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Saturday, May 11, 2013

Mother's Day: Women at the Wall

Depending on your perspective, what's happening at the Western Wall (in Hebrew, the Kotel) in the city of Jerusalem is either a travesty and sin against all that is holy - or - it is a sign and symbol of God's ongoing call of inclusive love to every last one of God's creatures - including women.

Or, it could be seen as symbolic of the struggle of all women throughout time who have stood at many walls - real and metaphorical - and prayed to God for a just society. 

It could also be seen as emblematic of the struggle at the core of the identity of Israel: How can it be a thriving, healthy democracy when the ultra-Orthodox (in Hebrew, the Haredim) wants it to be a theocracy?

Or, as my friend, a Reconstructionist Jew who is wholeheartedly supportive of The Women at the Wall and has worshiped there herself with her sisters who are working for change, posits the issue: "The question being asked by the Haredim is how can a people whose identity of themselves comes from the way they worship God know who they are as a nation of people if the way they have worshiped for centuries is radically changed?"

"The problem," she continues, "is not that the way we have worshiped has changed. We say the same prayers, chant the same Shema, observe the same holy days as we always have."

"The problem - well, for the Haredim," she says, "is that groups of men and groups of women and, increasingly, integrated groups of men and women want to pray these ancient prayers together. That, for the Haredim, is blasphemy and heresy and an abomination in the sight of God."

She tells me that non-Orthodox do not have the same legal rights as Orthodox Jews in Israel. Their rabbis are not recognized by the state, and are prevented from conducting marriages. The tax code discriminates against secular and non-Orthodox practicing (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or - gasp!- Renewal) Jews.

She report that over a quarter of a million Israelis are treated as second class citizens because they are not Jewish as the Orthodox defines what it means to be a Jew. They cannot marry in Israel, face bureaucratic hurdles no one else does, and some are even retroactively denied citizenship and are under threat of deportation to countries they either never knew or left when toddlers.

I smiled ironically and observed, "You know, one of my therapists always cautioned me, 'That which we reject, we become'. It seems to me that the Haredim are most vocal against Iran where there is a theocracy and yet, that's precisely what what they are trying to achieve in Israel."

My friend smiled sadly, shook her head and said, "Isn't that what we've been fighting for centuries? Isn't that what you, in The Episcopal Church, have been fighting, even almost 40 years after the ordination of women? Isn't that what the Anglican church is fighting over elected or appointing women to the episcopacy?"

The Very Rev'd Janet Henderson
My thoughts immediately went to Janet Henderson, the first woman to be appointed Dean of the Cathedral at Llandaff, who resigned just two months after her appointment to that post.

According to Thinking Anglicans, "Church in Wales sources have told WalesOnline that Dean Henderson had had “a difficult time” since her appointment, with some clergy resenting the appointment of a woman…"

I thought of the reports from the Western Wall yesterday, Rosh Hodesh Iyar, the first of the month, when several hundred women who had gathered to pray were greeted by hundreds of Haredim men who stood on chairs and looked down at them as if they "were parasites" and threw garbage and plastic water bottles at them and hurled insults at them and taunted them.

I can only imagine what Henderson went through in Wales that would lead her to quit after only two months as Dean. Perhaps actual garbage and plastic water bottles were not thrown at her, but there are words that can inflict more harm on a person's soul than that.

Sexism is alive and well in all corners of the church. The situation at the Cathedral in Wales is one of the more obvious. And, tragic. Others provide evidence of "death by a thousand paper cuts". 

I wish I could remember the study - I think it was PEW - that indicated that, in the first five years of ordained ministry, women gained an average of 20-25 pounds. I remember sharing that stat with my women clergy colleague group and one woman said, "Right. It's insulation." 

And then, there are women in churches all over the country who become "one of the boys" and, for their "sins", are known by such (ahem) "terms of endearment" as "Mother Ironpants" or "Mother Bubba" or "Mother Fuhrer". 

All you have to do is gather up your courage, put on your asbestos sneakers, and head on over to one of the neo-Orthodox, uber-Calvinist blogs to discover that some of the "good old boys" are loathed to call our Presiding Bishop by her appropriate title (which, of course, is "The Most Rev'd Katharine Jefferts Schori") and, instead, refer to her as "Mrs. Schori" - so everyone remembers her proper place. Or, as a nod to her PhD in oceanography, some call her "The Squid in Chief." 

