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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

Beyond Belief Interviews Leah Lax

This week Beyond Belief talks with writer Leah Lax. Leah earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. She has published prose, poetry, award-winning fiction, memoir, essays, the libretto for a major opera, and a world-traveling exhibit. She contributed to the 2010 anthology Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Lives. Leah currently lives and works in Houston.

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What interested you in contributing to the anthology? Over the ten years since I left, I’d only met a few women with similar experiences. The idea of gathering such a group together was exciting, particularly since Beyond Belief shows our common thread across a number of religions. I consider all women who live or have lived “under the veil” to be my sisters. My memoir is dedicated to them.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? Very painful. In order to make a scene come across as genuine on the page, a writer has to essentially experience it in exquisite detail as she writes, allowing emotion and sensation to drive the process. Although I teach memoir writing, I frankly don’t recommend doing it and tell my students so at the first class. They just laugh.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? My two youngest, who were thirteen and fourteen at the time, refused to leave with me. A lawyer told me that since I am a lesbian (this was in Houston during the Bush administration), that there was no judge in the vicinity that would grant me custody. My entire life had been defined by our home and children and I had to walk away.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? I can’t draw a general conclusion here. I can say for myself that I stepped out into a vast dangerous confusing world far too young and extreme religion offered structure and clarity. The rules and their God were parental, the community familial, and I still needed both.

To me now, people in those communities seem stuck in a pre-adolescent state since they were never allowed to do the essential things adolescents have to do—like challenging authority, threshing out their own morals, exploring their sexuality. When I left, I went through a period of doing those things as if I was picking my adolescence back up where I had left it years before. I’ve found this true of others who left similar communities. The people who remain, however, like younger kids, accept without question—and seem to need—the parental authority they call God.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? I can read the Hebrew Bible and prayer book fluently. I have a huge working knowledge of Jewish Law and am familiar with the basics of mystical philosophy. I know how to bake good challah, and where to buy the best human hair wigs for orthodox women. My heart holds onto values touted in Hassidic life: a profound level of kindness to animals, the social responsibility of sharing with others, deep respect for the elderly, etc. I accept that my Orthodox life formed me in many ways. The best: I wake every morning with the startling joyful awareness that my life is impossibly brief, a huge unearned gift, so I better get to work.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now? Here’s a quote from the Epilogue to my memoir Uncovered. Although addressed to women still living a fundamentalist life, I feel it applies to everyone:

TO MY COVERED SISTERS: To get the best from religion, you have to sift. Allow yourself to do that, no matter what people say. Stand up to the guilt or shame that some use as a tool of religion (it’s a dishonest tool) and reserve the right to think for yourself, judge for yourself, even when you stand before judges. Suck out the wisdom, inspiration and beauty and leave the rest behind. Most covered women don’t think they have that strength. But you do.

Keep your voice. Free choice, choice you must not sacrifice, is yours.

What are your current writing projects? I’ve recently completed two different manuscripts. The first is a memoir entitled Uncovered about my thirty years among the Lubavitcher Hassidim as a covered woman, a mother of seven, and a hidden lesbian. The second is entitled Not From Here, a collection of first-person accounts by immigrants and refugees to the U.S. from around the world telling the stories of their journeys. I think I did that project because, after leaving the Hassidim, I felt like an immigrant myself.