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Archive for June, 2010

I haven’t had much time to write this week, but I did discover something cool that I would like to share—something unexpected that touches on both feminism and on Judaism (well, really religion as a whole.) This New York Times article lead me to this website, AskPhilosophers.org. The site features questions from the public about philosophical issues and responses from modern-day philosophers, usually professors. Some of the questions resemble the kind of questions people would ask an advice columnist, others are the kind you’d think of when you think of philosophy, such as how to quantify suffering, and others are just kind of funny (think about why you can’t stop eating potato chips.)

There are a lot of categories on the site that I feel would fit in here: children, feminism, gender, identity, religion—and those are just the obvious ones. But I thought I would share one entry that I read in the “feminism” category that I found to be particularly interesting. Someone asked the question, “Is feminism falsifiable?” and received the following answer by Rachana Kamtekar:

‘Feminism’ can mean at least a couple of different things.

(1) As the view that women and men should have equal rights, or are owed equal respect, it’s as falsifiable or unfalsifiable as any other moral/political position, e.g. that people should have equal rights or be given equal respect, irrespective of their race. Your question about feminism as a moral or political view raises more fundamental questions: are moral statements statements of fact? or are they expressions of approval or disapproval? or just claims as to how people should behave? If they are claims about how people should behave, are they grounded in the view that so behaving would make everyone better off, or that such behaviour alone gives due recognition to the relevant parties moral status, or that good, well-adjusted people would behave in such a way?

(2) As the view that women and men have equal capacities, feminism should be falsifiable: either women and men do, or don’t have equal capacities, and we should be able to examine them to determine the answer. But there are real difficulties with doing this. First, there are lots of different capacities (depending on how you divide things up: e.g. there’s the capacity to do mathematics, but also the capacity to do trigonometry and to calculate compound interest–two capacities, or one?) It doesn’t seem that all of these capacities are equally important, or equally important in every context (compare the capacity to jump very high, the capacity to resolve social conflict, and the capacity to solve chemical structures). So how are we to measure whether women’s and men’s capacities are equal? If we could list capacities in some value-neutral way, and if we compared women and men on each of these, would our result be meaningful? Second, what we can measure is performance, and there may be lots of reasons that performance doesn’t accurately reflect capacities: the tests may be biased, or people with certain backgrounds may underperform because e.g. they think they’re bad at tests, or aren’t used to taking tests.

In addition to that comprehensive answer, she then goes on to recommend some additional reading.

What I liked about her answer was that in answering the reader’s question, she raised a question that I have often pondered myself about feminism. What is feminism exactly—an idea about the way people should be treated, or an idea about the inherent nature of people? And what happens if it is both, and those come into conflict? For example, I’ve read many articles talking about the inherent differences between men and women in science, but I struggle with the idea. Firstly, because I think societal factors also affect how many women go into science and how likely they are to push themselves in a science class versus an English class, and test scores cannot quantify that. But from a less rational point of view, I also have this inherent belief that women can do everything men can do, even when faced with evidence that may say contrary, because I believe that it should be that way—and that is where feminism becomes a moral and political idea (which is not to say that I don’t think it is rational to believe that men and women are equal, but I digress.) I have this gut feeling that men and women are equal, not because of facts or figures, but because somewhere inside of me it just feels right—and a feeling like that, what drives a lot of my feminism, is sometimes hard to rationalize or quantify.

Feminism is clearly hard to define, and luckily, Rachana Kamtekar does not try to stick a hard and fast definition to it. But I did walk away from reading her entry with somewhat of a clearer way of trying to define feminism, and a new way of thinking about my own, sometimes even contradictory, way of being a feminist. The site has a lot of other interesting things to read and think about, so I’d definitely recommend checking it out.

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Name: Sophia Henriquez

Age: 16

Place of Birth: New York City

Neighborhood: New York City

Denomination: Reform

Race: Caucasian

Ethnicity: Hispanic

Sexuality: Heterosexual

Profession: Student

“So, who are you interviewing next?”

“Sophia Henriquez from Peer Leadership,” I answered.

“But I thought your project was about Jewish feminism,” my mom replied, her face scrunching into a contortion of confusion that accompanies assumptions proven incorrect.

My mother is not the only one who responded like this when I mentioned that Sophia was my next interviewee. With a common Hispanic last name and a self-identified Latina, she is not the most likely Jew and that makes her a fighter for her religious identity, someone who goes the extra mile to prove to people that she is, in fact, Jewish not in spite of but in conjunction with her last name.

Sophia is not only Jewish, but Christian as well. She has grown up embracing diversity. After going to camp with her when we were younger, we have reunited in the Peer Leadership classroom, a place where high school juniors and seniors are taught to acknowledge differences and use them to construct individual identity. I knew she would be an ideal candidate for this project when she said during a lesson on family identity that what she loves most are the traditions her family has created, traditions that stem from a fusion of practices generally thought to run parallel, but to never intersect. This is precisely the beauty of the Henriquez interfaith and interracial household: it proves that this intersection is possible and that Judaism has a place in it.

