the media asks these questions. For the most part, the media that are open to Beyond Belief are somewhat biased toward an anti-religious viewpoint and approach us with the notion that the conclusion of our book must be that religion is not the way to go. After all, our writers all left their faiths so that must mean religion doesn’t work, right?

Most people with an antireligious slant don’t want to hear that in some respects religious life offers a stronger more viable sense of community, real community than secular society. In my own experience the orthodox community that I lived in for ten years was where people actually looked after one another, brought food and visited and watched children when disaster or death struck. Within the orthodox world people took the time to celebrate, feast, open their homes, and offer hospitality to strangers for no other reason than that they were part of Klal Yisroel, the people of Israel.

On the other hand the believers out there who adhere to a religious practice that would be considered fundamentalist don’t even know that our book exists. They don’t read books outside of what their community sanctions and they certainly don’t surf the net and read blogs and reviews by feminists or on Atlantic.com or watch Current TV.

So even though Beyond Belief is not anti religious, these religious folks won’t ever know it. They won’t find us and we won’t have the opportunity to talk with them, to tell them, we’re not against you. We would love for you to read these stories, to hear first hand how by limiting the opportunities for women within religion communities women are being disrespected and making choices to leave their faiths.

The questions that don’t get asked are often the ones that need to be asked the most. They are the most uncomfortable ones, because they help us to admit that we could be wrong, that we have doubts, that we do not possess any truth or absolutes.

The Questions I Wish They’d Ask are stacking up and my responses to them are coalescing on the page. In the coming weeks I hope to write and post them in this blog.

Next week: What do you miss the most?