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Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson Headshot

From Small Beginnings, or Finding Your Inner Bad Girl!

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There is a dispiriting hopelessness that can easily creep into human life: We have a deadening sense that we've seen it all; we've done it all; we've been there before; life doesn't change; we're really the same as we were last year; the same as we were the year before. And that sense of the endless repetition of sameness has a word for it in English. We call such a position "Realism." A Realist is a person who judges the future by the past. If something was never previously done that way, then it obviously can't ever be done that way, and you are being unrealistic if you think that something that was never done before can be possible. We have a word for that exuberant, extravagant dreamer too. We call that person a human, because our species, throughout history, regularly accomplishes achievements that were never previously thought possible. That self-surpassing quality is actually our business in the world.

I want to celebrate some of those dreamers, starting with a circle of Bad Girls over a century and a half ago, in Seneca Falls.

In the 1830s some Americans began to realize that owning their fellow human beings and selling them as property was immoral. They organized an anti-slavery movement called Abolitionism, and it welled up from their biblical principles -- Quakers, Baptists, and Christians of different stripes -- who realized that the Bible speaks about the brotherhood and sisterhood of all believers, and the equality of all human beings. These bold spiritual pioneers realized that their biblical faith was incompatible with the sale of African Americans because of their race, because of their skin color. This movement began to grow, and Upstate New York was a hotbed of Abolitionist activity.

In the year 1840 two newlyweds -- the Reverend Henry Stanton and his beautiful young wife, Elizabeth Cady Stanton -- travelled to London to attend an international anti-slavery convention. When they arrived, they found a handful of other women who had also come to this convention, creating a crisis for the assembled male Abolitionists. Remember that Abolitionists were committed to the idea of human equality, with equal justice and dignity for all. Those same reformers were concerned that if women were present and participated it would be unnatural and undignified, so they tabled the discussion of anti-slavery for two days to debate the question of how to handle the women who sought to be delegates to this convention.

After several days of thoughtful (male) deliberation, they resolved this crisis by setting up a separate room with a cloth that hung from the ceiling to the floor, so that the women could sit behind it, silently at this conference on human dignity. For five days the women sat behind the cloth, not talking, listening to people giving impassioned speeches about human equality and human dignity. Then they returned to their homes in Seneca Falls, and those five housewives, literally having tea together in a living room, decided they were simply done with accepting their own degradation. They resolved to organize the world's first convention to assert the rights of women. The convention was scheduled for a month later (they had only one month to pull it off) and they managed to convince the local Methodist church to let them use the building for their meeting. Two hundred people showed up, among them Frederick Douglas, the liberated slave and orator who was then living in the North.

Consider this: their husbands had to give their permission to organize this meeting, because these women were, after all, under their husbands' legal authority. And their husbands had to drive them to the meeting because women were not allowed to drive in any real civilized country (there are countries that still follow that rule to this very day). Four of the husbands agreed to attend the meeting; one of the husbands was willing to drop his wife off, but he himself would not stay for such a foolish and rash conversation. Their brothers wrote them letters telling them how they were disgracing their families, and that it was obvious that the way God had made men and women, women were so constructed as to be able to nurture the next generation and were responsible for the home, while it was men who properly shouldered the responsibility for providing for the women and the children. That was why God gave men big muscles and larger brains. These claims were the universal consensus of the time and of every previous era. Scientists gave public lectures about how, because men's brains are larger than women's brains, this was evidence that men are more intelligent than women and so designed to be leading a public life (just quoting here, not endorsing!). Ministers rose in their pulpits to preach that this new doctrine of female equality and independence was a violation of God's intention; God says explicitly in the Bible that women are to be helpmates to their husbands. They are to be subservient to their husbands, as are all the good women in the Bible.