I meet Sophia in the Senior Inquiry classroom. There are teachers bickering in the background and the din makes her assert her responses just like she asserts her unique and occasionally unaccepted identity. As with many young Jewish women, the first example that comes to mind when I ask Sophia to describe her religious upbringing is her Bat Mitzvah. The least genetically Jewish of all the women in her immediate family, she and her sister were actually the first ones to have Bat Mitzvahs.

She describes her mother’s influence, “My mom wasn’t a force on [my sister and I having Bat Mitzvahs] because she didn’t have one herself and neither did my grandmother so it was very individual for my sister and I because it was always a question of where we belonged.”

Sophia is a representative of what happens when you choose religion and religious practices. She puts choice back into religion and tradition. She took the initiative in having a Bat Mitzvah. This initiation is the most mature step to take in a ceremony that has the intention of a coming of age.

Just as she defined her desire to have a Bat Mitzvah, she defines other rituals on her own terms. Flexibility with Judaism is vital for this reform Jew from Stuyvesant Town. Her take on religion is beautiful and modern, containing elements of acceptance and comfort. As someone who is a part of two religions, she is able to take Judaism into a greater context.

(more…)

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I just got back from Boulder, Colorado where I stayed for my cousin’s wedding. To be honest, I’m not a big wedding person. Many people assume that is because my parents are divorced and that is probably part of it, but I see the inequality associated with the ritual, its institutionalization and the commercialism that has boomed in accordance with an event that is supposed to be about love rather than exclusion and magazines. Cynicism is great when it allows me to think outside of the box and to create alternatives to rituals I deem discriminatory, but it’s not so great when it puts up a wall between me and appreciating a ceremony that is so much bigger than myself.

While one wedding did not get me to change my personal views on marriage, I did learn to appreciate the beauty of my cousin and his wife displaying their love and sharing it with family and close friends. And it was beautiful. The ceremony was at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, the chuppah outside overlooking an expanse so wide that it just feels Jewish in the faith sense of the term.

The rabbi (my second cousin) was upfront about the fact that this would not be a “traditional” wedding. By that, he meant that it would be egalitarian, featuring men and women equally and, in this case, within the boundaries of most Jewish laws. The ceremony began with circling. Traditionally, the bride circles the groom seven times, but in their wedding, my cousin also circled his beloved, creating a union based in equality. Then, when the Ketubah (marriage contract) was signed, they had four witnesses rather than the required two. They had four because it is mandated that there be two male witnesses, but female witnesses do not traditionally count. The happy couple made certain to have equal representation on both sides.

This was only the second wedding I’ve been to (the first being my dad and stepmom’s who were married by the same rabbi as in this one) and it made me feel safe in both Judaism and in my family, like I was not part of something that would be considered exclusive. That is a wonderful feeling and one that should be the basis of a union rooted in law, religion, and love.

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I literally just put down On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition and I felt an overwhelming urge to blog about it. I’ve been reading it for the past week or two, and it’s completely unique from any other piece of Jewish feminist literature I have read. Unlike a lot of pieces I have read, Blu Greenberg, the author, is not willing to simply write off Halacha as outdated and sexist and replace it with newer ideas without reason, but is also unwilling to give up on the idea that equality for men and women is an inherent Jewish value. I’m probably going to write a couple of posts on various topics that she writes about because there is just so much to say.

For this first post, I want to write about what Greenberg has to say about women’s exemption from positive time-bound commandments, and the implication of that exemption on their observance of Judaism and role in the community, specifically with prayer. She explains that there is a principle in Judaism that every commandment that must be preformed within a specific time frame is not binding on women, such as daytime commandments or commandments that must be performed at a certain hour. There is no rationale mentioned for this exemption in the Talmud, but many scholars have tried to explain the meaning of the exemption. She cites several theories.

The first, a fourteenth century theory, says that because in the sex-hierarchy women are in the subservient position, women should not be bound to commandments at a specific time because it might prevent them from serving their husbands. The second, a nineteenth century theory, says that because in the sex-hierarchy women are actually superior to men, they do not need to observe the commandments because they have a special fervor and love for God that men do not have because of their special role, raising a family. The third is a thirteenth century theory that says that like children and slaves, women do not have the mental control to observe the commandments, and the fourth is a twentieth century theory that says that women do not need the commandments because they are naturally more in tune to the passing of time because of their biological clocks, and do not need the commandments to remind them of it like men do. The fifth and final one is a twentieth century theory created by Saul Berman. He says that the commandments from which women are exempted are mainly ones that would lead them into the public eye: lack of status in a Minyan, not being allowed to be called to the Torah, not being allowed to be witnesses in Jewish courts, etc. If you mix all these theories together, the reason for the exemption probably has to do with a desire for women to be able to perform their domestic duties, as well as desire for women to maintain their roles inside the home and outside of the public eye.

