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Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has not made me a Gentile.
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has not made me a slave.
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has not made me a woman.


As an undergrad student, I had a friend, Ruth, who prayed these words every morning. Well, not these exact words; her brothers prayed these words, whereas she as a woman got to say "… who has made me according to Your will" for the last verse. Ruth was a modern orthodox Jew, meaning that she believed Jews were still obligated to keep all the commandments, but that this didn't mean eschewing modern non-Jewish society or the science. Like many modern orthodox, Ruth's family also was a bit more liberal in how they interpreted Jewish law. They didn't compromise on the actual requirements, but (at least as Ruth described them) they tended to separate what was actually required by halakha from the bits that were just encouraged for cultural reasons.

In this case, that meant Ruth had to pray alongside her brothers. As I understand Jewish orthodoxy (keep in mind, this is me stretching back to conversations I had a decade ago), men are required to gather for three communal prayers every day; women still have to pray but aren't required to actually gather at specific time, though they are expected to pray on their own. I think this had something to do with the fact that since women were charged with caring for the families rather than working outside the home, it was harder for them to get to public services. They weren't optional for Ruth, though, because her family belonged to a shul that interpreted things differently. I won't even try to remember the details of their reasoning. The point was that for Ruth the prayer I mentioned above was a regular part of her daily life. And as you might expect it's not the easiest thing to live with.

I once asked Ruth what she made of it. Didn't it insult her that her classmates and neighbors and even her brothers prayed every day thanking God for not making them like her. Turns out, this was a major part of how she wrestled with herself in high school – figured out what it meant to be an orthodox Jew and whether she wanted that or whether she'd be more comfortable in a different variety of Judaism. A teacher she was particularly close to told her there were really three ways to look at something like this: either the way Judaism was presented was correct and what feminism claimed was wrong; or that feminism was right and Judaism was wrong; or that there was some way to reinterpret one or the other, so they could both be right. This teacher said she personally tried to take the third approach, though it was obviously a personal decision how to handle things like this when they came up.

I've been thinking about this conversation today. This afternoon I posted the following status at FB:

Coming out of the subway, there were some JWs handing out this month's Watchtower that has the cover article "Does God Care About Women?" I was absolutely floored that this is a question that still needs asking. I'm not singling out JWs since many religious people ask this question (though usually not so brazenly), and I haven't read the article so this may be a headline designed to grab attention. But still, any profanity I know is either wholly inadequate, beyond the PG13 level I try to hold myself to, or both.

In case it needs saying (and it doesn't): If God exists, and if he cares about people in general, he definitely, DEFINITELY cares about women. It should be assumed. The fact that this question occurs to religious people, let alone that they think it's the kind of thing they want to use to brand their religion to random strangers passing their kiosk, is simply outrageous.


Things got pretty heated pretty quickly. (The post is public, though you'll need a FB account to see it due to FB's privacy settings.) Dan in particular seemed surprised that I would claim the God of the Bible cared about women in light of misogynistic passages like the ones saying you could not divorce your spouse even in the case of domestic violence, or that women weren't allowed to speak in public.

I'm not so sheltered I've never heard of these verses. Someone better versed in apologetics than myself could probably answer those specific concerns better than I'm able to. Like with the "clobber" verses many Christians use to "prove" homosexuality is immoral, I believe that most of these verses refer to a specific local context that simply doesn't exist today. For instance, one common verse from Paul's epistles that Christian fundamentalists use misogynistically is 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:

Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.


But one commentary I read years back (again, I'm going by memory) pointed to two cultural facts driving this directive. First, women often did not know the language the service was conducted in, and second, they were often seated separately from their husbands. The consequence was that you'd have women calling out to their husbands across the sanctuary, asking what the leader was going on about, and because they were literally shouting across the room this all got disruptive. It's not disruptive today, though, since (a) women speak English as well as their husbands do if not better, and (b) couples tend to sit together so if they want to talk it won't disturb the whole group. Ergo the motivation for this particular command simply doesn't apply.

