Experience Is To Be Lived

Reflections on life as a [relatively privileged] minority status collector


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The Fast of the Apostate

TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDE, DEPRESSION

Depression tried to kill me. I survived! Let’s eat!

Speaking from the depths of a severe depressive episode, this is likely to be a shorter blog post than most of mine. I feel driven, though, to pull together a few thoughts that have been floating around in my head over the last few days.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the centre of Jewish life at the time, and its destruction scattered Jews across the world.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the centre of Jewish life at the time, and its destruction scattered Jews across the world.

Tuesday 15th July was a notable day for several reasons. It was the day that I had a second interview for a job that I really wanted (and didn’t get). It was also the Fast of Tammuz, a day in the Jewish calendar which marks the beginning of the saddest three-week period in the year. On that day, Jews across the world commemorate the breach of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans in 69CE, an event which ultimately led up to the destruction of the Second Temple and the beginning of the Exile which is ongoing. This year, many Jews chose to dedicate their fast to a hope for peace in Israel-Palestine, fasting alongside their Muslim cousins during Ramadan.

Tuesday 5th August was another notable day in the Jewish calendar. It was Tisha b’Av, one of the most significant fast days in Judaism, marking (among many other coincidental disasters in Jewish history) the destruction of the Second Temple. In addition to fasting, it is traditionally marked by adopting full mourning rituals, including not bathing, wearing jewellery, wearing new or clean clothes, sitting on chairs, using lotions or make up, engaging in sexual activity, or greeting one another. All in all, it’s a pretty intense day dedicated to bringing the person into as deep a state of sadness as is possible when they are so far detached in time and often geography from the events commemorated.

I have now decided to disclose the fact that I did not mark either day in any way at all.

Although I kept the fact very quiet from people around me, I have now decided to disclose the fact that I did not mark either day in any way at all, although for very different reasons.

My past blog posts both here and on other websites have hinted that I am losing my commitment to Judaism, or, as it is called in Jewish circles, ‘going off the derech [path]’. I feel as though it no longer means to me what it used to, and without a compulsion of the concept of divine reward and punishment, I have no real reason to continue to practice what I would formerly have done. It’s very much a work in progress in the moment, establishing what means something to me and what doesn’t, so I’m taking each day as it comes.

I thought about fasting on July 17th. Had I fasted, I would have dedicated my fast to the #hungryforpeace movement in hope that I was adding my voice to a call for rationality and brotherhood. As late as the night before the fast itself, I was still trying to work out whether or not I would fast, because the religious significance of the fast day just didn’t mean anything to me. Sure, there was the collective mourning, the sense of history, the solidarity with my people and my past, but I know that whenever I fasted in the past, it’s just been for show. I don’t really get into it, I don’t feel sad; I just feel hungry, and I like the feeling of hunger, so that doesn’t bother me. Believe me, I have used every method I can think of to connect with the day, but it just never really felt like a sad day. In the end, I decided that there was not enough significance for me to fast on the day of an important job interview and risk performing badly at the interview, so I did not fast. (As happens, I aced that interview! Sadly, someone else aced it more, and I didn’t get the job. But that’s by-the-by.)

On Wednesday 30th July, I crashed headlong into the most severe depressive episodes I’ve ever experienced.

In the three-week period between the two fasts, a number of factors came together in a perfect storm of horror, and on Wednesday 30th July, I crashed headlong into the most severe depressive episode I’ve ever experienced. Twice in the first few days, I came very close to ending my life, and owe my survival to a couple of very amazing people who know who they are. Although the urges have reduced a little, they’re still simmering under the surface and bubbling up every now and then. I have passed my days in a blur of tears, self-loathing, unsatisfying sleep and an ongoing battle to keep up with my daily life as if everything was fine, even though things that used to mean so much to me are now as bland and unappealing as staring at a brick wall. That last, incidentally, is an activity that I’ve done quite a lot in the last week or so.

This is my black dog. I haven't given him a name, because I hope he won't hang around too long.

This is my black dog. I haven’t given him a name, because I hope he won’t hang around too long.