She then goes onto explain how because for years women have not been obligated to pray in a Minyan (a group of at least ten) because of this exemption, doing so has become a mainly male thing. While personal prayer is seen as an important thing, praying in a larger group is regarded in Judaism as the better option—people are encouraged to pray in a Minyan rather than by themselves, to the point where there are certain prayers that can only be said in a Minyan. And women, because they are not required, end up losing out on that. She says,

And what about the spiral effect of release? Without actually assuming full and equal responsibility, will it ever be possible to have full and equal access—especially in a system that defines access in terms of responsibility? Can a woman ever hope to qualify for religious leadership if she has not met equal tests as a layperson? Indeed, is there not an inseverable link between release and restrain, between unaccountability and public invisibility, between ascribed junior status and reduced self-esteem? If we have learned anything at all from feminism, is it not that rights and responsibilities must come together?

I find that quote to be really powerful, because it counters the argument that women should not complain about being exempted from commandments because they can take their own initiative and perform them. It is not as simple as that—exempting an entire sex from something sends a message, whether that message is that these women are not full members of the community, or that they are incapable of fixed responsibility.

I will end this incredibly long post with Greenberg’s suggestion for dealing with the issue of exemption. She suggests that the exemption from time-bound commandment for all women be lifted, and instead only be relevant for women who are raising children (lasting until perhaps Bar/Bat Mitzvah age). She believes that doing so will encourage women to pray throughout their entire lives and turn to prayer as a means of expression, while also making a statement about “the holiness of raising a family,” exhibited by the fact that it can take precedent over other commandments. She also believes that in the long run, women will have to be included in a Minyan in order for them to be seen as full members of a community; she does not criticize the Mechitzah (division between the two sexes), but rather believes that women should be entrusted with the same responsibility that men are, the responsibility to show up for a Minyan and pray.

I love the fact that she ends this chapter, a chapter called “Women and Liturgy,” with an idea for the future but also with an emphasis on the power of Jewish law, Halacha, to influence people’s lives. She describes Halacha as a powerful, beautiful thing, one that binds Jews to laws and customs, but also to an ancient history and tradition. She describes it as a dynamic, fluid system of law that should naturally adapt to include women—she does not try to over-criticize Halacha, but rather work together with it to show how Judaism’s moral code calls for an inclusion of women. And although I personally may not be as observant as Greenberg or in agreement with all of her views, I think that something that we should all strive for is to look at Jewish feminism as a way of bettering Judaism, not as a way of tearing it apart.

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Forbes magazine came out this week with a list of the Top 100 Websites for Women, and it got me thinking about what makes a website “for women.”

On the list, there are various websites like She Takes on the World, which serves to create a kind of online business and entrepreneurial community for women, with articles about women entrepreneurs and opportunities for women to connect. This website, and the other ones like it, seem to create a category of their own—a kind of link for women in the business world.

There are various other categories, from women’s fashion to advice for mothers, and then there are just some sites that made me think, What makes this a women’s site? Why is Rachael Ray’s website a women’s site? Why is Escape from Cubicle Nation, a blog a woman writes with advice for frustrated employees on how to start their own business, something just for women? Men like to cook (at least some, just like women), and men also get frustrated with work.

I was surprised to see just how many websites there are out there that define themselves as “for women.” And not in a bad way, because by the sheer number of websites and number of comments, there is certainly a demand for them. So, I decided to google “top websites for men,” and I actually got some results. Not from places as famous as Forbes, but Min Online came out with a list of the Top Five Men’s Websites, and JeanTop has a top ten list, and surprisingly (or not so), they were similar to the women’s sites: they talk about clothes, money, dating, and various other day-to-day topics.

A part of me wanted to write this post about how having separate websites for men and women serves to separate the two instead of creating discussions between men and women. Because when I write this blog I don’t expect or want the readers to be only female. In fact, of all my friends, the ones who read it most frequently and comment on it most frequently are male. And personally, I think that it’s a good thing that men are reading feminist blogs, because what good does it do to only discuss issues that affect women with women? But, then I thought about it, and the fact is that this blog is a feminist blog, not a women’s blog—men can be feminists, but they can’t usually be women.

And therein lies a key difference: you can even tell from the list that there’s clearly a difference between being feminist and being “for women.” The list is supposed to be “the most dynamic, inspiring and helpful websites for women,” and there are only a few (Feministe, Femininisting, Ms. magazine blog, etc.) websites whose missions are feminist. And I think that makes a lot of sense, because there is more to being a woman than being a feminist, and feminist sites should not be only for women.

