Sunday, November 23, 2014

Gender, Power and Empowerment

Richard Lederman

Unfortunately, the dirty little truth about gender in western religion is tied up with the entire question of patriarchy in western civilization. And the dirty little secret about patriarchy is the issue of power and authority. The so-called “patriarchs” in the Bible, like the men in all patriarchal societies, seem mainly concerned about inheritance. They must have a male issue to inherit whatever it is that they consider their “portion,” be it money, property, or God’s promise. Of course, in order to do that, women must be controlled, especially women’s sexuality. Unless women’s sexuality is controlled, men can never be sure of their true patrimony—and that’s bad!!

So all aspects of women’s sexuality must be carefully controlled. Men can sleep around; women cannot. Women’s monthly cycle is very strictly observed and controlled, since it is important for the men to know just when the women are fertile. Too bad King David seems not to have gotten the message that Bathsheba’s rooftop bath was for the purpose of “purifying herself from her monthly uncleanness.” He might have been able to avoid hearing the philanderer’s most feared words: “I’m pregnant.”

If you don’t believe that this is an issue even today, consider the horrifying scandal that has rocked the Washington, DC, area Jewish community over the past several weeks. A modern Orthodox rabbi who supervises a mikvah, a ritual bath, in his synagogue has been arrested on charges of voyeurism. He allegedly installed various secret video recording devices in the showering and changing areas of the ritual bath in order to record naked women who had come to carry out what they considered a deeply personal, private and meaningful religious ritual. Little did they know that they were being watched by the rabbi. To add to that, the rabbi, as associate professor of Jewish studies at Towson University, invited any number of his young female students to visit the mikvah. We don’t yet know if they were recorded.

But let’s face it. We’re looking at a feature of female sexuality that has come under control of men—an all male rabbinate. The truth is, the mikvah is an outgrowth of ritual purification practices performed in ancient Israel in connection with the sacrificial cult. Certain bodily emissions renedered a person unclean—unfit to participate in the sacrificial ritual. In addition to menstruation, these included childbirth, sexual intercourse, as well as any involuntary flow of seminal fluid in men. Yet, you don’t often hear of men showing up at the mikvah after sexual intercourse or following a wet dream, even though both of those things would render them ritually impure. Oh, no! The primary focus of the mikvah is on menstruating women, and the male rabbis are in charge. It is ripe for abuse.

I would insist that this has nothing to do with religion—that is, religion defined as a human desire to connect to the divine. As noted, it is about power and authority—male power and authority. I suppose I could wax on and on about how the story of Adam and Eve in the garden is entirely misunderstood as an image of male primacy and female duplicity. I could expound upon the role of the matriarchs in the Bible as the true active agents in executing the divine plan for humanity. I could point to Tamar, Deborah and Yael, Rahab and Ruth as examples of dramatic and powerful female agency. I could make the observation ubiquitous if little substantiated in Jewish circles that the daughters of the great medieval scholar Rashi wore tefillin, the prayer boxes worn by Jewish men, but forbidden to Jewish women.

The truth is, once we understand that the role of women in our religious traditions is ultimately about male power and authority, all of that is irrelevant. By enforcing a subservient role for women, we not only deprive them, but the entire sacred community of the gifts that each member of the community has to offer. Of course, that sounds very sweet. How nice!! But what the mikvah affair must teach us is that this adherence to male power and authority in our sacred communities is actually quite dangerous and destructive.

Sister Sharon Dillon

When I was a novice (oh how I love saying those words, but we currently only have one novice to whom I can say them L)…  Oh well, another topic for another day!) When I was a novice, I attended a workshop with a Sister Meg (Margaret) G. who is a professor of theology at a College in Boston.  I am not sure that Meg remembers me but she made a lasting impression upon my thought process and insights into, of all things, original sin and gender.
Meg stated (from what I have remembered and assimilated into my own reflection as I cannot find it written anywhere) that she proposes that there are two forms of Original Sin, meaning one for Males and one for Females.  I was struggling with the concept of Original Sin at that particular time and now here was someone proposing that there are two forms of it.  What I recalled was she spoke to the original sin of man, or males, as Pride, and of woman, or females, as dependency.  The personal revelation came when she defined the terms further. The re-defining has been seared into my thinking and has changed my entire perspective of SIN and of Gender both in terms of religion and my living out of my spirituality.  Meg said that the original sin of males is Pride as defined as seeking God within only themselves; and conversely for women, the original sin of Dependency as defined as seeking God only in others.  WOW! Those words blew me away.  PRIDE—seeking God only in oneself; and DEPENDENCY—seeking God only in others.  Meg went on to define and describe that the balance of seeking and knowing God in oneself and in others is our life’s journey, no matter one’s gender, the search is for balance.  I have come to believe these words, but now I would also define that balance as having both true Humility and Confidence.  I have come to believe that the opposite of dependency is not inter-dependency but true confidence, and the opposite of Pride is true humility.  The balance of both the masculine and the feminine within my own self  is a search and knowledge of a God that is both within me and within others and surrounds me and holds me in love and balance.
Throughout these past twenty plus years as a religious woman, reflecting and assimilating this concept of original sin as gender biased, I came to a deeper appreciation and understanding for both my brothers and my sisters.  I could witness and see in and with others, their seeking of God as an either/or… male friends continually looking only within themselves for God and what they learned or offered,  and my female friends only seeking God in others and often neglecting their own giftedness.  When I read and reflect upon the scriptures, these same concepts and understandings are also presented in story after story.  The bible is filled with men often fighting and battling a God outside of their selves, i.e. Jacob wrestling with an angel, and finally having a hip that is his constant reminder of the encounter.  He had to feel the God within him from that time forward.  And Martha, who points out to Jesus that her sister Mary isn’t helping with the serving, the caring of others, and Jesus who then presented that both what Mary and Martha chose were good, but Mary chose the better; simply being present.

