September 21st, 2012


Blessed are you, O Lord, who has not made me a woman

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.

T&L voting ends soon

Signal-boost from Dreamflower.


Voting for the MPTT Awards closes on the 22nd, so there is not long left for voting. You don't have to be a member to support your favourite stories. There are still sadly few votes and many good stories needing your support.

Tree and Flower Awards Nominee

I have been honoured to have some of my personal favourites amongst my stories nominated such as "The Light bearer", "Catastrophe", Hunting the Dragon" "Carefully Taught" and "A Time to Reap." 
There are also many wonderful stories written by my friends and LJ buddies taking part as well as new stories I enjoyed reading for the first time.

Hunger Games Post: Is the Reaping Fair?

This morning I finished the final Hunger Games book, Mockingjay, and I loved them. They have their flaws to be sure, but it's saying something that my first response to getting to the ending was to want to start at the beginning once more - and actually do it. While the books are tragic and dark, they are tragic and dark in a way that I found compelling and realistic. It's not often that I can say that.

As I'm rereading them, I thought I'd blog about them this time through. I will assume everyone has read the first book or at least seem the movie, so if you haven't and still want to remain unspoiled, just avoid any posts with this "Hunger Games Post:" subject line. If a book involves substantive details from later books I'll put that under an LJ-cut.

Anyway. We're just starting off, so no need for a spoiler-warning. The Hunger Games is set in a world where global warming has made the old status quo unsustainable. This resulted in a rather authoritarian regime with a very unequal society, between the districts (outlying regions that produce, in the words of movie!Snow, "Things we want, things we need") and the Capitol (a pampered head of government and power). All of this led to a rebellion seventy-five years before the book begins. As penance for this rebellion, the districts have to offer up one boy and one girl, between the ages of twelve and eighteen that will fight in a bloody gladiatorial type competition. The one winner is allowed to live and even given a lifetime of riches. In the later books we also learn that all the families in their districts get free food that whole year. Some of the districts more cozy with district see it as a kind of sporting event, but in the poorer ones being chosen is seem as a death sentence.

Here's where things get really interesting, IMO. When you're twelve you get one entry into the reaping lottery, and then an extra entry is added on every year. So it's more likely that older kids will get chosen than the younger ones, although sometimes younger tributes really are chosen as we see in the books. (The heroine's little sister, Prim, is chosen, as is Katniss's ally Rue and several others.) On top of that, kids can sign up for tesserae - a monthly supply of grain and oil for a single person. You can sign up for you and anyone else in your immediate family. That carries over, too, so if you still need tesserae the next year you have the extra entries from the previous years and this one. 

The upshot is that Katniss's friend Gale has fifty-odd entries in the yearly drawing. He's eighteen and has been signing up for tesserae for his younger siblings and mother in addition to himself. Katniss has a high number as well, for similar reasons. On the other hand, the mayor's daughter Madge has never really had to worry about having enough food, only has six or so entries - making it at least eight times more likely that Gale will be picked than that Madge will.

Thinking about this I found myself wondering: is it fair. I mean, obviously the Hunger Games itself is massively unfair. The whole concept that you could take kids at random for something that happened before they were even born (and that wasn't uniquely the districts' fault in any event) outrages me, as it's intended to. But going along with that, is this a good way to allocate those spaces in the Games? On the one hand, those kids who receive tesserae are receiving something that the rich kids didn't (food), but on the other hand the only reason the rich kids didn't need the tesserae is because they were born into privilege. The book makes it seem like social mobility is impossible, and it's not Gale's fault he wasn't born to one of the few shopowners rather than to mining parents.

Think about it this way. Say that the army, rather than being all-volunteer with bonuses, you did a draft. Would it be more fair to be one-citizen-one-entry or let the poor "buy" more entries into the draft as a way to prevent hunger at, say, $1,000 of any government subsidy (public school, welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, etc.) in exchange for an extra entry into the draft. Say there's also an actual war going on, so some proportion of those drafted will actually die. In a lot of ways that's similar to the Hunger Games reaping.

It's really interesting to me to think about why the reaping (as opposed to the games per se) are unfair. On a gut level I believe they are, but working out why is a bit tricksy. I can see a lot of American political parties being behind a system like this, for instance, if the games themselves weren't so unfair in the first place. After all, no one's forcing the poor to accept tesserae, and surely they prefer that to starvation.

What are your thoughts on this? Is this a good way of choosing tributes?

(More posts to come as I read through the Hunger Games; feel free to suggest things you'd like me to talk about and I'll think about it.)