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Everything Is Connected: Essays:

Jewish Feminism and the Environment

by Robin Lillian

I was born between the generations in the early 1960s. I was a baby during the Cuban Missile Crisis. No one near my age ever fought in the Vietnam War or marched with Martin Luther King. I don't remember much of anything about the events of the '60s. I was about ten years old when the Watergate scandal broke, and it was the first news event I clearly remember paying attention to. People my age have been considered the oldest members of Generation X or the youngest of Baby Boomers. Sometimes the year of my birth is included in the statistics and sometimes it's not.

All my life, I have never quite seemed to fit into most categories. I do not know if that is good or bad, but I hope it has helped me to think beyond categories. Our culture divides the aspects of our lives with sharply defined boundaries, but I think that reality is much more fuzzy and everything is connected. We are all many things, but I would like to write about the connection between my identities as a Jewish feminist and an environmentalist.

When I was in high school (late '70s), one of my English teachers actually asked the class how many of the female students intended to work when they graduated. To her surprise, but not ours, every hand was raised. Twenty years before that would have been unheard of. We take for granted many things that feminists fought for. We automatically expect to do paid work (even if we hit the glass ceiling), and to vote, and to own houses and cars in our own names. An older coworker once told me that when she was young, car dealers automatically turned away women. They thought that women were not capable of the responsibility of car payments, regardless of their financial situation. Yet, today, we women often juggle full-time jobs, housework, and children. Then we wonder why we're so tired. We blame ourselves and think we are not organized enough or that something else is wrong with us instead of thinking about societal causes. We have taken up new burdens without giving up much responsibility for the old ones. Patriarchy is still with us.

When the second wave of American feminism rolled in--the first was in the 19th century--women naturally wanted what society valued most. They wanted, and rightly so, the rights and opportunities that men had previously enjoyed, but they forgot to insist that women's traditional responsibilities are also important and should be appreciated.

Women are devalued and exploited in patriarchal cultures, but other groups are, too. It is only possible to abuse someone or something when you see yourself as a separate entity, unaffected or even benefitted by the damage to the other. People from other classes and ethnic groups have also been oppressed, and so has the natural world. Much has been written about ecofeminism, the philosophy of the connection between women and nature, and I want to make it clear that I am not trying to suggest that women are intrinsically closer to nature -- both women and men are part of nature. I am saying that the same hierarchical, separatist belief systems that allow societies to abuse women also allow them to engage in other forms of abuse. That which is low status is lumped together. We need to recognize that feminist ideas must be integrated with the whole if we are to achieve anything lasting.

This idea of separate and unrelated subjects is indeed an illusion. We do not see the connections because we do not look for them, but they are there. The idea of integration and wholeness seems strange to us but it is ancient and international. An example from China would be that of Yin and Yang, which are not really opposites but complementary. There is a little bit of Yin in Yang and visa versa. In western culture, we would think that one is better than or the opposite of the other, but to the Chinese a person can only be healthy when both are in balance with each other, and neither is dominant. Traditional Native Americans and other indigenous peoples see themselves as part of nature and not separate from it. The world is sacred to them.

As ancient as this idea is, it is relevant to the present, although our culture is just now rediscovering it. Science is beginning to look for and find the connections. Physics has found a unifying theory for the forces of electricity and magnetism and is looking for a larger unifying theory. Biologically, we literally are what we eat. The food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe all become part of us. Humans and other animals ingest food and water and excrete the byproducts of their metabolism, which our culture calls 'waste'. Those 'waste' products are food to other living organisms. An obvious example is manure, which is a fertilizer plants use to grow and manufacture more food for us in the process. Water, carbon, and other elements that comprise our bodies are just cycling through us. The water that was in the tap is now in me and will soon be in the ocean or a plant or a cloud. When we damage the environment, we ultimately damage our own life source. The line between the self and the outside environment is not as clear as we think.

