Accessing our Jewess Tools: Judaism’s Ancient Feminist Spiritual Tactics
How does the American Jewish woman navigate our male-dominated society in the twenty-first century? Jewish women have thousands of years of history to draw from to help make sense of and find our place. According to our ancestral Jewish tradition, women’s empowerment is central to bringing redemption for all humanity -- so let’s get to it!
We are constantly reminded of injustices against women. When we see that one in five college women are sexually assaulted, we begin to understand that no segment of society is immune to rape culture. In the United States, even after the 2012 election we are still hearing echoes of “legitimate rape” and republicans continue to sabotage the Violence Against Women Act opposing provisions that are meant to protect the most vulnerable communities. According to a United Nations report, one in three women globally will be raped, beaten, sexually coerced, trafficked or otherwise abused in her lifetime.
Oppression of women is not just outside the Jewish world. In the professional American Jewish communal world women are “still lagging far behind the national trends in salary and representation,” according to a survey by the Jewish Daily Forward. Domestic violence is rampant in Israel, where one in three women experience sexual assault in their lifetimes, and there has been a call for prioritizing funds to combat sexual violence as national security problem. A racist policy forcing Ethiopian women in Israel to accept contraceptive injections has decreased their birth rates by 50% in a decade.
Where do we align ourselves, when “feminism” has become a dirty word and rape culture dominates our media and infiltrates our personal lives? Tactics for making change can range from joining feminist vigilante gangs and taking to the streets to supporting zero-tolerance policies against gender violence. We can creatively challenge corporate rape culture like the “love consent” underwear campaign that confronts Victoria’s Secret.
We can look to contemporary Jewish women thought leaders who have made significant impacts for women’s rights. Naomi Wolf has analyzed not only the way that pornography objectifies women, but also the way the industry serves to disempower men. Gloria Steinem has helped identify rape as a weapon of war, looking at its manifestation from the Holocaust to modern day Congo. The founder of City of Joy for rape victims in the Congo, Eve Ensler has helped everyday people get comfortable with the word “vagina” through her play The Vagina Monologues, and has sparked an international “One Billion Rising” campaign to engage women and girls of all ages and backgrounds that will culminate in a global day of dancing on “V-Day” Valentines Day 2013.
But rape as a weapon of war is nothing new -- in fact it is a part of the Chanukah story! Our accounts of Chanukah involve family values, rape of our women as a weapon of war, and a heroic Jewish widow named Yehudit (Judith) who seduced and decapitated the enemy commander.
As with many other aspects of our history, Judaism has integrated ways to recall the heroism of women into our customs. On Chanukah, Jewesses are honored with resting during the time the menorah candles are lit. Herein lies an opportunity to personally and collectively remember the struggles and victories of our matriarchs. As women engaged in our culture, it’s imperative that we take back our power by owning these feminist Jewish traditions that have been passed on to us from our grandmothers over the centuries and across continents.
There are many ways to deepen our commitment to justice in practicing Jewish women’s spirituality! Our Jewish spiritual inheritance provided by a feminine and masculine singular God involves the mikvah ritual bath, and a system that places women’s menstrual cycles and the lunar calendar as central rhythms of our societal structure. We have an opportunity every week when we light shabbat candles to remember that it is our destiny to bring the age of peace to the world. As Jewish women healing the power imbalances in society, it is critical that we actively seek out and practice the spiritual traditions embedded in our faith heritage that exist to serve us.