I’m not sure if  I would say that the feelings I’ve had since that Wednesday have been comparable to the experience of mourning, with which I am intimately acquainted. In the immediate aftermath of my mum’s death, I cried a lot, and I felt like life could never get better again, but I still felt like I had a purpose to life. Life may have been utterly dreadful, but I still had some kind of reason to keep going, even if it was just to get back to my degree. At the moment, in the pits of depression, that purpose feels like it has just disappeared like smoke up a chimney (to use an old cliché). The black dog of depression is doing everything it can to make my life not worth living.

When Tisha b’Av rolled around, I didn’t even stop to think for a moment about the possibility of fasting. I listened to happy music. I watched TV. I had a shower. I wore my normal jewellery, and happened to pull a t-shirt out of the drawer that I’d never worn before. The fast day was completely meaningless to me, in terms of both its religious significance and the communal solidarity it draws. Ironically, though, I felt more sad and downbeat this Tisha b’Av gone than I have ever done before. This time, I didn’t need to fast on Tisha b’Av to feel depressed: my body was doing a very good job of that for me. I had been living my own personal Tisha b’Av for almost a week by then. Far from trying to bring myself down further, I was doing everything I could to find the tiniest bits of happiness in life, just like for so many years I have tried to find the tiny bits of sadness within a generally happy life.

I didn’t need to fast on Tisha b’Av to feel depressed. I had been living my own personal Tisha b’Av for almost a week.

There’s a little self-deprecating maxim that Jews throw around quite a lot to sum up their festivals: ‘They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.’ There’s also the lesser used ‘They tried to kill us, they managed it, let’s not eat’, which is what sums up the fasts of Tammuz and Tisha b’Av. Having been through what I have recently been experiencing, though, I want to alter the ditty in celebration of the smaller successes. Depression hasn’t killed me yet, and every day that it doesn’t, I’m going to eat to celebrate that. Fast day or no.


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Let It Go?

It’s funny how some distance can make everything seem small…

It’s been a while since I last wrote a blog post. My ‘blog post ideas’ Word document has been accumulating ideas, but time has not been on my side. At the same time, though, it’s been difficult to write in the interim period, because I feel like I’m both barely the person I was two months ago and even more the person I was two months ago – and now really myself. I’ll try to explain.

When I look back over my last five years, the changes, both external and internal, that I’ve gone through are pretty dramatic. I feel like that was a different me back then.

Yesterday, I turned 23. When I look back over my last five years, the changes, both external and internal, that I’ve gone through are pretty dramatic. On my 18th birthday, I was taking my French A Level oral exam (which I failed!). My mother was in remission and waiting a couple of years for an all clear, and was completely healthy with it. My boyfriend of a year and a half and I were going strong, and despite some ups and downs were looking forward to spending our gap year together. My RSI was bad, but not as bad as it had been and the medication was keeping it mostly under control, so I could function normally without too much pain. I was relatively comfortable with my religiosity and my faith, a few gripes notwithstanding. I feel like that was a different me back then.

Today I am 23. I am fortunate enough to have finished university with a first class degree, to have a good job which I secured within a few months of finishing university, and to have my RSI relatively under control without the aid of medication. To that extent, things are probably as I would have hoped to see them through the lens of five years ago. Other than that, though, I doubt much of my life today is how I’d have expected it to turn out.

I still miss my mother every day, but she acts my inspiration.

I still miss my mother every day, but she acts my inspiration.

My mother’s been gone two and a half years now, and I still miss her as much every day as I did on that first morning that the sun rose without her. Yesterday, she would have turned 57 – we’d have a collective age of 80 now! – but instead she’s in Bushey cemetery and I’m still putting the pieces of my life back together, rather inexpertly. The boyfriend and I broke up nearly three years ago, after just about making it through our gap year and then being on and off in our first year of university. My low moods, which were always a difficulty between us, have now crystallised into clinical depression, and his jokes that I was almost as interested in the women around me as I was in him are no longer jokes, because I proudly came out as bisexual a year ago. And my religion? Well, that’s been a constant seesaw ever since the very first week of my gap year, and the last two months have been no exception.