And these five women somehow mustered the courage to ignore the smothering consensus that had captured everyone else. They did not listen to the president of the great Universities of the day. They did not defer to the doctors or the scientists. They did not heed the clergy. They held their meeting, and in 1848 they passed a resolution they called The Declaration of Sentiments. Their proclamation was based on the US Declaration of Independence, but they boldly modified the first line: while Jefferson had written "We hold these truths to be self-evident," they added, "that all men and all women are created equal." Scandalous!

Here's a curious thing about history: it changes to reflect the concerns and values of the people seeking to learn it. When I studied American History as a 7th grader, we never studied Seneca Falls because it wasn't deemed important. We studied the expansion into the West; that was important. We studied the growing tension between the North and the South; that was important. Somehow someone decided for us that a small band of uppity women wasn't important. But once again, the so-called experts were wrong. When it comes to lasting impact, nothing in 1848 was more influential than these brave, visionary women.

It turns out that in 1848 everyone else was wrong and these women were the only ones who today seem self-evidently right. We live in their light. Many women today think nothing of wearing pants. If a woman had done that in 1850, she would have had stones thrown at her as she tried to walk down the street. We have had women presidents of countless houses of worship and of charitable organizations (to say nothing of corporations and industry), we have women clergy, we've had women on the Supreme Court, we have women surgeons. I have flown on planes with women pilots. And this is liberating not only for women, but for men as well. We owe that liberation to five housewives who could not go to college because there were no women colleges yet (these were just for men), so they had no advanced degrees. They owned no separate income from their husbands, they could not vote, they could not own property, they could not testify, and they simply rejected the fundamental tenet of their age.

We've actually heard this story before, although the outer wrapping was different. Recall this: the most powerful empire in the world was predicated on the notion that some people matter and some people do not; that some people deserve to receive benefit, and everyone else is designed to provide it. And that culture based itself on the forced labor of people that it considered to'evot -- abominable. It forced them to dwell in separate neighborhoods, did not let them participate in government, did not allow them to live adequately, did not allow them to express their own spiritual or cultural identity. And at some point, some little nobody, a guy who grew up in the palace but not with his actual parents, while his brother and his sister grew up as slaves -- at some point this man and his siblings proclaim, "Let my people go!" Armed with this simple truth, they confronted that ancient despot and they brought his kingdom down. Every time we hear a story like that of the bold women of Seneca Falls, we hear the echoes of Moses and the children of Israel. Another Pharaoh bites the dust! These five women were the Moses' of their time. And it took 100 years for their story to become important. It wasn't important if you'd studied American History in 1900; it would not have occupied your attention even in 1920, 1930, 1940! But somehow by the 1960s this event started to gain traction, to have an impact on how we make our choices and how we live our lives.

The only way to guarantee that nothing can change is to never try to change it. There are lots of experts and authorities -- from Pharaoh to the president of Harvard -- who are happy to tell you, "We have never done it that way, so who are you to try." We have to cultivate a little Moses inside of us, a little Lucretia Mott perhaps, to be able to say, "It's going to change. It's going to change because I'm not getting out of the way!" Sometimes we just have to find our inner Bad Girl, and let her out!

For me, there is a third such story of world-changing audacity:

At some point in the 1880s a French journalist with a beard decided that the Jewish people needed a homeland of their own where they would no longer be at the whim of anti-Semites and oppression. On his own, and by himself, he started visiting the crowned heads of Europe without anyone having voted for him. With no budget. Theodore Herzl was the most hutzpadik (bodacious) Jew the world had seen. And because those crowned monarchs were all anti-Semites, they all believed that Herzl, being Jewish, had to be rich and powerful (That is making anti-Semitism work for you!). Kings and popes met with Herzl. And he taught us "im tirtzu,ein zo aggadah, If we will it, it is no dream." We can make our dreams come true. Like the bold sisters of Seneca Falls, Theodor Herzl's call for Jewish self-determination, Zionism, also wasn't taught in the schools in the 1890s or the 1910s. But some time around the 1948, he retroactively became a very important figure with the establishment of the independent State of Israel. Like Herzl, like Lucretia Mott, the impact of our deeds are not immediately apparent.