So Gender biases within the scripture and within the relationships I have formed over time have helped me to tend to my own balance in seeking out God.  God is within me and within others. The spirit is and can be encountered all around us.  Our perspective is shaped by our incarnational gift of being either female or male; our search is to find the balance. The spiritual encounter is more concretely defined within our Franciscan tradition through the incarnation of Christ and is expressed in our own story of on-going conversion; the Spiritual truth and quest for balance are revealed and lived out by each individual. I often reflect on the entire story of Mary giving birth to Jesus. The entire story holds the truth we are seeking, the balance of a spirit birthed in a child.  It is the whole of the story that sanctifies both male and female. I think that the fact that Jesus is male and therefore only men can be priests is missing an important truth, the sanctification of the female in this story and in many stories throughout the bible. For me, the maleness of Christ as justification for anything exemplifies the male only mentality and is focusing on only one piece of the story. Mary holds the other piece of the truth in the story. A key is to balance both the masculine and feminine in the spiritual life, which is so very needed in our faith life development. Both the feminine and masculine have gifts to offer, and are “good.” God is here, present, in males/in females, each seeking the truth through their own genetic make-up, their own incarnation of the living God as well as the balance one seeks is in the living, the on-going revelation, the living of the story that brings us to balance and moves us from original sin to an original balance of blessing.

Richard’s Response to Sr. Sharon

Leave it to Sr. Sharon to balance my rather confrontational approach to the subject with her caring, pastoral personality. Life is, indeed, a balance—between pride and humility, confidence and dependency. Men and women bring these separate traits to bear, and the sacred community is enriched by both.

But I would take this a step further. In the Book of Exodus, the people of Israel stand at the foot of Mt. Sinai as Moses receives the Torah from God, God’s covenant with the people. The prophet Moses is capable of receiving the divine revelation directly, but we ordinary humans need a structure, a sacred space, a sanctuary to facilitate our encounter. So God tells Moses to instruct the people in the building of a sanctuary. According to the New Revised Standard Version, God says to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receive the offering for me.” But that’s not what it says. It says, “from each person as one’s heart is so inclined.” In other words, each individual brings his/her unique gift, and with these gifts, “They will build Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.”

I worship on Saturday mornings with an informal, lay-led community. This is a group of highly motivated, knowledgeable, energetic young people who worship with an intensity that, frankly, I’ve only seen elsewhere in Gospel churches. They are men and women, many of whom probably went to Jewish day schools, most of whom were probably active in Jewish youth groups and summer camps. About half of them grew up modern Orthodox; the other half in the somewhat more liberal Conservative Movement. (No, that’s not an oxymoron, but there’s no time to explain.)  There are two versions of the prayer book available: one Orthodox, one Conservative. Page numbers are called in both. The prayer leader decides which book to use to lead the prayers.

Perhaps one of the most heartening experiences for me in this group is to watch a young woman intensely leading the prayers from the Orthodox prayer book while wrapped in her tallit, the prayer shawl forbidden to women in the Orthodox tradition. Here is a woman who has a powerful gift to offer the community, and despite the pressures of her upbringing, which tells her that she’s not qualified to lead the congregation in prayer, she’s going to bring her gift to build God’s sanctuary. Yes, she’s going to offer those prayers from the Orthodox prayer book with which she’s familiar, but she’s going to offer her gift.

Everyone brings a unique gift, but with every one of those unique gifts, we build a sanctuary, and God dwells among us.

Sr. Sharon’s Response to Richard

Ever since reading Richard’s reflection, a few things have been brewing inside me. The first is about Power.  Power in and of it-self, can be used for good. I see that all around: a stranger reaching out and lending a hand; someone anonymously using their own power by paying for another person’s groceries or an unpaid gas bill. We don’t name it, but often the out reaching by others comes from a good use of power and authority.  My personal grief is that more women are not in positions of “power,” or seem to refuse to claim their own inner power, within the “church” and within the legislative positions that help define our rules for life. Unfortunately, I often see that the women who do “make it” in the male dominated positions, make it because they emulate the same use of power and authority, instead of bringing a gentler and inclusive approach. Referencing back to my own reflection, the women I know seem to look for affirmation and power outside of themselves. 

There is also the issue of authority. As a woman religious, I profess a lifelong vow of obedience. For me obedience and authority are connected.  I need an authority in my life (I think we all do). I strive for inner authority, but know that life is filled with rules to be followed. I once had a very wise piano instructor who stated, “You have to know the basic rules of music and playing the piano in order to one day play the masterpiece.”  In order for me to live my life of obedience, I need to tune in to the divine authority within my own life, and that of others. Integrating power and authority is a lifelong process for every single person. It is what is at the core of the word obedience, to listen. We make several choices along the way.  Some choices can be self-destructive or abusive to others.  There are plenty of examples around us, such as the examples that are pointed out by Richard. And sadly, many of the sexual abuses are toward women, and toward women via the vehicle of religion or in the name of religion. I pray that we can learn to truly Listen to one another, as well as to the Spirit that guides our creation. Maybe then we can as Richard states, share and recognize within our sacred communities: “the gifts that each member of the community has to offer.”  What a blessing community, any community, would empower us to be and become conduits who use power for good!

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