I had never been all that bothered about the role of women in Orthodox Judaism while I was growing up (as I explored in a post a few months ago), and I was happy to be religious in a normative way – or, at least, to been seen to be like that outwardly. Then I got to Israel for my gap year. A couple of days after arriving was a Friday, so it was my first Sabbath spent in the country, and we decided that the only thing we could even contemplate doing was to go to the Kotel (the Western Wall) for the Friday night services. That’s what we did. To pray with a few thousand other Jews at the holiest site in Judaism should have been inspiring, incredible. I was even lucky enough to get a spot right up against the Wall, at the furthest left of the women’s section (so right up against the barrier between the men’s and women’s sections). Despite that, though, and despite the fact there were probably enough men there to have maybe 200, maybe 300 minyanim (the requirement of ten men for certain parts of the liturgy), I was nevertheless unable to hear any of the men who were leading the prayer, and so I was left praying the service to myself. I found that pretty upsetting – surrounded by thousands with the same intentions as me and yet still very much alone, just because I was a woman and couldn’t position myself near a man leading the prayers for me. The following day, we went to the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, where there was a communal seuda shlishit (‘third meal’, the meal between the afternoon and evening services on the Sabbath), and I sat between the other two guys I was with; a few minutes into the meal, though, the rabbi bustled over and told me that I needed either to leave or to sit by myself at a table in the corner – facing the wall! – because women weren’t allowed to share the same table as men. The three of us promptly walked out.

Those experiences really shook my commitment to my faith, although not to my practice. However much I questioned the point of being religious, I always found that I couldn’t just drop the practice side of Judaism. I’m not sure whether that was because it was too habitual, a personal comfort, or an image that I felt I needed to maintain. Many people I’ve spoken to recently about similar issues (more on that later) have emphasised that the nature of Judaism is that you can keep up the practices without necessarily having the faith supporting them while you wait to see if the faith comes back, but I’m not sure if I’m convinced, because what is the ultimate point of practicing without the concept of divine authority?

What is the ultimate point of practicing without the concept of divine authority?

However much my faith seesawed, I do know that in the months running up and following my mother’s death, my faith was complete. By that point, my personal theology of prayer had developed such that I couldn’t accept petitionary prayer as a valid activity, so I rarely prayed earnestly for her to get better once we knew the cancer was terminal and wasn’t going anywhere; my prayer tended to focus on her being as pain-free and comfortable as possible, and right at the end all I was praying for over and over again was for her to go peacefully. Well, that prayer seemed to be answered, because rather than spending her final moments in extreme suffering from the various factors combined against her, she just took one last breath and was gone. I believed that the fact that she died on the seventh day of Channukah and was buried on the eighth day was religiously significant: the story of Channukah is about the oil burning for longer than anyone expected (like she outlasted her diagnosis); and the eighth of anything is the mystical beyond the holiness of the seventh, so she died on a numerically holy day and was buried and send to her eternal rest on a numerically extra-worldly day. I got enormous comfort from saying the mourners’ prayer three times a day (though whether that was a religious comfort or comfort from being able to say publicly, ‘I’m mourning and it’s OK for me to be doing so’, I’m not sure). It all really meant something to me back then.

I’m not sure where to go with my story now, to be honest. There’s a year and a half or so of internal struggle that I could talk about, but that probably all makes more sense in the light of recent events, and my sexuality in particular.

I was very clear on the fact that I didn’t see any contradiction [between my religious beliefs and commitments and my sexuality].

When I first came out, more than a few people asked me how I reconciled that side of my life with my religious beliefs and commitments, and I was very clear on the fact that I didn’t see any contradiction. A few very encouraging things I’d read and been told about Orthodoxy and its potential openness to non-heterosexuality in the weeks and months before I finally decided to come clean had convinced me that I could be who I was and still be who I’d always been. Once I found myself out of the heterosexual privilege position, though, I started to see things that I’d never noticed before. For example, the laws of modesty (tzniut) require you to be fully clothed in front of people of the opposite sex – let’s not get into gender/sex here, because it gets even more messy – but the jury seems to be out on what an homosexual or bisexual individual should be doing. Is a women’s only swimming pool really the right place for a lesbian or bisexual woman from a modesty perspective? Over time, then, cracks began to appear in my convictions…

The same-sex marriage debate is a whole other thing, and that’s really the core of this post, I think, or at least the catalyst. I’ve already written in a previous post about my views about same-sex marriage; rather, I wrote about my views as they were two months ago. Watching the concept being debated on a Modern Orthodox forum about a month ago, though, changed my perspective on EVERYTHING. My faith in God was already questionable, and I will explain that further in a blog post soon to come, but when I saw the way that discussions of non-heterosexual rights were simply descending into thinly veiled homophobia and biphobia (in the sense of a complete lack of understanding rather than actual hatred), my eyes snapped open.