Such pathetic little boys!

At yesterday's mass demonstration at the Western Wall, ultra-Orthodox Rabbis all over Israel called on religious teenage girls in their seminaries who turned up in large numbers to protest the group’s insistence on praying at the wall in religious garb traditionally worn by men.

According to a report in the NY Times: "The girls crammed the women’s section directly in front of the wall by 6:30 a.m., forcing the liberal women to conduct their prayer service farther back on the plaza. There, hundreds of police officers locked arms in cordons to hold back throngs of black-hatted Orthodox men who whistled, catcalled, and threw water, candy and a few plastic chairs."
But Rabbi Israel Eichler, an ultra-Orthodox member of Parliament, warned that “if the state of Israel fights” the ultra-Orthodox, in Hebrew called Haredim, “it may win, but it will be erased from the face of the Earth.” 

“There were thousands of seminary girls there today,” he said. “Each one of them will have 10 children. That is our victory.”
The sad part is, he's right.  These brainwashed girls will go on to obediently marry and obey ultra-Orthodox men and have "a quiver full of children".

My thoughts immediately went to the recent commencement speech given my Mitt Romeny who told the recently graduated women of Southern Virginia University “I don’t think God cares whether you get rich,” he warned the crowd. “I don’t think he hopes that your business will make a huge profit. I know a lot of religious people who think God will intervene to make their investments grow. Or he’ll get them a promotion. To make their business a success. But life on this earth is about learning to live in a place where God does not make everything work out for good people.”

So, his advice? "Get married and have a quiver full of kids." 

Because, you know, that's the "natural order" of things. That's what it says in the Bible, right?

Elizabeth Smart
My thoughts also went to Elizabeth Smart the young Mormon girl who was abducted and repeatedly raped for months when she was just 14 years old. Smart spoke at a Johns Hopkins human trafficking forum, where she recalled that it was not only fear for the safety of her family that kept her from running but also a sense that rape had ruined her:  She said:
“It goes beyond fear. It’s feelings of self worth. Who would ever want me now? I’m worthless. That is what it was for me the first time I was raped. I was raised in a very religious household, one that taught that sex was something very special that only happened between a husband and a wife who loved each other... For that first rape, I felt crushed. ‘Who could want me now?’ I felt so dirty and so filthy. I understand all too well why someone wouldn’t run because of that alone. If you can imagine the most special thing being taken away from you? And feeling not that that was your only value in life, but that devalued you? I remember in school one time I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence, and she said, imagine, you’re a stick of gum and when you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed, and if you do that lots of times, you’re going to be an old piece of gum, and who’s going to want you after that? And that’s terrible, and nobody should ever say that, but for me, I thought, I’m that chewed up piece of gum. Nobody ever rechews a piece of gum.  …That’s how easy it is to feel that you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would you even bother screaming out?”
I applaud this young woman speaking out the truth, even if it means criticizing the religion of her childhood which she still loves.  Yes, it is terrible, and nobody should ever say that, no matter how well-intentioned they are.

My hope is that her words will serve as a wake-up call to the Church - Mormon, Catholic and Protestant - to see how damaging "traditional" religious teaching can be to healthy human sexuality in general and healthy women in particular.

It's the same kind of brainwashing the young teenaged women of the Haredim have undergone, which led one to say, “I’m here so they won’t be,” said one of the teenagers, who like a dozen others interviewed spoke on the condition that her name not be published. “It’s forbidden for them to be here. It’s allowed by the court, but it’s forbidden by God. If I’m here, there won’t be room for them.”

My hope is that one of those young women, in seeing one of those Women at the Wall dressed in prayer garments traditionally reserved for men, will have her eyes and her mind opened to the possibility that God might be calling all of God's creatures - male and female God is calling them - to worship God together.

Throughout the centuries of human existence, there have been many women who have stood at many and varied walls - some real, some metaphorical - and prayed. 