I could sit here all night and answer each of the verses that seem women-hating on the surface. I could also point to some facts that I find particularly affirming of women, such as the story of Mary and Martha where Jesus affirmed Mary's choice to learn from him rather than doing the dishes, the high honor paid to Mary Jesus's mother, or the women in positions of authority in the early church. But I think there's a deeper question lurking behind all this. When a Bible verse seems to contradict with some other value we have, like men and women deserve respect and opportunity and whatever other good things there are in equal measures, how should we handle that?

Following the approach Ruth's teacher suggested, I think we have three main options here.

1. The Bible verse is correct and our valuing equality is wrong.
2. The Bible is wrong and our valuing equality is right.
3. There is some way of reinterpreting the Bible verse, or our other values, or both, that avoids this contradiciton.


The first option is the path preferred by religious fundamentalists. Scientific evidence be damned, the cosmos must have been created in six twenty-four-hour days because that's what the Bible says. Whatever suffering those policies take, gay rights must be rejected because the Bible says homosexuality is an abomination. And on down the list.

The second approach is one I see from a lot (though by no means all!) of atheists. They stick to the most literal interpretation of religious scriptures, but rather than reject other things like evolution, LGBT rights, and feminism in the name of the bible, they reject that tradition. Any "softening" of this position is often viewed as less authentic than what fundamentalists claim. So if a Christian comes out in favor of gay marriage, they are in some sense not "as" Christian as the folks claiming homosexuality is an abomination.

If you've read this blog, you really should know that I'm not comfortable with the first way of viewing things. I really don't think I'm alone on this either. Any Christian bookstore will have whole shelves of Bible commentary, many of them by leaders of the various denominations. (As a Methodist, I often turn to John Wesley's commentary, though John Calvin is also very good, and I'm sure my Catholic or Orthodox friends could point to excellent resources from within their own traditions.) As a matter of fact, there's a fine tradition going back all the way to Jesus and even to Abraham, where smart people see some revelation and ask "Surely that can't mean what it seems to say?" Abraham did this directly to God's face; I'm thinking particularly of the bartering before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jesus certainly took several passages from the Bible of his day and said that those lines couldn't possibly mean what they seemed to mean on their surface. And it doesn't stop in Biblical days.

I'd go so far as to say I think we're supposed to ask these questions. Does the Bible say you'll burn in hell if you don't accept specific doctrinal points? How do we reconcile this with love for neighbor and enemy, which Jesus clearly requires? Does it say homosexual sex is an abomination to God? How do we reconcile this with what modern science tells us, that homosexuality is not a choice? Again, I could go on for quite a while about these things. But the more I study these things, the more I realize that questions like these are really worthwhile not because one answer of the other is correct, but because they present a puzzle that can spur us on to a deeper understanding. I approach them more and more like aporiai, the puzzles Aristotle uses as opportunities to finetune his beliefs about the world.

This is important to me, really important, because both approaches #1 and #2 treat the Bible in a way that robs it of a lot of its depth. I won't lie; a lot of Christians in America view the Bible this way; but a lot don't, and we (or at least I; I have no right to speak for such a diverse group of individuals) get really and truly sick of people equating obvious or surface meaning with the most true one, or even the most authentically Christian one. Non-fundamentalist Christianity definitely has its challenges, but we don't all think that the first interpretation that comes to mind is the correct one.

My own denomination, to give one example, emphasizes the Wesley Quadrilateral, which says interpreting revelation involves not just the scripture itself, but also tradition, critical thought, and our own personal experience. Truth does not conflict truth, but the interpretation we have (of scripture or the scientific evidence or whatever else) can easily be misplaced. I know in my own past, I've interpreted passages differently after learning a new fact or theory from philosophy, the sciences, psychology, or whatever. I see other Christians reading Scripture similarly, and going back much further than John Wesley.

It's interesting that in a lot of ways I come quite close to approach #2. I know there are Christians who think they understand the Bible precisely, that it says that certain things (homosexuality, equality for women, and the like) are wrong and need to be rooted out. I am very much against that kind of Christianity and work hard both here and in my offline life to help religious people develop a more nuanced kind of faith that helps them see why sexism, homophobia, and the like are so wrong. (You can also make a secular argument here, but religion provides a narrative a lot of people are used to working within. When it comes to values in particular, I'm all for using the stories people are fluent in, since in my experience that's typically the easiest way to encourage change.

