January 30, 2003
Hear This, Papa
In "Yentl's Revenge," an anthology of Jewish feminist writings, the editor, Danya Ruttenberg, puts forward a call for a transgendered approach to Judaism. "Why not allow for a more open understanding of gender in which we all might fit on the continuum from female to female masculine to androgynous to male feminine to male and back again," she writes. "If people who do a 'woman's ritual' can decide for themselves if the ritual fits the body it circumscribes, the ritual no longer forces certain bodies into certain boxes; our definitions of who must, who can and who might be exempt would be utterly transformed."
The essay is one of many provocative pieces that appear in "Revenge," a book that confronts the inherent conservatism of Judaism. Here religion is examined through the prism of a new century, one where previous taboos are becoming mainstream, and people no longer feel the need to inhibit their practices. "The feminism of the 1970s and 1980s was important, necessary and powerful, and it changed Judaism," Ruttenberg told The Journal. "We grew up with feminism as a given, but today we have different issues. Whatever the questions are, they are different."
Those different questions include: "How can Judaism blend with pagan goddess worship? How can Judaism accept intermarriage? How does one raise a child as a religious, Orthodox feminist? Why is there an overwhelming assumption in the community that the Jewish norm is Ashkenazic?"
Other essays explore themes such as incest survival, sexy rabbis, JAPs and Valley girls. Most of the essays examine the issues from a personal perspective, with the writers documenting their own struggles to have themselves and their differences accepted within Judaism. Many of the writers have negative perceptions of traditional Judaism, seeing it as sexist, racist, homophobic and overly materialistic, and there is little in the book that counters those perceptions.
Ruttenberg, 28, a first-year rabbinical student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism, acknowledges that many of the essays in her book, now in its second printing, will make people uncomfortable.
"I don't agree with all perspectives in the book at all, and the piece about paganism was probably at the absolute edge of my comfort level, and some of the things that I wrote are probably at the edge of other people's comfort level, but that's OK," she said. "It doesn't mean there shouldn't be a space for it -- there should be a critical space for it. You don't just say anything goes. You say, 'It is OK to ask questions?' I don't think all the barriers can be knocked down, but I do think that if there is something that is a hot issue, and the Jewish community is not addressing it, then it needs to be addressed."
The lack of traditional voices in the book was part choice, part circumstance. "The principal criteria of the anthology was that it had to be something I had not heard before," Ruttenberg said. "I really did want to have a cross section, and I was hoping for more of a dialogue with people who would take a more conservative approach, but I guess I am beyond the pale for some, and I did not get submissions from Orthodox women. But there are a lot of people out there who have been really hurt by religious institutions, and there has to be some compassion and understanding for them."
Ruttenberg said that the response she has received to "Revenge" has been "tremendous."
"I can't tell you how many times people have come up to me and started pouring out their entire Jewish life and Jewish history. They would say, 'I thought I was the only one of those. It was so hard for me because I didn't fit into the Jewish mainstream,'" she said.
The reaction to the book caused Ruttenberg to think about her own views about where Judaism should be heading, and, in a perfect world, she envisions a Judaism much like the one described in the book -- a religion that embraces differences and nonjudgmental about people's nontraditional lifestyle choices.
"I think there needs to be a lot more space and openness for gay, lesbian and transgendered Jews," she said. "And I think we need to pay a lot of attention to class issues, to break down the perception that Jews are middle class and wealthier. There also needs to be more space for people to talk about their experiences within the Jewish community, even if they are not pretty."