We depend on the earth for life, but we need other people just as much. Life as a hermit is problematic at best. In a technological society, we are still dependent on others, some of whom we have never met. Our culture of hierarchy, domination, and control has consequences. The rich and powerful live in fear that someone will pull them down. Roles of power ultimately become straight jackets. Although men may not be as damaged by patriarchy as women are, they do pay a price. Men who buy into machismo are always afraid to show the vulnerable side of themselves that all humans have. They can't cry; they can't admit to fear, and so on. They must be very careful not to seem effeminate and ultimately cut off or deny large parts of themselves. When we hurt others, ultimately, we hurt ourselves.

So far, I have barely mentioned Judaism, but I will now. I have never been observant. I never found Hebrew school meaningful, and we got the cleaned up version of the Bible. Later, when I read excerpts from the unedited version, I was horrified. There are also other stories I heard as a child that I never thought about until later.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one example. How could Abraham have even seriously considered killing Isaac? It is not a matter of sacrificing what you love most. I cannot accept a child being considered a possession. A child is a living being and not a tent or a piece of jewelry. Any child has a right to live whether he or she is yours or the child of your enemy. Supposedly, a being asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. How did Abraham know it was God? In modern times, we perceive people who hear voices very differently. How could any being that came close to divinity ask for such a horrible thing? God is supposed to be more moral than humans not less. Why should Abraham have to be willing to commit such a terrible crime to show his devotion to God? Asking someone to prove how much they love you is childish and certainly unnecessary for a deity who is supposed to be able to see into people's hearts. This image of god is not God. The only moral response to anyone trying to force such an act is quite different. Not only would I not murder any child, but someone attacking a child in my presence would have to go through me first, no matter who they were. At least, I hope I would have the courage to make that stand. Certainly, I could not worship such a monster.

Fortunately, the Bible probably is not the literal word of God. How could it be? There are so many different holy books and religious beliefs. Who is to say which one is 'right'? (Obviously I will never be a true believer.) The Bible was written by men. Women's voices were rarely if ever recorded. These men could not help being prisoners of their own times and frailties, even if they were expressing their concept of the sacred. In my opinion, it is not a matter of who is right or wrong, but of looking at what there is of value that we can learn from different religious traditions. We can respect these writings as part of the past without accepting everything in them. Just as other generations have transmitted their perceptions of the sacred, we should have the right and the duty to speak, too.

Why not just scrap religion completely? There are two reasons. First, it is not possible to successfully ignore it. Religion is so enmeshed in society that it affects us in ways we are not even aware of. The idea that the earth is something that was given to Adam to control comes from an interpretation of the Bible. No one knows what the original author(s) meant. Nevertheless, that interpretation has led to much destruction. People who may never have thought about where the idea came from still think of the earth as a dead ball with plant, animal, mineral, and petrochemical resources that were created to be exploited for human profit. In order not to be controlled by the past, we have to be conscious of it.<

The second reason is that although religion has been used for negative purposes, it is still vital. Its absence leaves a vacuum that must be filled. When people do not have new beliefs to fill that vacuum, they will go back to the old ones in times of stress. When religion works positively for us, it gives us ceremonies and gatherings to celebrate important events in our lives. It encourages us to do what is right and helps us to look for power from within instead of power over others. It gives life meaning.

It was through the search for meaning that I found myself thinking about spirituality and religion again, if from a very different perspective. I am still not observant, and I do not have blind faith. That was one reason I never converted to another religion. There is no more reason to believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God than to believe that the Red Sea was actually parted for the Israelites.

What makes a person a Jew? Christianity is a religion. Being a Jew means being part of a religion and an ethnic group. If I were Italian, I could renounce Catholicism without anyone questioning my Italian identity. In being Jewish, I am part of a people. I could not ever completely leave that behind without losing part of myself. Of course, this does not change the fact that different individuals will have different understandings of what it means to be Jewish. One definition that I find appropriate is that Judaism is the religious beliefs of our people, which change over time.

Living languages, cultures, and religions change. Dead ones don't. Latin is the most obvious example. No one speaks it as their first language, and it has been static for centuries. If Judaism lives on, it will continue to evolve as it always has. Jews don't sacrifice animals anymore. Rabbis have replaced priests. There was actually a commission in the Middle Ages that decided which sacred texts would be included in the Torah and which would not. Again, modern people have as much right to make changes to Judaism as the ancients did. It is not something that has always been the same.

