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‘Judaism demands compliance: I can barely follow a recipe’

Joanne Fedler
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Published: 5 September 2021

Last updated: 4 March 2024

JOANNE FEDLER: Stung by Judaism’s exclusions, I sought my faith elsewhere. Feminism beckoned

I WAS 12 when I staged my first feminist protest by refusing to recite the morning prayers at school. Why did boys get to say, “Thank God I was not born a woman”, and the girls had to supplicate with, “Thank you for making me just as I am”?

And why couldn’t I be counted for a minyan? Why did girls have to sit in the gallery in synagogue? Why couldn’t we read from the Torah?

The head of Jewish studies said women were naturally closer to godliness because we could have babies. Men were burdened with spiritual tasks. In fact, being excluded was to be exempted – and this, he claimed was “an honour”. 

I knew gaslighting long before there was a name for it. Until then, I’d been a devout prayer reciter and mitzvah-chaser, on track to Eshet Chayil-dom (from the poem in Proverbs that describes the qualities of an ideal Jewish woman), with a price beyond rubies.

But something soured when I crossed the line from girl to woman. Judaism suddenly forked into a “his” and “hers”, underscored with a liturgy of rituals, fearful of menstruation, replete with a lexicon of shame-inducing hygiene. I slammed up against its gendered inhospitalities like a bird against a pane of glass.

Judaism demanded modesty and compliance. I can barely follow a recipe, let alone 613 mitzvot. Never, I swore, would I acquiesce to fashion advice from bearded men, erotophobic projections to curb male fervour for the female body.

As my feminism quickened, I recoiled from anaesthetising explanations of gender inequality and became loosened like a wobbly tooth in the jaw of my religion. It was another branch of the patriarchy, under a yarmulka.

But the fate of uppity women is well documented. The price of disobedience is expulsion, a myth deeply veined in our collective archetypal subconscious. Stung by what I perceived as Judaism’s exclusions, I sought my faith elsewhere. Feminism beckoned.

As a young women’s rights activist, I learned to discern hidden hierarchies of power and privilege, like shadows on an X-ray. Every blurry injustice clicked into sharp focus like a lens in those optometry frames which turns an O into a D.

I spotted objectification everywhere, like hidden wildlife in the bush – not only of people based on gender, sexuality, race and religion, but of animals, the earth and all its flailing resources.

Feminism troubles the very notion of narration; an idea exquisitely phrased by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, who wrote: “Until the lions tell their own story, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

The more ruinous injustice done to Eve (and every woman since) is the story of her temptation. Whose agenda did her obedience serve?

The eviction from Eden aside, the more ruinous injustice done to Eve (and every woman since her) is the story that came to be told of her temptation. Whose agenda did her obedience serve? And what ever happened to Lilith, Adam’s first wife?

When I teach storytelling, I invite students to recast the tale of Little Red Riding Hood from the perspective of a little girl, huntsman, grandmother, wolf, even the basket of goodies.

Writers uncover complexity, errors of parallax, competing versions and silenced voices. A roving point of view dislodges the dogmatism of a single official narrative, determining who we deem as the protagonist, hero; what meaning we make. 

Once we grasp that stories are cultural expressions of power, Eve’s insubordination gleams as a celebration of human imagination and autonomy. In the emergency of self-realisation, her defiance is a rasp of survival.

In Autobiography of Eve, contemporary American poet Ansel Elkins gives Eve her own voice:  Let it be known: I did not fall from grace. I leapt to freedom.” The German philosopher Hannah Arendt asked: “To what extent do we remain obligated to the world even when we have been expelled from it or have withdrawn from it?” 

I’ve stumbled on something close to an answer in the diaries of a young Dutch Jewish woman penned between 1941-43. Ettie Hillesum is one of our greatest treasures yet inexplicably remains largely unknown.

I read Ettie’s life as the inverse of Eve’s. With a drastic act of self-inclusion in the fate of the Jewish people, she volunteered to go to Westerbork labour camp, refusing opportunities which could have saved her from her death at Auschwitz in 1943.

She wrote, “… everyone who seeks to save himself must surely realise that if he does not go, another must take his place …

“I want to be sent to every one of the camps that lie scattered all over Europe, I want to be at every front. I don’t ever want to be what they call ‘safe.’ I want to be there … I want to understand what is happening and share my knowledge with as many as I can possibly reach.”

Shepherded by Ettie’s insights and courage, I am ushered back to the rich tradition of Jewish poets, storytellers, philosophers and thinkers who have complicated and interrogated what it means to be a Jew.

As a nation of Chosen People, designated as a light unto other nations, we have work to do on excavating our shadow, which includes the troubling questions of gender. We have so much to learn from the rebels in our midst.

With anti-semitism rising like a dark cloud around us, we may never, as Ettie expressed, “be what they call safe”.

Yet the most radical act of collective disobedience we can undertake is to refuse expulsion from humanity:  to survive, not by falling, but by leaping to a new iteration of freedom.

About the author

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler is the internationally bestselling author of 15 books, a writing mentor and speaker. Her new book will be published by Harper Collins in 2024. Her book Things Without A Name has been optioned for a TV miniseries.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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