As a Jew I have always understood myself to be part of a people – could say nation, but we have no land or territory and no self-government. The Jewish religion, I have always understood to be part of that culture, essentially a tribal god and a set of rules or principles for how to live in the world. Stories, music and poetry are part of this, gratitude and acknowledgement of the gifts of life. Balancing ritual duties with meeting needs (you can break the shabbos or a fast if needed for health reasons). So I’ve kind of bracketed the patriarchal nature of the religion, avoiding it, keeping what nurtures me – the ethical principles, the poetry.
This Rosh Hashana I came face to face with the patriarchy in a way I couldn’t avoid. I wanted to relate to the holiday in community instead of in a solitary way or only by wishing my wife a sweet year as we eat apples and maple syrup. So I attended a service by zoom, done by a progressive Jewish Renewal synagogue in California. The service was conducted by several people together, there was music and drumming as well as speaking and singing. The primary officiant, a transman who carries the title of Maggid, or preacher, was highly dynamic and brought a lot of heart to the service, using humor and connecting the themes of Rosh Hashana to life and emotions and fears and needs.
I mention that this person is a transman because I felt a deep connection with them – pronouns are ambiguous and impossible to accurately convey this situation, since to say ‘him’ would deny the connection I felt with another female person entering into patriarchal archetypes. And it would flatten and reify the archetype of masculinity itself which I reject, along with the archetype of a violent masculine covenant of submission to abject terror and helplessness that is the essence of the religious significance of Rosh Hashana beyond the simple fact of an autumnal lunar new year.
The Torah portion traditionally read for Rosh Hashana is the ‘akedah’, the binding of Isaac to an altar as sacrifice to Abraham’s god. As we know, the god saves Isaac at the last moment, it was only willingness required and not the sacrifice itself. We can rationalize this any which way, consider it to be a reconciliation of the practice of sacrifice with preserving life (of a supposedly beloved child!) by making the deity responsible for both ends and worshipping the deity ultimately as both all-powerful and merciful. But it is a patriarchal vision of deity as an entity to be feared, an arbitrary power that issues commands having no inherent value that we can discern – indeed the deity’s reasoning is considered to be asymptotically incommensurate with our capabilities of perception.
The service I attended didn’t read the Torah portion (for which I was thankful) but the themes brought out invoked it implicitly. On Rosh Hashana it is said that the deity inscribes people in the book of life or the book of death for the year to come, and on Yom Kippur that fate is sealed. Well, we know that some people will live and some will die, it is sobering to contemplate our mortality and what this means for how we want to live our lives. But there is a theme of atonement for sins, asking forgiveness for all the ways in which we have disappointed our higher conscience, as if it is a matter of averting the imposition of a death sentence that the deity may arbitrarily impose for any reason of its own. This again is a patriarchal image of deity as sovereign monarch, a king ruling by decree, the best we can hope for is mercy. And that is not an inherent attribute of deity or our relationship to the sacred, it is a reflection of a particular kind of class society with patriarchy at its foundation.
The other patriarchal aspect of the ‘akedah’ is the covenant that follows the merciful saving of Isaac from a death sentence. It’s a male covenant with a male god, involving male circumcision. What is this for women? How are women even a part of the Jewish people?
There is in the scripture reference to older traditions that may have been matriarchal, including the marriages of the founding patriarchs to the founding matriarchs – Isaac and Jacob both returned to their mothers’ relatives to seek their mates, and Jacob spent a number of years living with those relatives in a matrilocal arrangement before uprooting his wives and household to re-assert the patrilocal arrangement he had intended. When Rachel takes the teraphim – the household gods – she is both asserting her right to them, and cooperating with Jacob in moving to consolidate a patriarchal society. (We don’t have to take these stories as literal to derive this implication.)
As a Jewish woman, already having rejected zionism as an expression of nationhood because it adopts the form and nature of white settler colonialism with inherent genocidal implications that are ongoing, and also understanding that the patriarchal religion is not salvageable – this is how I see my particular situation in the world:
I can choose to look within to invoke my own ancestors, known or unknown, that come in a good way. (Thanks to Veronica Agard, who conducts the Ancestors in Training workshops). When I connect with my ancestors, I invite them to the place where I currently make my home. They can communicate with me through dreams or other signs and it is up to me to discern meaning and take responsibility for what I do in response.
I have no homeland, most of my people came here from countries where they were being persecuted. The land of Israel or Palestine is not capable of being a spiritual homeland because of how it is being used destructively for genocide. I can’t ‘go home’ again. I was born on land that was original Lenape territory, in Brooklyn; now I live on land that was original territory of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy/Mohawk nation and also occupied and used by Abenaki and other nations through treaties. (The book Rural Indigenousness by Melissa Otis is a fascinating history though needs to be supplemented by learning more about the massacres which are not presented in detail.) When I connect to the land, I recognize the original peoples as custodians and their ancestors as well as my own. Connection to this land where I live – the particular place where I make my home, its immediate surroundings – has become a source of important meaning to me, communion and mutual energy and knowledge.
As for the rest, it is open and indefinite, and unfinished. Being part of ‘the mixed multitudes’ is what diasporic identity means if it is an identity at all and it may be a history more than anything else.
There is a legacy of ‘tikkun olam’ that might be the best of what I inherit as a Jewish legacy. Survival strengths and understanding ourselves as both/and, inside and outside, a people dispersed among the nations, needing to find ways to repair what has been harmed and having the perspective to see from inside and outside at once. We have also inherited some intense fear, both from our own patriarchal covenant religion and from the persecutions we have undergone throughout history. So we can’t come to the world, or to tikkun olam, as beggars, as beings tainted by an original sin of homelessness mixed with patriarchal ambitions, crying to a sovereign king worldly or otherworldly for mercy. Moving into our place within the mixed multitudes, we have been and are part of reinventing woman-centered power as creative intelligence and order (see Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop). That is a paradigm I am tentatively adopting as a both/and way of exploring matriarchies (cultures centered on mothers as beginning with spiritual, social, economic and political implications). It may be that the two are the same but that as a lesbian raised in patriarchal culture I see ‘mother’ in a restrictive light. I am also especially interested in exploring original forms of law from this perspective, and connecting this with the possibilities that may or may not exist still to exercise creative intelligence through law-giving either using the political structure of states (can they be transformed, are some already functioning as anything other than a violent paradigm of arbitrary sovereignty?) or in any other meaningful ways.