Which is why I've committed myself to joining my sisters in prayer at The Wall. I thank them and am deeply, deeply grateful, for their courage and their persistence and their tenacity to fight against this injustice.

They are leading the way for change, the way religious Jewish women have throughout history.

These women stand in the tradition of Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Miriam, Hannah, Rachel, Leah, Ruth, Naomi, Dinah, Judith, Ester, Rebekah, Deborah, and, many, many others - known and unknown - whose names are written in the palm of God's hand.

As well as, of course, the young girl from Nazareth named Mary.

These are our religious mothers, as are the women of today to dare to stand at the Wall and boldly proclaim the truth that praying is a mitzvah - a commandment - not a crime.

For those who love God, praying is beyond a mitzvah. It is something we do as naturally as breathing. It is our way of being in constant communication with the One who created us in Love to be a manifestation of God's love on this Earth.

I will offer the Women at the Wall a "spiritual bouquet" - as the nuns of my youth called prayers of special intention and prise and thanksgiving.

Every day. But, especially tomorrow.

Mother's Day.


8thday said...

I am in full agreement with your thoughts in this post. However I would like to make a point about Elizabeth Smart and (your inference about) her comments.

I know no person, male or female, who has experienced rape, myself included, that has not felt ruined, worthless and dirty. And I don't think Ms. Smart was saying that these feelings were only due to her strict religious upbringing.

I can blame a lot of bad things on religion, but I think it would be wrong to pin what I believe to be a pretty universal response to an horrendous violation of the body and soul strictly on conservative religious teachings.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dear 8th- As a survivor myself, I couldn't agree with you more. What Smart was saying was that the feelings were compounded by her religious teaching that premarital sex is like being a used up piece of gum. That's why I included her full quote. Read it again and see what I'm saying.

Brian Davis said...

Happy Mother's Day, Elizabeth! I happily join my Jewish sisters in God in prayer also.

I was reading a posting over at Peter Carrell's blog about the enthronement of a new archbishop and the comments made by the daughter of a former bishop, where one commenter talked about how it was misguided and wrong for the Church to be in and adapt to society and its changing attitudes (the topic was gay marriage and SS blessings) and how we should only accept, believe, and allow that which is contained in the bible as orthodox. In other words, no to women, no to LGBTQ people, no to any kind of "innovation" over the last 2,000 odd years. Extraordinary!

I realized what a limited and controlled vision of God that really is -- a safe, restrained, definable, and knowable God that is neatly wrapped up in a prison of words.

I felt sad for the commenter, as I do for the Haredim and the misogynists at the Welsh cathedral and those struggling against women bishops in the Anglican church in England.

All who desire to contain God and control God in the name of "orthodoxy" so they can feel safe and secure in their belief are missing out on so much of God's creativity, grace, love, and incarnation.

My God is here and now and very alive and active in my world and in my life. Of course God changes through the ages! Of course we grow in knowledge and wisdom as time passes! God is not a fossil or a frozen idol or a book!

I wish you and all my sisters in God strength, courage, love, passion, and joy! Namaste.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Brian.

You know, to a certain extent, I do feel pity for the pathetic need of some people to clothed themselves in "the bible" and "orthodoxy" in order to defend their own anxieties.

That pity dissolves into outrage when they try to impose their believes on others. You need that for your anxieties? Be my guest. Believe that God and God's word are frozen in time. Please don't impose that on the rest of us who believe differently.

You may want to remain frozen in time with your God - others of us want to bathe in the warmth of a living God who loves us enough to give us Free Will as well as Grace.

walter said...

I second your hope, Elizabeth.

Sextant said...

Great post Elizabeth. I find it hard to conceive of God holding women any less blessed than men. But by most religions, I am going to broil in Hell. So be it, at least they don't discriminate by gender, race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, or religious preference in hell. I am not too worried.

Is it not amazing how people who worry about maintaining chaste purity (for women, you know boys will be boys and God looks the other way) often have such poisoned minds. It is my belief that people who use religion to promote hatred are going to be in for a rude awakening. Hopefully for them. God is more merciful than they are.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, WV

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sextant - It sometimes seems grossly unfair to me that God will, I believe, be fairer to these guys than they are to everyone else, but that is part of the mystery of our God.

Always good to hear from you.