Is Religion Good for Women? A Symposium

By | Sep 03, 2013

Joy Ladin

Religion offers women—and men—a sense of our place in the universe, and puts us in meaningful relationship to the divine and in moral relationship to one another. But there’s a tradeoff: The way religion defines your place in the world can be limiting. The more you plug into a traditional religious way of life, the more you feel placed, the more your life is given meaning, but the parts of you that don’t fit into that place may feel cut off, repressed or stigmatized.

The first time I went to the Western Wall as an adult, I went as a man. I had to split apart from my wife and daughter and went with my son to the men’s section, and it felt uncomfortable to publicly gender myself that way. Even though men have greater access to the Wall, I didn’t feel entitled because of this discomfort. I was in a place that was supposed to represent being true to myself, publicly affirming my identity and being close to God, but instead it felt phony. The second time I went, I went as myself—as a woman. But when I approached the women’s section, I wasn’t sure if it was respectful to enter. There were a lot of Orthodox women there who I knew would consider it a desecration to be near someone like me. While I wanted to respect their feelings, doing so would have meant cutting myself off from my Jewish identity, and I didn’t want to do that.

When I went as a man, Jews happily welcomed me there, even though I wasn’t being true to myself, but when I went as myself, as a woman, my physical heritage of maleness meant that I knew I—the true me—wasn’t welcome. They welcomed me because they thought that I, like them, had been born and raised female.

If I had walked away from the Wall, gender cut me off from this place of connection to the Jewish people. But I realized that whether or not other Jews understood or accepted it, my identity as a Jew included and transcended my gender identity. I let the throng of women wash me slowly to the Wall, I sobbed my heart out to God, and when I looked up and met the eyes of an Orthodox woman whose cheeks were also shining with tears, I knew that whatever the difference in our gender or our bodies, the gender of our souls was the same. As much as she did, I belonged there.

Joy Ladin is the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University and author of Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders.


Rita Gross

The key teachings of Buddhism cannot be used to support gender hierarchy because in Buddhism, there is no essential, permanent, abiding self. There is no female essence—there is nothing that all women have that no men have. Buddhism has always recognized that the way we see gender is just a label, and that it shouldn’t be taken all that seriously. The texts are full of stories of challenges to male dominance. In one of the most famous ones, a woman turns into a man, and then turns the man standing in front of her into a woman. She then asks him—who is now a her—to find the essence of the female sex. He says that he can’t—but of course, he should have known this all along from his study of basic Buddhist doctrine.

In addition, some forms of Buddhism have had women’s monasticism for more than 2,000 years. In societies where women only had two options, becoming a wife or nun—because independent career woman was just not possible—monastic orders in Buddhism gave women an alternative to male-dominated marriage. At the same time, nuns have never been supported economically as well as monks, since Buddhist social institutions have always been male-dominated. So there’s a contradiction between Buddhist teachings and cultural practices, and this contradiction has never been fully resolved. In my experience, Western Buddhism is closer to resolving this than anywhere else.

Rita Gross is a Buddhist feminist theologian and author of Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis and Reconstruction of Buddhism.


Margot Adler

Religion has in general been bad for women, particularly the big three: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Their scriptures have been bad, and until recently, women have been left out of positions of ministry. There is a sense that if you cannot be a minister, then you cannot represent God—which means you are excluded from equality and your own empowerment. One of the reasons that women have become involved in Wicca and paganism is because there was no place in their own religions for their call to ministry.

The goddess tradition in Wicca has also opened some doors to women. When you look seriously at the Abrahamic faiths, it’s clear that on the deepest level, God is neither male nor female—but that’s not how it’s understood in popular culture. Most people still have the image of an old man with a white beard in their heads. As the feminist theologian Mary Daly said, “If God is male, then male is God.” While simply having an image of a female divine hasn’t always translated into women’s equality—women in ancient Greece were in terrible shape, as are women in Hinduism—but in a culture where other changes are happening to improve the lives of women, the goddess can be a very empowering image.

While many religions have historically been bad for women, today we’re seeing an incredible flowering of women’s ritual, ceremony and liturgy in many of the liberal parts of Christianity and Judaism. Open up a prayer book today, and you can see hymns that say, “Oh God, from the womb of Your being.” Jewish women have also been participating in the new moon ceremony and organizing feminist seders. The more that women are educated around the world, the more they’ll have new ways of reading scripture and of interpreting religion as women. If you want to make religion better for women, you must educate them.

Margot Adler is a correspondent for NPR and author of Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today.


Danya Ruttenberg

Judaism’s reviews vis-à-vis women are, at best, mixed. Certainly, it’s true that historically, there have been places where women fared better than they might have otherwise as a result of our religious tradition. The Talmud for example forbade marital rape which wasn’t a crime in all 50 states until 1993.