As for Ruth? She eventually found a book dealing with that prayer that tied it to the way men had a few religious obligations that women didn't, just as non-slaves had more obligations than slaves and Jews than Gentiles. She's got an eight-year-old daughter who has taken to thanking God for not making her a man, since there are also obligations and rituals that only apply to women, which Rachel (said daughter) finds meaningful. I'm not quite sure I'm satisfied with this particular explanation, and the prayer has always bothered me a good bit. But the key thing is she's wrestling with it, and through that process she's working out what gender equality means to her. And whatever I think of the prayer, I can certainly agree that that is a good thing.

Comments

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
gwynnyd
Sep. 21st, 2012 06:23 am (UTC)
But WHY do men have religious obligations that women do not? It's usually because women were not seen as fully human. Men are the default human and women, not being men, are some "other," lesser type.

The rituals that apply only to women are often to make them ritually clean so men can have interaction with them without being sullied by their otherness.

I think you go wrong right at the beginning where you say: "I think this had something to do with the fact that since women were charged with caring for the families rather than working outside the home, it was harder for them to get to public services."

No. Women were not welcome at public service except at certain times and then hidden behind a curtain lest they contaminate the area with their femaleness. It was because they were *women* not because they had other obligations that kept them away. Men certainly had obligations, too, that could have kept them away from daily, public service but allowances were made because it was important for men to be there.

It's nice and really sweet that people now have the freedom to "re-interpret" scripture to match with our morally modern thinking, but it would have appalled the original authors and certainly have gotten us burned at the stake in certain historical periods.

I also think your bias is showing in the way you framed the options. Option 2 should not reference religious texts at all. If valuing/not valuing something is the correct, moral position for the society we live in, it is correct/not correct regardless of the position of any religious text on the matter. It's nice for you if you can reconcile the religious text to Option 2, but option 2 has to stand on its own.
marta_bee
Sep. 21st, 2012 02:06 pm (UTC)
Thanks for your thorough reply here, Carol. Lots of good meat to chew on, I think.

But WHY do men have religious obligations that women do not? It's usually because women were not seen as fully human.

I'm not a Jew so this isn't an issue I've really studied in that context. Reading this from a Christian vantage point, I think you could also argue that women needed fewer obligations to be good. The Bible also has resources to fight against just that impression, if religious people will tap into them. The story of the first sin, for example, makes it very clear that both were involved, and that both were blamed. I also know that many medieval theologians (and I would assume earlier ones, though that's not what I've studied) read the Genesis 1 account as saying humans were originally androgynous and the "creation" of woman is more properly thought of as the separation of male from female. I mention that because it underscores the point that, historically, many religious people have seen religious tradition arguing against just the interpretation you raise here. That doesn't mean all religious people did, obviously.

I do know that, from the Christian side of things, obligations were interpreted as applying to roles rather than genders. So if teachers or farmers or whatever had a certain set of obligations, even if the only examples given in the Bible itself were male, if that role opened up to women later in history they had the same obligations as the men did.

Women were not welcome at public service except at certain times and then hidden behind a curtain lest they contaminate the area with their femaleness. It was because they were *women* not because they had other obligations that kept them away.

I think this is a rather simplistic version of religious history. I'm not saying it was never like how you describe, but it leaves out the many ways that religious women were allowed into worship. It also seems to be an issue (at least in Christianity) that became more problematic as that history went on, and as the church became more stratified and established, than something that happened right off. This isn't a problem that's limited to religion; just look at how women were so central to the Arab Spring in its early days but were much more marginalized in the recent elections. I could point to situations where women led early churches, founded all-female religious orders that were often the only religious presence in the area (meaning they led any religious services for men, too). And even when it came to religious services, I know that in some times and places they were welcome, where in other times and places they weren't. Like most history, it's not as straightforward as we sometimes tend to think.

