Gendering Religious Experience: A Reflection

Elana Burack, University of Pennsylvania

On any given Friday night, you can find me on the third floor of Penn Hillel in the Conservative Jewish Community’s (CJC) evening services. You’ll see me swaying and singing through the prayers, tapping the front of my Siddur (prayer book) to the rhythm, and chanting the silent Amidah. You’ll see me hugging my friend as she takes the seat next to me, shouting a congratulatory “Mazel Tov” after someone announces a job offer, and advertising an event I’m hosting next week. You’ll also see that the room is overwhelmingly female, both in attendance and leadership positions. Most Fridays, a woman begins services by leading Kabbalat Shabbat, another female from the community reads the weekly Dvar Torah (sermon), Maariv concludes the service with another female leader, and then some announcements are made by the co-chairs–both female.

Every few weeks, I take note of this strong female-majority community and am surprised all over again. Is this usual? Is this representative of other Jewish communities and denominations or just ours? Why exactly are women so much more committed to the community? Why do women chant Torah (which requires lots of practice for most people) week after week while the men in the room only ever read the short blessings before and after the Torah reading? Why are women the ‘regulars’ when it comes to leading services while you’d be hard-pressed to find a man behind the pulpit? Does this large female presence and participation stem from comparatively more spiritualism? If no, then what? If yes, then why are women more spiritual?

These questions of females in the religious sphere are incredibly relevant to my daily life; and I have turned to a few female writers to explore the historical feminist approach to mysticism to and perhaps find some answers.

Unlike other approaches, the feminist approach to mysticism is not concerned with the mystical experience itself. As Grace Jantzen writes in her article entitled Feminists, Philosophers, and Mystics, mysticism has no essence because it’s a construction of “power and gender relations.” Rather, the feminist approach to mysticism considers the context of mystical experience: it asks how mystical experience is intertwined with power. As Jantzen states, “…defining mysticism is a way of defining power…the question of who counts as a mystic is of immediate political importance.” Flipping the old “separation of church and state on its head,” the feminist approach claims that religion and politics are strongly linked in society and that this tie must be exposed in order to change the status quo.

Jantzen’s article, for example, traces the exclusive nature of “mysticism” over the years, demonstrating how it kept women out of power. When mysticism was first starting, it was confined to those initiated by “secret ritual,” and women were not part of that initiated group. When mysticism was later defined as being detached, or emotionally disconnected from society, women were considered unable to be so detached. Even later, when mysticism was defined as having a deeper understanding of the Bible, women didn’t have the literacy education to be able to read and study text. Although the lives of prominent women, such as Hildegard of Bingen, mark turning points for women in mysticism and women’s power in general, women were only fully accepted as mystics when countries became secular states and religious experience was no longer held as “a source of knowledge and power” in the state. Suddenly, mysticism and spirituality became conveniently non-political, activities reserved for the private sphere, a sphere that was ‘safe’ for women to enter because it did not represent a threat to authority. Femininity and spirituality were increasingly linked, but not in a way that empowered either one. Instead of working to understand the femininity-spirituality linkage, a feminist approach examines what that association accomplishes: femininity and spirituality are put in danger of becoming “ineffectual.” As Jantzen put it, “The privatizing of spirituality obscures its relation to social justice,” therefore maintaining the status quo.

Other scholars might challenge Jantzen’s view, however. As Ann Braude writes in her piece The Body and Soul Destroying Marriage Institution, these spiritualist women, once deemed ‘true spiritualists,’ used their newfound religious power to fight back against the ever-so-stubborn status quo. Comparing prostitution and marriage, Spiritualists argued for a society in which the ‘multi-definitioned’ ‘Free Love’ exists to liberalize divorce laws, normalize sexual desire, and encourage love as the grounding for sex. Feminist author Lois Wasbrooker argues that these radical viewpoints were claimed as ultimate truths that were accessible to her because of her spiritualism.

Waisbrooker’s assertion is somewhat reminiscent of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” in claiming that society’s beliefs are only “a pale shadow of reality,” while the real truth, the truth that advocates feminist ideals, is unknowable to anyone who is not in communication with the divine (as she purports to be).