Watching [same-sex marirage] being debated on a Modern Orthodox forum about a month ago, though, changed my perspective on EVERYTHING. I was beginning to wish I could just ‘be heterosexual again’.

Being bisexual is great. Twice as many possibilities. Twice as many pieces of attractive eyecandy. A complete lack of concern for gender identity in potential romantic interests. It’s more than that for me, though. Discovering myself and coming out has made me so much more at peace with myself, and I can know that even as other things confuse me, at least one thing now makes much more sense. It gives me peace, self-confidence, self-assurance, and happiness. By the end of these discussions, though, I was beginning to wish I could just ‘be heterosexual again’, because my skin is not thick enough to deal with people lumping my attraction to women with other ‘immoral’ sexual activities – physical urges which are not wrong in themselves but which should be suppressed for the sake of religion. And that made me realise that, frankly, if it was going to come down to a choice between expressing my true sexuality, a piece of self-knowledge which has made me so much more at ease with myself, and following my religion, which I can’t remember ever making me feel genuinely happy in and of itself, there is no contest.

Sometime's it's OK to let it go.

Sometime’s it’s OK to let it go.

The song Let It Go from the Disney film Frozen has become a bit of a phenomenon; I’m tempted even to call it an anthem. The sentiments the lyrics express can be used in an almost limitless range of situations, because what it champions is the idea that it is possible to break free from the restrictive bonds you’ve formerly been held back by, and that when that happens, you can reinvent yourself to be the person you’ve always wanted or needed to be – or felt that you already were. Breaking away from controlling parents or an abusive childhood (as is the case in the film). Slowly making your way out of the personal shackles of a mental illness. Getting out of an unhealthy relationship. Accepting your sexuality and coming out. Or maybe leaving behind a religious tradition that suffused every aspect of life while you were growing up but is no longer the positive inspiration it could be?

I need to strive for whatever will make me the most emotionally and mentally healthy individual I can be.

I have a long journey ahead of me, and I don’t know where it will lead me. Maybe back to Judaism and Jewish faith. Maybe to another religion. Maybe away from religion entirely. Whatever happens, though, I’m going to try to bear the ideas behind Let It Go in mind. Ultimately, I need to strive for whatever will make me the most emotionally and mentally healthy individual I can be, and if that means that perhaps Judaism is not conducive to that for me, it is OK to ‘let it go’.


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What equals marriage?

Yesterday, I went to the wedding of a good friend, and I’m so happy for her and her new husband. What’s just as exciting is that, this weekend just gone, there have been same-sex couples able to enter the same form of partnership across England and Wales.

 This weekend there became one definition of marriage: love, irrespective of gender. 

 Far from introducing a second definition of marriage into British law, this weekend there became one definition of marriage: love, irrespective of gender. And that is beyond awesome. The law in England and Wales (and soon Scotland) now recognises same-sex marriage and same-sex partners’ right to marry the person they love. Not all religions or religious denominations are offering the same opportunities, but I personally don’t have too much of an issue with that. As long as a religion isn’t being a douchebag to same-sex couples and is recognising their right to love whomsoever they choose, I’m happy to say to a religious community, ‘OK, a religious marriage of two people of the same sex isn’t something your principles can accommodate for, so don’t do it, but play nice, please’.

In recent days and weeks, I’ve been reflecting on my own attitude to same-sex marriage. I don’t mean my attitude to whether it should be possible, because on that front, I’m 100% for it. No, I’m talking about for myself. As a bisexual, I now know that whoever I ultimately fall in love with, whatever their gender or sex, I can marry them. In the law, at least. As a practicing Jew, though, I have to put myself within the Modern Orthodox label when I want to be ‘establishment,’ because it’s the closest denomination to my beliefs and practices; Modern Orthodoxy says that I cannot have a marriage with a woman under religious auspices, and I’m not sure that I would want to change that.

 Modern Orthodoxy says that I cannot have a marriage with a woman under religious auspices, and I’m not sure that I would want to change that.