The Jewish religion is very obviously vehemently opposed to idols, although I think that what the religious groups so maligned in the Bible actually believed was that the spirit of the deity was what infused these objects. Unfortunately, as Judith Plaskow wrote in Standing Again at Sinai, the verbal or visual image of God as an old man with a white beard has become an idol for many people in our society, even if it is not carved into a statue.

If God is formless and infinite, there is no way for humans to fully comprehend that. The only way that humans can cope with the infinite is to use symbols that we can relate to. The Bible does this when it compares God to a warrior, shepherd, father, etc. The problem is that the symbol of God as male is deeply entrenched and almost exclusively used. This makes people think, sometimes unconsciously, of maleness as a characteristic of God rather than as one of many possible symbolic representations that are unavoidably dwarfed by our limited ability to relate to the infinite. When people think that God is male, as Judith Plaskow says, "It then becomes maleness that is worshiped instead of God." Even the Torah has some passages that compare God to a Mother. (Isaiah, 42:14;66:13) Androgynous descriptions alone are not enough because many people in our patriarchal culture will automatically picture a male. In order to escape this trap, we must compare God with a multiplicity of other images including Shekinah, tree of life, and the life force itself. However, it is imperative to remember that any image is but a partial metaphor. Remember the story of the blind men and the elephant. They were all right and all wrong at the same time.

I have also come to believe that prayer and religious ceremonies are more for the worshiper than any deity. How could God be so insecure that she needs constant praise or flattery? As much of a comfort or inspiration as prayer may be to humans, prayer helps us, not God.

For me, the expression of spirituality or religion does not start or stop at the synagogue door. I have not found a congregation I feel comfortable with, but for me, religious practice is not restricted to that context. The idea that religion should infuse all of your life is not new to Jewish custom. It is what I do every day of my life to make the world a better place that is the most important and fulfilling religious expression. The best Jewish expression of this idea that I know of is the mitzvah.

Many other distinguished people, such as Arthur Waskow and Michael Lerner have spoken about the idea of expanding Jewish practice. Kashrut could include consuming organic food, recycling, and using cloth bags for shopping. This is often called eco-kosher. Environmental and social activism are also mitzvahs. The religious acts we perform should not separate us from other people of different religions and ethnic backgrounds but help us to understand and learn from each other.

The entire universe is sacred. The turning of the seasons and the blowing of the wind is sacred. The food I ate for dinner was sacred and should have been grown and prepared with respect for the plants and/or animals that died to be my dinner. We all live on death; even vegetarians eat dead plants. An ear of corn is no less alive than a chicken. Value does not depend on similarity to the attributes of human beings. As a human, I have both the joy and burden of being conscious of life and death.

There is no way to really know what lies beyond the physical world. The matter in our bodies is recycled back and forth between living and nonliving things. We are all inescapably part of the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Maybe we have souls that are recycled, too. I do not know. I do know that the only way to find true happiness and contentment is to accept our immersion in the great round instead of trying to fight it. To do what is right and good for others is also right and good for us. Altruism is in our own self interest. A selfish life is ultimately destructive to the individual and to our species.

Many of us feel powerless in the modern world. We think that the little we can do is so trivial that it is not worth the effort. We are wrong. No one is truly insignificant, and it is together that we are strongest. A drop of water may have little impact, but many drops together, over time, can have awesome effects. The Grand Canyon was created by the action of water, drop by drop. Then again, in the right place and at the right time, a small action can precipitate a great event. According to Chaos theory, the factors affecting weather are so innumerable that the fluttering of a butterfly's wings could be the final impetus that changes the course of a hurricane.

We are all flawed. I do not mean to suggest that I have all the answers. I still have as many questions as Yentl did, even if they are different ones. My identities as a Jewish feminist, an environmentalist, and whatever else I am are inextricably intertwined. I do what I can and keep hoping that my little niece grows up to have a future.

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