While women like Waisbrooker and Hildegard of Bingen derive power from their feminine spirituality, I wonder where they fit into the elusive spectrum of “feminism.” Would it be right to call them true feminists by our modern standards? Or were they rather women gently pushing back against the patriarchy while working well within its boundaries? In my typical indecisive fashion, I would create for them a category of their own, one which recognizes their bravery as feminists of their time but doesn’t completely accept them as modern-day feminists. None of these scenarios, however, aims to diminish the feminist work that they did, but they do impact how women relate to religion today.

Mary, who Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez discussed in a lecture in one of my classes, is another female figure about whom I have the same questions. How much does Mary, as a modern-day role model, empower women, and how much does she symbolize the confinement of women to their subservient role in a patriarchal system? In essence, is she a figure of power or complacence? Going a step further, how much does Mary (and her power or lack thereof) reflect the values of the entire religion? Alvarez openly stated that she believes Christianity has sexist values. Is there a way to “grow out” of this? Is it possible to adapt religious figures and their stories to mirror modern-day feminist feelings?

To a large extent, I am seeing such updates and adaptations in Modern Orthodox Jewish communities. Women are dissatisfied with the power dynamic and are at a potential critical turning point. They want to lead parts of the service. They want to give the Dvar Torah (sermon). They want their presence to be seen and heard.

One of my Modern Orthodox friends is currently doing a project to analyze how men and women may even have different prayer experiences that result from the power dynamic. What is prayer like for a man, singing and stomping his foot and rejoicing with all the other men? What is prayer like on the other side of the mechitza (divider) where the women quietly sway back and forth? How does the sex of the prayer leader impact the prayer experiences of men and women?

To me, this project works to answer the fundamental question that I have not addressed so far: How does gender-dictated power impact religious experience?

As Alvarez suggested, despite the fact that we live in a society which practically predisposes women to be more spiritual, women continue to lack power in the grand scheme of life. Unfortunately, such lack of power has robbed us of the truth of female religious experience for two main reasons: (1) historical accounts of female religious experience are documented by men and (2) women utilize religion as a feminist tool.

First, the fact that historical accounts of female religious experiences are written by men is incredibly important. Stories such as Luke 1:26-38 when Mary reacts to the news that she will give birth to a son as a virgin claim to relay women’s religious experiences, but they are better characterized as conveying a male’s interpretation of the experience, one infused with patriarchal suggestion. The very stories upon which we base religious experience in modern times are not primary sources. That’s disturbing.

Many men and women likely do have differing religious experiences, but because they were historically documented similarly, we might never know–we don’t differentiate between male and female experiences. The stories of the past have created expectations of religious experience: they are the standard. Had Mary, mother of Jesus, been literate, powerful and recorded her own version, perhaps we would have an entirely different conception of what religious experience is like for women. Perhaps men’s and women’s religious experiences occur in such distinct contexts that they could be considered by constructionists to be different categories altogether. Perhaps gender is a culture on its own that we’ve neglected to factor in when we talk of religious experience.

Secondly, we are unable to fully understand female religious experience because women, both in the past and the present, have been utilizing religion and religious experience itself as a feminist tool. Hildegard used her visions. Waisbrooker used her claim to divine truth. Nowadays, women make progress in the religious sphere in the hopes that it will effect change in the social and political spheres. When religious experience becomes a power weapon such as this, does it diminish the religious experience? When Women of the Wall protesters in Israel are being physically and verbally harassed in their efforts to read from the Torah at the Western Wall, how can they possibly be focused on having a religious experience?

This reminds me of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. On the one hand, many women who use religious experience as a power tool may not be able to fully engage in a religious experience (what I would consider to be on the top of the pyramid) because they are still trying to meet the needs of feeling like an equal, presumably a lower level on the pyramid. On the other hand, as James would say, “Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary.” Perhaps religious experience is what allows us to strive for more power in the first place. Or rather it is both: It is both motivator and motivation, now and not yet, essential and yet missing.

In the end, after learning about the complicated relationship that female religious experience has with power, I return to thinking about Friday services in the Conservative community at Hillel. I feel incredibly lucky that there a spaces today in which, at least in my opinion, women are empowered as religious leaders that have influence in the public sphere. I am proud to say that I am part of a community in which women’s religious experiences are defined not by a gendered power struggle but rather a love of Judaism and community.