However, in both the Talmud and the Torah, women hardly lived a halcyon existence by any reasonable standard; both contain countless “texts of terror,” as feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible put it and religious law has codified gender inequality in myriad ways. To take just a few examples: the “chained women” who are unable to secure a divorce from their husbands, the fact that women are traditionally not counted in a quorum of prayer, allowed to serve as witnesses or encouraged to take on public ritual roles, and a whole complex morass related to women’s virginity, bride-prices, sexual availability, the policing of female behavior through modesty laws.

I’m grateful for the decades that feminists have put in to make Judaism a more hospitable tradition for women, not only sociologically but also theologically, ritually, communally and halachically, but we’re still far from where we need to be. There’s a tremendous amount of work to do (the ongoing fracas with Women of the Wall is only one small example of this), but as Talmudic sage Rabbi Tarfon said, we are not required to complete the work—but nor are we free to desist from it.

Danya Ruttenberg is a Conservative rabbi and author of Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion.


Rachel Adler

A number of years ago, I contended that the characteristic role of women in traditional Judaism was as enablers of men’s religious behavior—as spiritual subjects in their own right. Judaism classically has excluded women as enactors of the sacred but paradoxically, it was Judaism that taught us the desire to enact the sacred and to reach toward God, and to do so in holy community which is so much more powerful than any individual. Now, even some kinds of Orthodoxy acknowledge Jewish women’s needs to learn and their ability to contribute to the Jewish community in scholarly and in pastoral roles. In so many kinds of Judaism, women now build Judaisms of the future, but there are still enormous problems for women in the world. There’s a global rape culture that’s an unfinished task of feminism. There are women still working much harder and longer than men and taking on more of the burden of maintaining a home and keeping a family together even while working at a profession. We have to re-think and re-teach theology of sexuality that emphasizes relationships and chesed, loving-kindness to the other. Both the objectification and sexual exploitation of women and the exhaustion of women require policy changes, and I think that religious thought can serve as advocates for women.

Rachel Adler is professor of modern Jewish thought and Judaism and gender at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and author of Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics.


Leah Lax

As a lesbian who left Hasidic life (30-year marriage, seven children) to finally be who I am and love who I love, this question evoked powerful images of covered women around the world whose lives are force-fit into boxes delineated by religious rules. I picture those same women, when religion-defined life is restrictive and physically demanding beyond reason, ironically turning back to their religion for inspiration and strength, and for reassurance that this is how life is supposed to be, kissed by God. So, as the world is today, is religion good for women? Too often not. Not at all.

But religion per se? As moral compass, as inspiration, as a window on one’s own spirit, as tie-in to peoplehood and history and a powerful sense of belonging, as system of personal discipline, of course religion is good. In my perfect world women particularly would be taught to sift, and even in the face of powerful ancient pronouncements (or very judgmental men), to judge for themselves, daring to reject and to choose.

Hasidic philosophy insists that the best way to answer a question is to make it no longer a question. When women are simply people and not an often-beleaguered class, that is, when the only imaginable question regardless of gender is “Is religion good for people?” (and those “people” are thinking, questioning adults) then my answer is still an emphatic yes. Or rather, yes, it can be. Go out and make it so.

Leah Lax is an award-winning fiction writer who has contributed to the anthology Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires.


Interviews by Sarah Breger, Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil and Sala Levin

7 thoughts on “Is Religion Good for Women? A Symposium

  1. Fascinating symposium. The responses reflect the saying: “two Jews, three opinions”.

  2. Tala Bar says:

    This is a stupid question asked by stupid men who have the affrontery to decide what is good or not good for women as if they are not human beings equal if not superior to any man. as if they were children for men to decide about what is good or not good for them. Shame on anyone who has dared to express himself in this way.

  3. Rivkah Slonim’s comment about a how the mother determining the soul or Jewish identity of a child was particularly disturbing to me, but sadly not surprising. It was a surface-level view that did not dig deeper into the actual meaning of this practice. In actuality this practice is ultimately about controlling a woman’s body. The male Rabbis are the ones determining if a woman is Jewish and as such determine if her womb can create a Jewish soul. While many people believe that this practice represents Jewish progressiveness and feminism, in actuality it is a lie that this practice represents women liberation.

    1. miriam esther says:

      Jessica, do you understand that women are held to be on a higher spiritual plane than men; hence, the importance of a woman being the ‘conduit of the soul’ and ‘the steward of the child’s identity and the formative influence of the home and the entire nation’ …. i would invite you to learn more about the ‘traditional’ views of men in Judiaism towards women and the ways in which women are regaled ….

      1. Miriam, Assuming that I don’t understand Judaism or its traditions is both demeaning and irrational. Just because I don’t accept the “reasoning,” or excuses, that “traditional” Judaism gives for controlling women doesn’t mean that I don’t understand them. I would invite you to take a much larger look at these laws and see what it actually accomplishes and why.

    2. hag says:

      Really ????????

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