The question becomes, in situations where women are unfairly kept out of public religion, what do we say? Do we say that's just how Christianity is and has always been, and if they want equality they'll have to give up religion? Or do we call those Christians keeping them out to task and point out the ways they're not following certain parts of their own religious tradition? (Or, to be fair, is there a third option I'm not seeing for whatever reason?)

marta_bee
Sep. 21st, 2012 02:06 pm (UTC)
(contd.)

It's nice and really sweet that people now have the freedom to "re-interpret" scripture to match with our morally modern thinking, but it would have appalled the original authors and certainly have gotten us burned at the stake in certain historical periods.

Perhaps in some, but certainly not all. If you study Aquinas on the Christian side and Maimonides on the Jewish and Avicenna on the Muslim (and many, MANY others besides) they all were quite good at arguing against the prevalent interpretations of their respective scriptures of their day. All three lived well before the Enlightenment, at a time where religious authorities held a great deal of power; and all three held prestigious positions in their society. No one killed them for their stances. Others were tortured and killed, to be sure, but it's a mistake to think that this struggle to interpret scripture in a better way than is currently on offer is limited to the modern time. It's also a mistake to think that those original authors would be appalled, at least without being hypocritical – both Jesus and Paul engaged in this kind of "revision" (though I doubt either they or the later theologians who did the same thing with them would have thought of it that way) with the religious scripture of their day.

I also think your bias is showing in the way you framed the options. Option 2 should not reference religious texts at all.

Carol, I'm honestly not trying to be biased or thick-headed here, but I'm not seeing the problem. Could you explain the problem you see more carefully? I'll also re-read this paragraph later when I have more time – I'm about to be late for my day if I don't run out the door.

The way I see it, you and Dan were criticizing me for claiming God obviously cared about women. You both pointed me to the Biblical (or Koranic, or whatever) passages that have been interpreted in a misogynistic way, and Dan explicitly said this meant the only way to not be a misogynist was to disown those passages. What I was trying to get across with my options was that both a certain class of atheists and a certain class of theists read the Bible in a certain way and react to it on that level. I would be fine criticizing that characterization of the Bible, which unfortunately is one that a good number of religious people (but certainly not all) hold. My point, though, is that there's a third way here: find a deeper interpretation of scripture that isn't misogynistic. I didn't mean to say atheists have to take a position regarding scripture but was instead trying to work within the problem you and Dan laid out.

Now I really must go! Talk to you later.
gwynnyd
Sep. 22nd, 2012 06:07 am (UTC)
I said: I also think your bias is showing in the way you framed the options. Option 2 should not reference religious texts at all.

Marta replied - Carol, I'm honestly not trying to be biased or thick-headed here, but I'm not seeing the problem. Could you explain the problem you see more carefully?


You originally stated the options as:

1. The Bible verse is correct and our valuing equality is wrong.
2. The Bible is wrong and our valuing equality is right.
3. There is some way of reinterpreting the Bible verse, or our other values, or both, that avoids this contradiction.

I think it all goes back to where do we get the idea that anything is a right or a wrong thing. I was trying to generalize the issue. If the Bible says that it is good that some people are slaves or that it is good to love your neighbor as yourself, those ideas can only be assessed as right or wrong in comparison to some other standard that you actually hold. Within the Bible itself (unless it contradicts itself as it has a distressing tendency to do) the ideas it espouses can't be assessed as wrong. That other standard, the one the person actually holds, needs to be able to stand alone without reference to the Bible. If you want to do mental gyrations to try and reconcile the points of view when they differ, that's certainly your right. But, for me at least, your assertion (#3) that it would be a good thing to not only reinterpret the Bible verses but "reinterpret my values" to match the Bible's interpretation that I have already decided is "wrong" seems odd.
gwynnyd
Sep. 22nd, 2012 05:26 am (UTC)
The question becomes, in situations where women are unfairly kept out of public religion, what do we say? Do we say that's just how Christianity is and has always been, and if they want equality they'll have to give up religion? Or do we call those Christians keeping them out to task and point out the ways they're not following certain parts of their own religious tradition? (Or, to be fair, is there a third option I'm not seeing for whatever reason?)