There is a effect to what we do that ripples out into the future and retroactively determines what matters and what doesn't. We don't know when standing in the moment what is going to matter. All we can know is whether or not we are living our lives with integrity. Are we listening to the voice within and are we true to that voice? Or are we allowing the powerful and the dominant to tell us to shut down our own dreams and to collude in silencing our own truth? Moses refused to succumb to the conformity of slavery. He walked up to Pharaoh and said, "Let my People Go!" and his descendants have changed the world. The women of Seneca Falls would not betray their truth. They stared down the experts in their generation, and we are the beneficiaries of their stubbornness. And for years people told the Jews, you are despised, an outcast and wandering people. You can't have a home again. Today, the Jews have a national home.

Pay attention to small beginnings, because every great cause started off with some lunatic who would not back down. Every now and then you should be one of those lunatics. Every now and again you should be so fired up by righteous indignation that you say, that's it! No more! Liberation begins with each of us.

During the month leading up to the Jewish holy days, synagogues recite a psalm (the 27th) for the entire penitential period, God is my light and my help. Who should I fear? We are liberated from our fear of social convention and stereotypes, from the deadening habit that encrusts our hearts and makes us die slow deaths while still breathing because we no longer feel each other's pain, because we no longer feel each other's passion, because we no longer dream possibilities. Who should I fear if God is my light. God's expectations are always a dream. And we have the privilege and the opportunity to dream God's dreams. It is always the right time to begin afresh; to begin anew. God is the one who, in goodness, is constantly renewing creation. Tomorrow is never the same as yesterday unless one is not living. And if we are alive, then tomorrow offers us an opportunity to be different than yesterday.

In that same Psalm (27) the verse ends: Hope in the Holy One and be strong. It turns out that hope is the abiding source of our resilient strength. If we continue to cling to the timeless vision of those who have come before us, to the ancient promise of Torah, that all men and all women are equally reflective of God's dignity and God's justice, and that God is the one who strikes Pharaohs down and brings slaves to freedom. If we hold true to the possibility that liberation comes from the radical act of engaged learning and from taking that knowledge and translating those insights into life; if we able to remember not only these five bold women, but the anonymous midwives who stood up to Pharaoh in his time and said, "we will not participate in drowning the Hebrew boys." These gutsy women of the Bible, Shifra and Puah remind us that at some point in our lives we ought to be a troublemaker. Maybe more than once.

Every beginning is small, and every cause begins as unpopular, unfashionable, and unnatural. Change has always come from brave, stiff-necked individuals who would not take no for an answer. So let us use the time we have on this planet to kick up some trouble. Let us make a mess of things to clean up the mess that we have inherited. This is a world that is better because of the Abolitionists who said no. And in retrospect, the pompous Senators and the arrogant millionaires who calmly explained why the trafficking of human beings was God's Plan simply look foolish. Those five 'unnatural' women who were not at home serving their husbands their meals because they were busy overthrowing thousands of years of Western Civilization with their simple desire to be able to vote in a democracy like anybody else, they have made our world possible. Similarly the world is better because of the Jews, a small, wandering people who stood up to the Romans Empire, just as we had already stood up to the Assyrians. We were seen as a threat by the Nazis and the Soviets because we insisted that life is always more precious than what one can possess or control, because we insisted that the spark that lights up the human being comes from another and a truer Source. Our Scriptures taught us that we are most true to ourselves when we live in that light. We have outlasted dictators, and bullies, and tyrants, and so long as we continue to be the people aflame in dreams, the people to wonder and marvel, we will continue to light beacons for the world. Miracle of miracles: in every age that ancient Jewish quest has found parallels, and today finds allies and renewed partners in wisdom traditions and partners of every faith and people.

Never believe a Realist. Never believe the people who tell you, "oh, it can't be that way." All they are asserting is that it's never been that way, yet. Calmly, and with resolute love, show them how it can be different by living the difference. Don't wait for permission. Bring out your inner Bad Girl -- and let today's Pharaohs beware!