 Now, this raises some interesting and slightly unsettling questions for me. Do I recognise a secular marriage as a valid marriage, or would I only be properly married if it was under a chuppah (marriage canopy)? Is the answer to the previous question applicable in equal measure whether my partner is male or female, or would I recognise a secular marriage to a woman but only a religious marriage to a man? Do I want to marry a woman if I can’t marry her ‘fully’ in the eyes of my religious denomination? Do I even want to ultimately end up with a woman if I can’t have the religious, Jewish, heteronormative lifestyle of chuppah and babies? As someone attracted to both men and women, is that even something I can actively choose (by only dating men, for example), or do I just have to see what happens and cross that bridge if the road leads to it?

Could this really respresent a marriage for me personally if both rings were worn by women?

Could this really respresent a marriage for me personally if both rings were worn by women?

I think that ultimately I want an Orthodox wedding, because I’ve grown up with a strong sense that a registry office ceremony is only a part of a wedding for me, and unless I involve the traditional aspects of a Jewish wedding, performed in an Orthodox manner, it won’t feel like I’m as married as I could be. For myself, as for many, marriage is more than the legal status of the two partners; it’s about commitment and love, and my Judaism is inextricable from that, so I will need both aspects. And that means a heterosexual marriage, which means trying to have only heterosexual relationships in the hope of meeting the man I want to marry.

You’re probably seeing the massive problem there. However firm my resolve, I can’t guarantee that I won’t meet and fall in love with a woman, because human emotions just don’t work that way. So, should that happen, will I get married to her through civil law and live with her as wife and wife? Will I marry her under a different denomination of Judaism which allows same-sex weddings so that I can have a Jewish wedding and feel like my marriage is authentic? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to know what I would do in that hypothetical situation, and honestly I hope that I never have to make the decision. I guess I’m back to the best course of action being heteronormativity.

I’ve just finished watching a series called Queer as Folk, written and aired about 15 years ago on Channel 4, which (as the name might suggest) is about the gay community contemporary to the time of its airing. It was actually written by Russell T. Davies, a gay man who spent a lot of time in the Canal Street area of Manchester, where the TV series is itself based. My feelings about the series are pretty mixed. On the one hand, I applaud Channel 4’s willingness to explore issues like homophobia and acceptance through a lense of experiences common to everyone regardless of their sexuality: the characters deal with things like the responsibility of parenthood, the death of a friend, financial troubles and unrequited love, and their responses are for the most part realistic. On the other hand, homosexuality is always laid on heavily as a motif, and the specifics of the scenarios are almost always such that you could not replace the characters with heterosexual ones without changing the details dramatically, generally because of a heavily homophobic attitude from another character. As such, it really manages to portray the basic inequality surrounding sexuality, and perhaps highlights the fact that prejudice has been engrained so deeply within society that it has the potential to taint every aspect of life for non-heterosexuals.

 Prejudice has been engrained so deeply within society that it has the potential to taint every aspect of life for non-heterosexuals.

 There was a lot in the 10 episodes which I found deeply upsetting, and I sincerely hope that society has progressed in the 15 years since it was written. Obviously, one major development we’ve now had is the opening up of the institution of marriage to same-sex couples, and there was an exchange between two characters which stood out particularly to me in relation to that…

Stuart and Vince have been friends for 16 years, since the time that they were both exploring their sexuality in secondary school, but they are very different in personality. Stuart is the self-assured, confident, man’s man, always seeking the next one-night-stand and caring nothing for social niceties or the feelings of others, while Vince is the quiet, sensitive, ‘sidekick’ type who is a little bit geeky and always gets overlooked for the more in-your-face Stuart. After Vince has been treated particularly badly by Stuart (and has forgiven him without being asked), the atmosphere between them is a little tense, and a conversation in which Vince expresses disinterest in participating in a threesome ends with Stuart saying to dismissively that Vince ‘just wants a wife’. At a later point, in the heat of an argument completely unrelated to relationships or sex, Stuart shouts at Vince, ‘you’re just a straight man who fucks men’.

The Pride flag, an international symbol of the LGBT+ community and its quest for equality.

The Pride flag, an international symbol of the LGBT+ community and its quest for equality.

