Tradition

9 01 2007

I was standing in a bookstore once and browsing through the books in the Gender Studies section. I came across a book that, I could imagine, had caused the individual responsible for placing it there some consternation. Entitled, God Wears Lipstick, this book could have just as easily found its way into the Religion section of the same store. What does one do? It has “God” in the title, and appears to be a feminist tract on divinity; yet, the book also has the word “lipstick” in the title, and is clearly a feminist tract on divinity. It may have been the colour of the book (a bright pink), coupled with the cover design (red feminine lips), that enabled the nameless individual to make up his (?) mind and place the book in the Gender Studies section instead. This is despite the fact that it is subtitled, “Kabbalah for Women”.

When I looked at the book, it immediately made me feel annoyed. My reaction was a gut response, and occurred without the benefit of thought. How preposterous!, I thought. God (in whom I did not believe) is incorporeal. Why cheapen one’s own argument by having God depicted with human (female!) lips? Are we to view God now in a physically sexual manner?

I walked away from the book with that sense of moral and intellectual superiority with which one often finds themselves endowed when they have just successfully critiqued another; and paused. I realised that my “critique” was actually built upon a system of traditional approaches to God and had actually lacked any degree of consideration. To better put things into context, I considered a particular midrash that I had once encountered. Penned at some stage in the first couple of centuries (assumedly), this midrash is quoted by Rashi in his commentary on Exodus. Briefly put, the midrash states that God stood at Mt Sinai and bedecked himself in tefillin and a prayer shawl. For those of you unfamiliar with Jewish religious practise, these are both items worn by religious Jewish men.

I can honestly say that this gross anthropomorphism never once bothered me. And why should it? I am not so foolhardy as to think that the authors of the midrash took it literally! (Although I have come to appreciate that several of them might have, and that the attribution of physical [male] characteristics to God was sometimes supposed to be literal). As far as I was concerned at the time, and certainly as far as Rashi had been concerned as well, these were metaphysical characteristics, designed to represent metaphysical features of the godhead. At their most literal, they were simply indicating a possible belief in the supernal characteristics of these ritual items. Picturing God dressed as a man – even picturing God with a beard and a circumcision – did not, and does not, bother me. This is simply the manner in which I have been raised, and it takes a certain degree of effort to break out of this mould.

Do I want to break out of it? I still feel uncomfortable with prayers that address God as a woman, despite the fact that I do not even pray. Despite being an entirely non-observant Jew, I still feel awkward with synagogue services in which men sit together with women. I don’t like it, and simply cannot help my dislike. As with my response in the bookstore, this is a gut reaction. For me, traditional Judaism means one thing, and it needs to keep on meaning that one thing whether or not I wish to be a part of it. And not just for me: whatever difficulties I face with the alteration of tradition and traditional hermeneutics is compounded tenfold in the hearts and minds of those who adhere to this ancient faith. I mentioned in the addendum to my previous post that there are some communities who will simply never change. They cannot; and I understand that.

I am writing this because I have since been picked up by a friend for the language that I employed in the previous post, concerning the nature of tradition. Tradition angers me; it infuriates me. I wish that it would budge for the things that I consider important and yet, at the same time, I realise that the only reason that it angers me so deeply is because I feel the same opposition to change within myself. I can’t help it. The Judaism with which I fell in love (that same Judaism in which I do not believe) is the stark, black-and-white Judaism of Jerusalem and its twisted laneways. It’s the rainy streets of Mea Shearim; the men wearing streimels on Shabbat, the women in wigs. There’s something about this dark side of my religion, this intensive clinging-on to the old world of Europe, that appeals very much to me on certain levels. It is no wonder that I left, but it is also no wonder that, in certain other ways, I cannot.

The status of women within the Judaism that I romanticise is deplorable. It is not only women who suffer in these communities, but they constitute the largest single marginalised group. Change must occur, and will occur over enough time, but it starts with the individual. It is not enough for me to get annoyed at the inability of religious communities to change, these things begin at home. I have a good friend who shares certain religious responsibilities with her husband and, fortunately, these people are growing in number. For the time being, I get the impression that their steps in the right direction are baby steps and are not necessarily shared with everyone they meet, but as the numbers grow the changes will become more mainstream. For me, it is simply enough that I keep on opening my mind to the possibilities for change; I hope that the next time I see something that challenges me, my response will be from somewhere a little higher than my gut.

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4 responses

10 01 2007
Conrad H. Roth

I don’t like to use this word, but this is a brave piece of writing.

13 01 2007
Billie Jean

Good post, Simon.

I think feminism for men is really hard. You can’t win, in a way, because to be feminist requires you to go against so much, from biological wiring to social conditioning — but being honest about this will get you into trouble.

Your post makes me think about the IAT (implicit attitudes test).
https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/

The IAT is a really interesting psychological experiment which has shown that not only do people tend not to speak their minds honestly about tricky issues such as racism and sexism, but they sometimes don’t even know them. To my surprise, according to the IAT, I am moderately biased against homosexuals, moderately prefer blacks to whites, and strongly associate women with science. I can’t explain the black/white one at all! Anyway, what it really means is that sometimes we don’t quite agree with ourselves. So it’s not just you!

15 01 2007
Simon Holloway

I just did a couple of those sample IAT tests, but I found the results slightly dodgy. They decided that I have a moderate preference for Judaism over other religions, which is remarkable – but less so when you consider that was my direct response to one of the questions before the test even began. Wonder how they worked that out! Hum…

Also, I am apparantly homophobic which is blatantly absurd. I’m sure that a test of this nature might work under certain conditions, but I am equally certain that it didn’t work properly for me under these ones. In any case, why do you suggest that being honest might get me into trouble? So far I’ve been labelled brave! (Thanks, Conrad).

I don’t know if ‘bravery’ of any sort really enters into it. People who know me will probably not be surprised to read my opinions, and those who don’t (most of the time, I’m sure) would agree. Now, if my opinion had been the exact opposite: that would be brave!

19 01 2007
Billie Jean

I also don’t know if the IATs are accurate or not. But the concept is definitely interesting. I don’t think the questionnaires and actual tests are connected. You can do the test without filling in the questionnaire. As for homophobia, while I’ve never discussed this issue with you, I’d be surprised if anyone in Western society (including members of the gay community) wasn’t homophobic to some degree. We’re just not far enough away from it being classified as a mental illness to be completely free of the prejudices.

As for getting yourself into trouble, I think a post like this could make a certain type of feminist angry.

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