Of course there is a third option - discard the parts of the religious texts that no longer apply in the modern world. Yes, I realize that is easier said than done. However, councils have decided what is doctrine and what is to be discarded before. After all, the structure of the Bible as we know it was a committee decision driven by political considerations.

The problem is not that people are not following certain parts of their own religious traditions, but that they ARE following them.

Leviticus was a good guide for how to be a Levite priest in 400 BC, but as a guide for living in the 21st Century, it doesn't work. Much of the scripture of whatever religion is simply *wrong* by today's scientific knowledge. If it was dictated by a god, that god was remarkably ignorant of their own universe. If that 'omnipotent' god could get relatively simple physical things completely wrong, how can they be trustworthy when it comes to the deeper issues?

And, yes, of course, you can point to a few women and say, "See! She wasn't oppressed." But even within your own Methodist tradition, while Lydia Sexton could be a "pulpit preacher" in 1851, six years later the United Brethren General Conference passed a resolution that no woman should be allowed to preach. Which item had the greater impact? The one or two women who were the exceptions or the general statement that women were not allowed to even preach much less become full clergy? In 1944, 1948, and 1952, the Woman's Division of Christian Service of The Methodist Church petitioned the General Conference for full clergy rights for women, but it was rejected each time. It was not until 1956 that women received full clergy rights. That's within my lifetime!

The general expectation in religions has been that women are "separate but equal" - and we all know how poorly that worked out for other groups.

This isn't a problem that's limited to religion; look at how women were so central to the Arab Spring in its early days but were much more marginalized in the recent elections.

blink - splutter - Wha...? Are you serious suggesting that political marginalization of women in fundamentalist Muslim countries is a *secular* problem? Seriously? I am having a very hard time wrapping my brain around your statement. Oh sure, women's political opinions are *so* valued in that area of the world, it's extremely odd how they were overlooked in the last elections. Seriously? You don't think that the role of women in the Muslim religion has anything to do with their political marginalization? It's the central role of women in the original Arab Spring that is the oddity.
gardengirl6
Sep. 21st, 2012 11:13 am (UTC)
I really, really enjoy reading your thoughts about tough topics like this/these. I respect the depth you bring to the discussion, and I deeply respect the struggle you put into seeking to make sense of things. I don't 'run' in these circles these days, and I'm thankful for the chance to keep a toe in the water, if you will, and remember that not everything is about food preservation, livestock, and homework assignments.

I'll lift a pint (it comes in pints?) to you tomorrow especially, on Bilbo and Frodo's birthdays!
engarian
Sep. 21st, 2012 01:49 pm (UTC)
There are many reasons why I left the path of traditional religious beliefs, but you just touched upon many of them in this post.

- Erulisse (one L)
celandineb
Sep. 21st, 2012 04:21 pm (UTC)
If you're basing your moral principles elsewhere, and then figuring out how to re-interpret your religious texts to fit with those (your option #3) - why bother with the religious texts at all?

Because the usual excuse for valuing those texts is that they teach morality, right, so if they have to be twisted to fit modern ideas of right and wrong (like not owning slaves, and viewing men and women as equals, and any number of other things), then why should they be valued, much less quasi-worshiped (which is, frankly, what I think many fundamentalists do, worship the book itself, breaking their own first commandment).
marta_bee
Sep. 21st, 2012 05:57 pm (UTC)
It's a good question, Cel. I think there's a difference between what we know is true and how we learn it. There are a lot of people who take religion very seriously and I think for them, it can be a useful framework for talking about these issues.

Think about the civil rights movement. Certainly equal civil rights for ethnic groups makes sense without the Bible - but to a religious audience, framing it in terms of Biblical terms can be a useful tool to getting people to think about an issue. For example, if you're a Kantian, then it's useful to use Kant to think through whether Jim Crow laws are morally defensible. Political scientists, or psychologists, or whatever may use a different approach to think through this same problem. The important thing is that there's a framework to approach the problem with, and that it's actually a useful or otherwise good framework. (That last question is surely a big one that needs answering, but I'm about to go into seminar, so I can't go into it now - sorry to leave it hanging.)
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