“The people making the rules are not the people in the kitchen.” So says my friend Leah as she explains the intricacies of kosher to a group of us as she prepared the Seder dinner for Passover on Monday. No mixing of meat and dairy, of course, but also why only matzo should be used and not regular flour, what fermentation is allowed and what is not, and so on. Some of it conflicts, or doesn’t apply to modern day life, and when we point this out, that’s when Leah points her chopping knife at us and says, “exactly.” Later, after we’ve finished the Haggadah and dug into our meal, someone asks about the rules on the Sabbath. Leah’s friend says that not only are you not allowed to turn lights on and off or make any money transaction, you can’t carry anything on the Sabbath. So, she points out, if you have a baby, you can’t carry your baby for a whole day. To get around this rule, you must be in an eruv, or ritual enclosure established by rabbis, in order to carry things on the Sabbath; this provides a literal loophole from the rule, allowing you to do basic things like care for your child. Again, Leah says, “the people making the rules are not the people in the kitchen.”
Those people making these difficult, impractical rules are, of course, men. Despite the fact that more women than men are religious worldwide, far more men than women are in positions of power and authority within any given religion (okay, except maybe for Wicca). Despite the egalitarian messages promulgated by the major world religions, every single one of them has something to say about the inferiority of women. Every single one of them has fought, or continues to fight, women’s desire for full inclusion. Roger Ebert, on his endlessly interesting blog, wrote a piece about this last December, and I encourage you to read the whole thing. He points out a couple different ways in which Catholicism in particular keeps women subordinate, and links to some videos with different takes on the issue in Buddhism, Catholicism, and Judaism.
Ebert’s main question is why do men have the upper hand in all religions, and his answer is bluntly, because they can. I think patriarchy’s roots are a little deeper and more complex than simply “men can physically overpower women so their word is always final,” but on some basic level, he’s right. Men have had power in just about every group of humans the world over for thousands of years, and frankly, once you get used to power, you’ll do a lot to cling to it rather than share it more fairly.
As you may recall, I’m not a particularly religious person anymore, but boy howdy was I when I was younger. I liked that there are rules, and that you have to follow them or suffer consequences—my middle school bullies suffered many agonies in my mind for their un-Christian behavior. I liked that there was a plan, that someone was in charge and knew what was going on, because I had no idea why the world functioned as it did and that freaked me out. And perhaps I had an easier time of reconciling my religious beliefs with my growing, changing mind because I went to a fairly liberal Episcopalian church. The main priest during my formative years was a woman, and I didn’t question whether that was the norm until an evangelical classmate told me my congregation was going to hell because it was led by a woman.
That stroppy boy got me thinking and questioning more deeply about the similarities and differences between his branch of Christianity and mine, and whether there were too many upsetting similarities for my comfort level. By the time I finished college, I was no longer a practicing Christian. Now I’m a Creester, showing up to Christmas Eve and Easter services only, tuning in for the beautiful music, the comforting liturgy, and the familiar community of people who raised me.
There’s the part that means so much to so many, and explains in large part why women remain committed to their religions despite the regular reminder that they are less than; it’s the community. My parents have found a community of kind, irreverent people at their church, and they wouldn’t leave them for the world. They are bound by a common belief system, but even within that there are varied thoughts on any topic you can name, from when to kneel and cross yourself to the divinity of Jesus himself. For them, it’s not how precisely they agree on every topic, but rather the willingness to return week after week, year after year, to ponder spiritual questions and share their lives with one another. They’re a beautiful group of people and one I’m proud to know and be an ancillary part of.
Still, it is ironic (yes, truly ironic) that the major religions, which have done so much to keep women down in every possible way, are full of women who defend those religions, attend their services regularly, and make them central to their lives. In that sense, religion is not the opiate of the masses that Marx so famously referenced, but rather the biggest power play ever made, and the greatest trick men ever played on women. If I think too much about the particulars, I get real furious real fast.
Which is why so many women take religion into their own hands. They return to the original texts, they seek out alternative histories and commentaries, they share what they’ve learned with one another. They ordain themselves. They convince the governing body of the religion to change its mind and ordain them. They nurture the communities they hold so dear and seek relentlessly to find an honest place in their lives for the religion that means so much to them.
While I find it difficult to reconcile the very real oppression of women by the major religions of the world with my desire for a spiritual life in a larger community, I understand the desire to do so, and I understand the women who continue to go to services and profess belief in a faith that excludes them on a basic level. This week is Passover and Easter, and as we go through Holy Week (as it’s known in the church), I’ll be thinking of the women who grapple with these issues in their religious lives. I’ll be thinking of Mary Magdalene, the first person to see Jesus after he rose from the dead. I’ll be thinking of Miriam, the prophet some fill a glass of water for during Passover for her essential role in the liberation of the Jews. I’ll be thinking of the women who are in the kitchen and making their own rules.
Photo from http://www.lib-art.com/tag/catches.html