How feminism helped me redefine my Jewish faith

Imperfectly happy.
Imperfectly happy.
Image: Fanqiao Wang
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Though I grew up as an observant Jew, I followed rules because my Dad told me to, not because God did. Perhaps that’s why once I got to college, it was only a matter of months before most of those practices went out the window. By the time I graduated, they all had.

Although I had many reservations about my faith and its many rules, I was particularly frustrated by its relationship with my gender. I had been keenly aware of my second-class status before college, but surrounded by my liberal arts brethren at a feminist institution, I realized I didn’t have to participate.

And for the most part, I didn’t. For the next ten-plus years, my religious activities were mostly restricted to family events. That changed about six months ago, however, at the Jewish New Year, when I made a commitment to start observing certain elements of of the Sabbath (Shabbat in Hebrew), something I hadn’t really done since I moved out of my parents’ house at the age of 17. This observance wasn’t so much religious decision as it was a lazy one: An opportunity for a day of quiet. Guaranteed.

Every Friday now, I turn off my phone and computer about an hour before sundown and don’t turn them back on until Saturday night. For just over 24 hours, my community is made up solely of people I can physically see and touch. The digital disconnect was a little challenging at first as I worked to incorporate adjustments here and there, both at work and otherwise. But with the kinks finally ironed out, observing Shabbos became an incredible gift to myself, something I looked forward to every week. Friday means meals with lots of friends and few distractions and no alarms to wake up to in the morning.

Of course, my new lifestyle is about much more than catching up on sleep. My Friday afternoons have become ritualistic, with trips to the bakery for challah bread, the farmers market for fresh vegetables, and the supermarket for everything else. Hours of cooking before friends come over for dinner. Wine and conversation. Very few, if any, glances at screens during the meal. Some Jewish blessings, and maybe a little singing.

After so many years avoiding my religion, I think I finally understand why my father made such a big deal about Shabbat growing up. I have even become something of a Shabbat evangelist, preaching its benefits to my friends, fiancé, and coworkers—even the non-Jewish ones. It is more than a day of rest; it is a day of community and rejuvenation, a celebration of the week past and preparation for the week to come.

And yet, the benefits of religious life do not obscure its sexism. Judaism is, of course, a patriarchy. (Long before I knew what a patriarchy meant, I knew that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were the Patriarchs—and the Matriarchs always felt like an afterthought.) The Torah, our original text, opens with the story of Adam and Eve, establishing women as secondary to men from day one, literally. Eve is an accessory made from Adam’s rib. She lures him into sin and is repaid with the curse of painful childbearing.

And it doesn’t get much better for women from there. The Talmud, the books of Jewish law written in the first century of the Common Era, devotes a ten-chapter tractate on the topic of menstruation, in which the all male sages debate the specific laws around women’s menstrual blood, including for example, how long it makes them unclean and what kinds of examinations can confirm whether or not they are still bleeding. Even today, daily morning prayers include a blessing wherein men thank God for not making them women.

Like many religions, Judaism is nuanced and complex. Jewish lore is full of female symbols of righteousness and power—like Moses’s sister Miriam, who becomes a Jewish leader in her own right; and my personal favorite, Yael, who slays the Canaanite general Sisera by driving a tent peg through his skull as he sleeps. Indeed, there are brave and valiant women sprinkled throughout traditional Jewish history, but these women remain the exceptions. Most of the Bible’s women are wives, mothers and daughters; as in the case of my own namesake, they are often victims, too. The argument that Jewish law places women in a special position—often used by religious organizations like Chabad to explain the differences in treatment—is more reminiscent of misguided concepts of chivalry than any sense of real equality.

Even more unfortunate, modern Jewish life still too often reflects these sexist attitudes, whether via widely accepted practices like gendered school dress codes or more controversial ones, like forcing to move from their assigned seats on airplanes, banning them from conducting religious services at the Western Wall, or preventing them from getting a divorce without a husband’s consent.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that my relationship to religion remains a complicated one. Jewish culture is still my culture—and I have decided to allow myself to enjoy it, to participate in this patriarchy on my own terms. This year, I read the Torah on the twentieth anniversary of my Bat Mitzvah in what was both a religious act and, for someone who went to Orthodox schools growing up, a rebellious one. Unlike Conservative or Reform strains, Orthodox Judaism does not allow a woman to read from the Torah with men present; the sound of a woman’s voice singing is apparently too tempting to withstand. (In ninth grade, I both amazed and horrified my Orthodox male classmates by showing them I knew how to read the Torah. They had never been to a Bat Mitzvah where a woman was allowed to do such a thing. It felt incredible.)

I still light Shabbat candles on Friday night, even if it’s a practice, according to some explanations, meant to atone for what Eve did in Eden. When I go to my Bubbe’s Orthodox synagogue after I am married, I will keep my hair covered—but it will be out of respect for Bubbe (and the opportunity to buy some new hats), not acquiescence to the patriarchal dicta. I am not going to change Judaism, but I can control the way I practice it. After all, there is nothing quite as Jewish as picking and choosing which rules to follow and which to ignore.

Although to my friends it may seem like I have become more religious over the past year, I would have to disagree. I didn’t need to find my religion—it hadn’t gone anywhere. I simply needed to figure out how to practice my faith in a way that stayed true to all of my values. In doing so, I discovered a way to let religion into my life without resenting myself for it. I am neither a perfect feminist nor a perfect Jew, but I no longer think either is mutually exclusive. And so I remain happily in the middle.