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Divine Intervention

Can religious women have their cake, and eat it too?

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When I was about 9 years old, my family’s Reform temple started asking congregants to identify copies of Gates of Prayer that needed some TLC: a little glue on the spine, the reattachment of a dangling cover. The books had been in use for many years, and they were getting worn. They’d seen some changes, too: most recently, a piece of paper had been adhered to the inside back cover, printed with a version of the Amidah that added the names Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel to the standard Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Despite being outdated and in disrepair, the books needed to last awhile longer. A new Reform movement prayer book was in the works, with these changes and more made directly to the text, but—as I vividly remember being told—it wouldn’t be ready for 10 years. That seemed like a long way off.

illustration of woman kneeling

It was, but as Leora Tanenbaum outlines in her spirited new book, Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality, women in any number of religions have been waiting much longer than that. The book announces its seriousness with an austere white cover and gothic lettering, contrasting with the defiantly girly designs of her two earlier books, Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation and Catfight: Rivalries Among Women—from Diets to Dating, from the Boardroom to the Delivery Room (now mainstays of Women’s Studies bookshelves). Having become recognized as an authority on these thorny feminist issues, Tanenbaum has moved on to a subject that’s even more personally rooted.

Tanenbaum considers herself an observant Jew (Modern Orthodox, to be precise), an identity she divulges right off the bat, in a preface that feels equal parts honest and defensive. Her exploration of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions is guided by a rigorous respect for each of them, but it’s a respect built on the belief that being faithful means challenging your religion when it veers off track. A non-religious person could have written this book persuasively, too, but Tanenbaum’s faith enriches it in some unexpected ways, raising questions about what it means to view any of these religions as an outsider, and what (if any) potential for unity exists among religious women from different backgrounds.

The book is a catalog of familiar, if astoundingly retro, attitudes—the Catholic Church’s hysterical refusal to ordain women in the face of a dire priest shortage, shoddy conditions in the women’s sections of mosques, the Artscroll Women’s Siddur‘s approving commentary that “even a silent recitation [of the Kaddish] by a woman is frowned upon”—threaded with “We Can Do It”-style affirmations. “We do not have to abandon our faith communities,” Tanenbaum writes. “We can stay and make them stronger. And for this to happen, we cannot be polite.” Ultimately, “the issue is not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when.’” Her case for equality is pretty basic—after all, the idea at the heart of this and similar struggles is heartbreakingly straightforward—even if the path to achieving it is a predictable minefield.

It’s worthwhile to read about restrictions in different religions side by side, as Tanenbaum positions them here; while there have been books about individual faiths dealing with gender issues (many directed at their respective lay populations), revealing parallels come through when they’re examined in relation to one another. Though Jewish, Christian, and Muslim women all bump up against their own unique obstacles, they experience many of the same limitations: women are second-class citizens, barred or actively discouraged from taking part in significant rituals, and physically separated from men in various ways. All are reckoning with texts that suggest—or say outright—that they’re unworthy.

So why should women continue to practice religions that seem intent on keeping them down? Women in some of the faiths Tanenbaum explores (namely, Judaism and Protestantism) have the option of moving between denominations if one is wildly out of step with their lives. Others don’t have that flexibility. Still others don’t want it: despite being profoundly angered and wounded by institutionalized sexism, many remain committed to traditional sects, which they see as the most authentic version of their religion. Tanenbaum, generally a fan of the Hebrew-heavy Orthodox service, counts herself among them, and explains, “It would be easier to withdraw from observant Judaism by aligning with a liberal denomination, but these women love their Orthodox tradition too much.” In order to stay within their religion, women like Tanenbaum choose to believe that patriarchal ideas about women’s roles are not what their traditions are really about; they come from a time and place that is outdated, and human fallibility (and willful misinterpretation) is responsible, not God.

Fair enough, but things get sticky when she and other religious activists urge women to work to transform sexist attitudes within their religions, while also assuring them (and anyone who might be listening in) that once this happens, those religions will be able to stay essentially the same. It’s a pragmatic line of reasoning, but doesn’t hold up. Tanenbaum maintains that sexism is not in fact integral to Jewish tradition, but other members of her devout community would say that by pushing for inclusivity, she’s asking for the kinds of reforms that would effectively transform Orthodoxy into a different (and by implication lesser) denomination. Even if we accept that these religions have no real basis for the restrictions they place on women, the leadership (and male members of the community, who “stand in the center of their world” while women “are told to move to the periphery”) have self-interested reasons to resist equality. If they don’t budge, religious women are basically left with two unappealing options: seek refuge in a community that aims for gender equality but offers less rigorous observance, or stay in one that’s spiritually fulfilling but stifling.

Tanenbaum quotes one Catholic woman explaining, “I don’t want another church. I just want to get this one right.” It’s sort of a semantic game: wouldn’t that in some ways mean making it another church? Despite the many bold efforts described in these pages, religious women are caught in a cycle of contradictions and multiple allegiances that are hard to resolve in any satisfying way. If you refuse to have blind faith when it comes to gender, for example, why should you have it about anything else? If your chosen religion silences and invalidates you in ways you can’t condone, what’s the point of following it?

The underlying impression is that religion is so worthwhile and enriching that damaging views about women—no matter how extreme—are less persuasive than the community and tradition it offers. On a gut level, these priorities feel appalling: if a fundamental denial of women as complete people isn’t compelling enough, what is the bottom line? On the other hand, as Tanenbaum poignantly quotes a middle-aged Catholic woman saying, “If I leave the church, I will crumble.” So much of her community and identity are bound up with it that she can’t conceive of cutting herself off.

For all its force and intelligence, it’s not always clear who Tanenbaum has written this book for: some explanations seem aimed at the unlikely readers who’ve never even heard of the concept of religious equality. At the same time, she’s uninterested in tempering her outrage. She airs some dirty laundry that people outside specific religious communities might otherwise never know about, and includes some distressing anecdotes: one Modern Orthodox woman’s rabbi forbade her from taking part in her son’s bar mitzvah, and when she objected, barred her from teaching at the synagogue school; a national organization of Presbyterian college women was intimidated by a hardline Christian publication for daring to discuss sexuality. Irshad Manji‘s calls for reform within Islam have been met with death threats. Some of Tanenbaum’s findings and observations are expressed with sarcastic disbelief, butting up—at times awkwardly, at others elegantly—against her attempts to justify her own adherence to particular traditions.

As so many recent books on and against religion have shown, it may be impossible to be truly balanced when it comes to writing about something so inherently personal. Either way, Tanenbaum will stay focused on this area for some time—her website notes that for her next book she’s looking into the discrimination faced by devout gay people. In Taking Back God, her optimism buoys what is in many ways a depressing survey, but it’s hard not to wonder if it can survive this next inquiry.

Eryn Loeb is a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine.

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Divine Intervention

Can religious women have their cake, and eat it too?

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