That’s the thing—I think that while a lot of websites should include both men and women, it’s also important to have spaces for them to be separate. Women and men are different, and it’s useful for women to have a website for the needs that they have that are different from men’s, and where they feel comfortable embracing the fact that they are different. I still think that Rachael Ray’s website could be for men, too, but the rest of the list is actually kind of empowering in that it shows me just how much women have taken it upon themselves to connect with other women and to better their lives, separate from men. It’s cool that there are sites for stereotypically women’s things, like food and parenting, but also that there are so many for business and investing, too.

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I am standing on my side of the mechitza (divider that separates men and women to prevent distractions) at Yakar, an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem. This is my first Friday night service since my sister’s makeshift Bat Mitzvah one year ago. I stand with my prayer book, squinting at the foreign alphabet I can barely read and whose words I can never understand. I suddenly realize that although I might never know the meanings of these words, I can make out names I recognize, names whose stories I know.

There is singing and amidst the singing, fierce communal prayer. This is not an egalitarian synagogue. I knew that when I walked in and saw my friends disappear behind a white curtain and the rabbi follow suit. Yet this truly hits me when I look down at the page and the only names I recognize are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

I grew up learning that their wives – Rachel, Rebecca, and Sarah – are equally important. I wanted to read more about them – the women who persuaded their husbands to change the face of Judaism, who gave birth to tribes responsible for my existence in red tents. I went to synagogues where, immediately after we chanted “Avram v’Yishmael, v’Yaakov,” we chanted “Sarah, v’Rebecca, v’Rachel, v’Leah.” Yet miles away from home, I realize that these names are missing. The mothers are gone. How are there sons without mothers?

How could we forget Sarah, the woman who birthed a nation when she was told she was infertile, who lost all hope of getting pregnant, who wanted to be a mother so badly that when she finally gave birth to Isaac, she made certain she raised a son capable of continuing a religion?

And Rebecca? A woman who obeyed her father’s orders to marry up, to marry Isaac, and to give birth to Judaism’s first twins, she was strong-willed and pragmatic. She went to any length to make sure Judaism – the birthright of one of her sons – was put in the right hands when her husband died, tricking her husband on his deathbed. Why is her epic story not mentioned with the simple courtesy of a name?

As for Leah and Rachel, where are they? Where are the names of sisters who loved the same man, but who were able to realize that sisterhood is what matters above all else? They raised each other’s children and lived a life of pressure in polygamy, all the while known for their individual identities – Leah for being intelligent and having a good eye of judgment and Rachel for being staggeringly beautiful and too mature for her age.

It is crucial that we remember the matriarchs. Too often, they are left out and forgotten, their contributions to Judaism ignored while their husbands sneak in all the credit. To honor the matriarchs means we hear the whole story instead of half of it. We empower ourselves as women by honoring those that came before us.

These women must be remembered not exclusively in the context of men. We must remember them as women in their own right, women who possess identities beyond wifedom and motherhood, women with lives and stories of their own and with a perspective that just might differ from that of men. These four women are symbols for thousands more that live today. It is my job to hear their stories in Shabbat melodies so that I can live out my own.

That is why on a hot Jerusalem night I stand as the white cloth waves with the too short and unexpected breeze and I hear the Aleinu being read. And I hear my Orthodox friends sing “Avram v’Yishmael, v’Yaakov.” And I make a decision. I decide I will no longer be passive. I decide I will say the names of the mothers – metaphorical or not – that made it possible for me to stand here in the first place. As the congregation moves onto the next verse, I whisper with triumph, “Sarah, v’Rebecca, v’Rachel, v’Leah,” the names of my metaphorical mothers.

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Yes, I am alive. It has been quite a while since I have posted here and I can explain.

People say that being a second semester senior in high school is all play and no work, but the truth is that being a second semester senior is a lot of play that makes you forget that the work exists…until it comes to bite you in the butt. That was my experience at least. I have finished this senior project I have been blogging about and I am thrilled to say that it completely consumed me these past few weeks. I am proud of the end result and I walked around school during presentation week referring to this 43-page “book” as my baby. That, along with end-of-year festivities such as prom and a trip me and my friends took to Fire Island have really made these past four years of endless homework and standardized tests worth it. Unfortunately, I have not had much time to blog, but I intend to make up for it this summer.

So tonight begins my summer posting, at first a gradual flow of excerpts from my senior project and, as I experience more feminist Judaism (I’ll be at my cousin’s wedding next weekend where I plan on taking field notes concerning the expected heteronormativity and casual sexism present in the rituals, as well as the potential feminism in the remaking of them), I will blog about that on a much more regular basis.

In short, I’M BACK!

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