Now, I had to spend a while reflecting on exactly what all of this signified, and what it said on a deeper level about societal and stereotypical perceptions within both heterosexual and homosexual communities. To me, the second comment seems to use ‘straight man’ as an insult in just the same way that ‘gay’ is used by many homophobes as an insult, in this case perhaps to mean ‘conformist’ or ‘boring.’ By adding in the ‘who fucks men’, Stuart is basically saying to Vince that the latter tries too hard to fit in with the community he wants to be a part of, but is inherently out of place because he has a radically different worldview. In reality, this difference is almost certainly much more due to the two characters being so radically different themselves than to Vince not fitting in, but that’s not present in the sentiment that Stuart expresses. (To be honest, thought, I actually feel a little uncomfortable that the series stereotypes the gay community as constantly going out on the pull. There are people with that pattern of activity in the gay community, for sure, just as there are in the straight community, but all three of the main characters in Queer as Folk are portrayed that way, and I find that unhelpful.)

The ‘just wants a wife’ comment is particularly interesting, because I think that it gives a strong insight into what marriage inequality can do to the community which is denied the institution of marriage. To Stuart, the serial one-night-stander, wanting to settle down with a single partner is something completely incomprehensible, but rather than framing his insult in that manner, he speaks of Vince as someone who wants to be able to have a marriage – which, in a setting of marriage inequality, requires the partner to be female. If this script were to be written today, it would probably lack the same strength, because heterosexuality is no longer the only way to be settled and married. Using the same phrasing would carry a very different meaning, and I can’t but wonder whether it would be phrased instead much more along the lines of ‘just wants to be the boring married man’ (or something more snappy!). Either way, I feel this shows that discontent about not having equal marriage rights has permeated into more than just the soapbox realm.

 Perpetuating marriage inequality has damaged society in a way which has affected almost everyone’s worldviews, whatever their sexuality, and in a way which is going to take a long time to repair.

 There have been a lot of arguments put forward against same-sex marriage, but I think that perpetuating marriage inequality has damaged society in a way which has affected almost everyone’s worldviews, whatever their sexuality, and in a way which is going to take a long time to repair. The fact that Stuart was able to use not being able to marry as a an excuse to call his friend’s sexuality into question, and the fact that even now I’m not sure if I would personally consider marrying a woman to be as valid a marriage as marrying a man, suggests to me that we have a long way to go yet before equality is more than just on paper. What is quite exciting, though, is that England and Wales (and soon Scotland) will now have a generation of children growing up who have never known a society in which same-sex marriage was ever prohibited. Maybe the future isn’t so bad.


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Everyone’s a little bit feminist.

Well, maybe not. But it would be nice if it were true, no? What the hell is a feminist anyway, and why is it a dirty word for some and a proud label for others? What does it mean to ‘give feminism a bad name’?

So, I’m a little late to the IWD party. But when am I ever not late for things? I’ve had this idea in my head for a few days now, and it only just occurred to that posting it yesterday would have been timely, but I missed midnight by just a bit.

It never really occurred to me that gender would ever feature in someone’s minds when they were thinking about intelligence or ability.

I’ve also come fairly late to the feminist camp. As a young girl, I had a pretty entitled attitude to life (by which I mean I was a somewhat petulant and precocious child), so I’m sure there were occasions on which I protested the ‘rights’ afforded to me, but I was never that bothered about the status of my gender in comparison with men. I was comfortable in the fact that I generally came out at or near the top in my class at school, ahead of most of the guys, and it never really occurred to me that gender would ever feature in someone’s minds when they were thinking about intelligence or ability.

In my religious life as an observant Jew, it never bothered me all that much that I was upstairs in the gallery of the synagogue while the men did their thing downstairs. I actually remember my mother z’l – no cowed woman herself – saying at one point, ‘I’m quite happy letting them do the religion stuff, I can’t be bothered!’, and I was always inclined to agree with her. The same way that I knew that if I had been around in the time of the suffrage movement, I would have been one of those women who said, ‘I’m not that bothered about the vote. I’ll just carry on making dinner, if that’s OK with you.’

Until relatively recently, I recall telling people that I was no feminist. ‘Feminist’ meant those slightly barmy woman who hate men, show off their armpit hair, and rant for hours about how society has done them wrong. Sure, I didn’t think that it was right for women to be given fewer opportunities than men based on their gender, but it’s not like that really happens all that much these days, anyway, right? Wrong, Past-Me, very wrong. You were so wrong.

