Maureen Dowd recently wrote about the Catholic Church's negation of women. It seems like that's a frequent headline: Women Negated by Religion. Or: Women Still Negated by Religion. Too often, it's true. It's true in enormous, striking, unavoidable ways that deny women ownership of their own bodies and prevent them from taking control of their own lives, let alone their communities. I hope I don't appear insensitive to this reality when I point out another, quieter, but equally unavoidable trajectory. For some women, leading a religious community is not only normal, it is a critical part of their experience of themselves as women.
We live in a world of religious extremes, filled in and fleshed out by the necessary subtleties of people's real-life experiences, in the spaces where religious ideals clash with or facilitate mundane existence. I performed a service at which a young Orthodox girl stared at me in open horror as I touched the Torah. In her mind, I'd contaminated the Word of God with my corrosive, forbidden femininity. And yet, the majority of students entering many seminaries are women.
Being a clergymember has always been about being a woman for me. I was trained by a woman clergymember, and the rabbi I work with now is a woman. I spent two years serving with a male rabbi, and, you know, I dealt. I am a lay cantor at a synagogue in central New Jersey. I'm twenty-four years old. I've been serving a congregation since I was fifteen. For those of you who don't know what a cantor is, that's the person who stands up on the bima (alter) with the rabbi and sings in Hebrew. OK, there's a bit more to it, but that's what you see when you walk into a synagogue. Jewish clergy come in pairs: rabbis and cantors.
My cantorial mentor, a brilliant clergywoman, told me not to mind the guys who might be checking out my legs while I sang the Yom Kippur liturgy. She'd gotten used to it. She didn't wear a kippah (yarmulke, skullcap -- you know, the little hat) because she didn't want to cover her hair. There's a rule about women covering their hair, because women's hair is so seductive. She said, "Let my hair seduce, then!" My hair is decidedly un-seductive. It has the same opinion about everything I want to do with it: "No thanks, I'm fine. You go ahead without me. I'll just lie here." But I liked my mentor's sentiment.
I'm not a good Jewish woman to some. When I walk by them on the way home from the subway on the Upper West Side, the Orthodox men standing outside the building next to mine scowl briefly at me or ignore me completely. I am not dressed appropriately. I am wearing jeans and a tee-shirt. And a Star of David. Sometimes I like to wear a clingy red dress and tremblingly high gold heels. And a Star of David. I can tell they can't stand me.
Leading the congregation, singing the ancient liturgy, I feel sexy, vibrant, and feminine. I feel so Jewish, and being so Jewish for me means being so womanly. It's in those moments that I can almost forget that I live in a society that still dismisses my ethnically Ashkenazic features as unappealing while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge me as anything but ethnically "white." After all, my skin is pale.
I'm a failed white woman, because the best white women have pert, little noses, wide set features, and smooth, shiny hair. Thank God I'm thin, I always thought. Imagine having a big nose and being heavy. At the same exact time.
Often, I am not affirmed as a woman by the larger society. I'm informed over and over again that I'm not enough.
But inside my religious community I am the cantor, and everything that I am is made meaningful and powerful through the role that I fill. For me, and for countless other young women, leading organized religious communities is not about stepping outside of the bounds of femininity, it's about being exactly who we are, complete with all of our insecurities, in a space that allows us to just be.
The God of many people is obsessed with sex. He's obsessed with women. He's sometimes obsessed with food. He thinks a lot about people's bodies, and what they're doing with them. Who gets to touch who, and where. The world begins to look like a colossal booby trap. You glance in the wrong direction and whump! -- you're snapped up in sin.
But religion isn't ever any one thing, just like people aren't, and I keep thinking about how funny it is that I live in a world where there is a sex-crazed, nit-picking God who doesn't want women to get out of line, and at the same time, being a woman and leading a religious congregation is completely normal for me. In fact, I can't separate the leading-a-congregation from the being-a-woman. Life's full of fascinating dichotomies and contradictions, isn't it? I really believe that if I go to the gym that means I get to eat as much ice cream as I want afterward. What? That's how it works, isn't it?
Everything can get very dangerous when the wrathful, obsessive God is involved. Who should take out the recycling can become a cosmic battle. Women can be negated. But then, in the same moment in time, in the moment where I'm living, some people's God is completely fine with skinny jeans, a tank top, a Star of David, and a young woman who leads a congregation on the weekends and blogs about body image during the week.
"Wait..." said a Bat Mitzvah student who had grown up in my congregation. "There are men rabbis, too?"