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Don’t Let Preference Veto Justice

This is the third entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

I want to answer the question of “what Jewish feminism means to me” in two ways: First, about how I learn from it both substantively; and second, on a meta level, in terms of how all of us enrich the Jewish conversation through our differences.

First, I cannot imagine my concept of God, as it stands now, without the input of Jewish feminists. As a young gay man, it was all too easy for me to understand God as a (male) friend, as a (putatively male) spirit, and even, alas, as a (highly male) father or judge. I did not “naturally” experience God as wombful (rachamim), as immanent in the breezes, trees and flowers, or as the endlessly circling and spiraling cycles of the natural world. To be sure, I had some vague experiential inklings of these mysterious forces, but they always seemed apart from my Judaism.

It was only as I came to appreciate the egalitarian and progressive elements of Jewish feminism and, later, its radical earth-based and potentially revolutionary elements that I saw how incomplete my earlier understanding of God had been.

Jewish feminism also means, for me, refusing to give one’s own preferences, or even the mandates of tradition, a veto over justice. For example, I still resonate more with traditional liturgical language than with some gender-neutral revisions of it, but my preferential “resonance” is, I think, much less important than ensuring our theological discourse does not perpetuate oppression.

Likewise, during the 10 years I was Orthodox, I sincerely preferred gender-segregated prayer environments. Sometimes, no doubt due to their homosocial, if not homoerotic overtones, I still do. But to hell with my preferences. Jewish feminism has taught me that there are more important aspects to spirituality than how it makes us feel, particularly when those feelings are conditioned by generations of patriarchy, prejudice and privilege.

Finally, all of these substantive lessons of Jewish feminism have inculcated a powerful meta-lesson that has directly inspired my queer theological work and activism. I am not interested in flattening gender differences or hearing that women are “just as good” as men at this or that religious function. What rocks my world is when a womanist or feminist religious thinker/doer teaches me something I could never have thought of on my own — precisely by having a different perspective that does not simply melt into some amorphous general one.

Hopefully with some humility in tow, I am now part of a group of people trying to do for LGBT people what Jewish feminism did for many Jewish women: not simply bang on the doors of hegemonic institutions and beg to be let in, but transform and enrich Jewish life itself by including previously suppressed voices within it. Jewish feminists insisted on being heard, even when the structures of power didn’t want to listen, and as a result of this forced listening, the Jewish community in general has benefited.

This is why each time my conceptions of God, Torah and Israel are challenged, I regard whatever discomfort I may feel as another small birth pang of the redemptive age.

Jay Michaelson is a Forward columnist. He is also the founding director of Nehirim, and the author of, most recently, “God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality .” He is currently on tour.

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