Yes we can!

Feminist. Feminism. Let’s go back to basics. According to one definition, ‘feminism’ is ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.’ According to another, it is ‘the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities’ or ‘the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.’ Let’s ignore for the moment the fact that two of these three seem to have assumed the synonymy of ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ and just focus on the basic ideas in them.  Quite simply, then, it would seem that a feminist is one who agrees with the somehow radical idea that men and women should be given the same opportunities in life, to be used (or not) as they wish, without the fact of their gender changing what society permits them to do. So, am I a feminist? Yes, and I probably always have been. Yes, I personally happen to love the activities traditionally assigned to women, and will happily cook, clean, iron, sew and so on once I’m (please G-d one day) married with a family – as long as my husband is willing to share some of those tasks with me. As a feminist, I believe that can be my personal choice, just as I could choose to be a high-powered career woman if I wished to (and may still choose to).

A feminist is one who agrees with the somehow radical idea that men and women should be given the same opportunities in life, to be used (or not) as they wish.

In recent years, there has been a big stir in the Orthodox Jewish world regarding the role and position of women in Modern Orthodoxy. It doesn’t seem unfair to say that traditional Orthodoxy has had pretty strongly defined gender roles, with men taking the prominent role in the synagogue and public worship and the woman’s domain being the home and the family. I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of law vs. tradition here, nor exactly why I’m in favour of many of the growing trends for the inclusion of women in prayer, practice and legal decisions; instead, I’d like to focus on people’s reactions to it all, particularly in reference to the relatively new partnership minyan movement.

For those unfamiliar with certain aspects of Judiasm, I’ll offer a brief explanation, and try to make it as cross-denominational as possible. Judaism is an incredibly community-focussed religion, and various aspects of the liturgy require an assembled community or minyan (ten adult Jewish males for Orthodoxy, ten adult Jews for progressive movements like Reform and Liberal Judaism) in order for them to be recited. There are also parts of the liturgy which are more obligatory than others, and thus there is an argument for them holding a slightly different status to other sections. Similarly, the traditional interpretation (within Orthodoxy) is that men have more of an obligation to perform/recite the liturgy than women do, and thus have precedence when it comes to leading services. The partnership movement, a new sub-group growing out of Orthodoxy, then, maintains a certain distinction between men and woman whilst arguing by identifying areas of reduced obligation that more of the service can actually be led by woman than has traditionally been accepted.

Many prominent figures have thrown their opinions into the partnership minyan debate – although I’ve heard more of what’s happening in the UK than worldwide. We’ve heard from supporters like Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Dina Brawer, Lindsay Simmonds, and Dr. Miri Freud-Kandel, and there’s been a plethora of responses to the movement from those less in favour, notably Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Rabbi Alan Kimche, and Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet. There’s also been much keyboard-time given to the matter on Facebook, particularly in the relatively new ‘MOO – Modern/Open Orthodox’ group set up by David Chait in the hope that it would provide a space for issues like this to be debated and developed further. The justification for partnership minyanim in Jewish law aside, what I’ve found really fascinating in all of the debating back and forth has been what it has revealed about people’s attitudes to feminism. And, in that, I include my own.

If things have been one way for centuries and then a grassroots movement comes along to shake it up a little, noses are going to be put out of joint.

When there is something at stake as fundamental as the traditional interpretations of Jewish law (halacha), it’s not all that surprising to see certain red lines being drawn and people taking other people’s views a little too personally. If things have been one way for centuries and then a grassroots movement comes along to shake it up a little, noses are going to be put out of joint. There have been both men and women arguing against partnership minyanim using a variety of halachic and sociological arguments ranging from the reason- and logic-based to the appeals to emotion and tradition, and the same can be said of those in support of the movement. I myself have been guilty of all of these forms of argumentation at times.

