Women, Let's Take Back God Women in the modern Orthodox community cannot lead communal prayer, read from the Torah or become rabbis. Commentator Leora Tanenbaum chooses to be part of this community and is accepting of these restrictions. But like millions of other devout women, she is ready to take back her God.
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Women, Let's Take Back God

Leora Tanenbaum's most recent book is Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality. She lives in New York City. Abigail Pope hide caption

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Abigail Pope

Women are revered in religions across the world — why not in actual practice? iStockphoto.com hide caption

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Several years ago I celebrated Passover, which marks the freeing of the Jewish people from slavery and our exodus from Egypt, at a resort hotel in Florida. The hotel had made one of its kitchens kosher for the benefit of several hundred Orthodox Jews vacationing there. We conducted our prayers in a conference hall. Just as in an Orthodox synagogue, there was a mehitzah (room divider): men on one side, women on the other.

I myself belong to a modern Orthodox community, so I know the drill. Women in my world cannot lead communal prayer, read from the Torah or become rabbis. In synagogue we sit behind the men or in an upstairs gallery, far removed from the action. If we're lucky, we snag a seat with a view.

Although I'm a feminist, I choose to remain committed to observant Judaism. No, I'm not brainwashed or stupid. To me, observant Judaism is the most authentic link to the Jewish past and also most likely, when compared with the liberal denominations, to carry Jewish tradition into the future. I also happen to find this way of life, at least most of the time, exciting and fulfilling.

One evening in the middle of the eight-day holiday, our prayer services were moved to another room. I was the only woman who showed up, and there was no mehitzah. The prayer leader was about to begin. I went up to him and asked if he could please hold off until we could put up a mehitzah. He sighed loudly, annoyed. Several men turned to see who was delaying their prayers.

I was thankful when several men offered to help me find a room divider and put it in place, enabling me to pray with the congregation. But instead of meditating on how fortunate I was to be free, I thought bitterly about feeling hemmed in.

The story is more or less the same in other faith communities. Roman Catholic women run parishes but may not consecrate the Eucharist. Evangelical Protestant women are forbidden to teach classes with male students. Muslim women may not serve as imams.

Whether we eat matzah or ham at the dinner table this holiday season, our liturgy will feature men and more men. We worship a God invariably described as male, and we recite prayers that skip over our foremothers while praising to the high heavens our forefathers.

The irony is that it was Mary Magdalene who discovered the resurrected Jesus and was the first to spread the "good news." It was Miriam who saved the life of her brother Moses and led the Hebrews in song and dance immediately after we escaped Egypt. It was Khadijah, first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, who enabled his business to thrive and who encouraged him in his prophecies.

Millions of devout women are fed up. They love their religion but want to take back their God. And they are doing some of the most exciting things in religion today. Catholic women are becoming illicitly ordained as priests, although the Vatican excommunicates them. Evangelical women are reinterpreting the literal word of Scripture and deciding they don't need to "submit" to their husbands. Muslim women are refusing to enter their mosques from side or back entrances, and are delivering khutbas (sermons). It is only a matter of time before Orthodox Jewish women are ordained as rabbis.

Now that is what I call freedom.

Leora Tanenbaum's most recent book is Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality. She lives in New York City.

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