Where the embryonic idea of this blog post was born, though, was in my thoughts about and reactions to seeing women arguing against partnership minyanim: many, many women oppose the concept, having accepted and embraced their more traditional role in Judaism, and have said as much. Some have even done so whilst calling themselves feminists. My gut reaction to this has been a mixture of pity for their ‘oppressed mindsets’ and annoyance that they would be held up and used by their male counterparts as examples of why Orthodoxy doesn’t need such ideas after all. After a while, I became so frustrated by seeing such views being aired, particularly on the Facebook group mentioned above, that I seemed to be doing nothing but demonstrating that not all women shared the same views, rather than giving real counter-arguments. Eventually, I gave up entirely, concluding in disgust that the women concerned weren’t ‘real’ feminists; there seemed to be no point in hanging around, because I was clearly sharing the space with a patriarchal voice which couldn’t be silenced. But more on this later.

JOFA has been gaining momentum worldwide, and was brought to the UK a year ago by Dina Brawer.

My own view of partnership minyanim has evolved over time. I remember the first one I went to, about four years ago, making me feel distinctly uncomfortable. I was much more conservative (with a little ‘c’) in those days! As my feminism grew in general, though, so did my Jewish feminism; by the time JOFA (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) held its first UK conference last June, I jumped at the suggestion (made by a male friend, as it happens) of going along. I even decided to go along to the partnership minyan held that morning, and I remember being moved by the fact that, as well as the 100+ women in attendance, dozens of men came along to ensure that there was a halachic minyan. They could have gone to any minyan that morning, but they chose to support the one which gave women a real role in the proceedings. Since that time, I have attended almost every partnership minyan held in London, and been given my first aliyah (call up to the Torah) at a different grassroots minyan. Quite an about-face!

I find it very comforting to know that we will only be pushing halacha and tradition so far and no further, because it seems somehow to justify what has been permitted.

I recently had a bit of a flash realisation, though, at a Q&A session with Rabbi Sperber about partnership minyanim. When asked (by a man!) whether such minyanim actually go far enough to include women, Rabbi Sperber responded that we are bound by halacha: we can go so far and no further, however much we may want to do so. And I was very surprised by the feeling of relief that that answer gave me. I feel very comfortable with the concept of partnership minyanim, and don’t feel that they are ‘just a slippery slope to Reform Judaism’, but I find it very comforting to know that we will only be pushing halacha and tradition so far and no further, because it seems somehow to justify what has been permitted: we know our limits, so clearly we must be operating within halacha. Stopping to think about this feeling of relief, it surprised me somewhat. Was I there and then demonstrating a mentality of patriarchal oppression? Was I only happy to be given equality if it was conditional? What kind of feminist was I, if I found reassurance from a not-so-transparent glass ceiling?

This reaction and realisation didn’t make me change my opinion of partnership minyanim. I remain committed to taking up a role in Judaism within the confines of halacha. What it has affected, though, is my understanding of feminism and self-definition. What it made me wake up and realise is that, for all that I pat myself on the back for being proactive about ensuring that women don’t suffer persecution, I forget that there are almost as many interpretations of feminism as there are feminists. Without having to stop to think, I can think of scores of people in my own circles and beyond who would consider my views to be far too traditionalist and would think that I haven’t gone far enough in the feminist pursuit. I may in turn think that they are wrong, but the disagreement doesn’t need to cast aspersions over either of our ‘feminist credentials’.

Not all feminists will share the same views as me, and that’s OK. We’re all ultimately heading in the same direction, so we really need to stop with the infighting.

Following that through to its logical progression, though, I’ve had to come to recognise that not all feminists will share the same views as me, and that’s OK. Feminist issues can cover a range of things from women in the workplace to women in religion to women in education, and different women will feel different levels of passion about such topics. If a woman considers herself to be a feminist because she is infuriated by the inequality she sees in education for women, but doesn’t feel a need to participate in religious worship, it doesn’t mean I have a right to decide that she’s not a ‘real’ feminist. Entering the feminist world late as I did, I never got the chance to talk to my mother about her views on the subject, but I very much doubt that her views on getting involved in services would have made her forswear calling herself a feminist, nor would I say that she wasn’t one. As frustrating as it can be to hear people not agreeing with one’s point of view (!) and seemingly even contradicting those opinions, we’re all ultimately heading in the same direction, so we really need to stop with the infighting. My feminism is different to that of people who go to fully egalitarian minyanim, and different again to women who disagree with women leading services in an Orthodox context, but we all have the right to self-define as feminists – people who recognise that men and women are equal.