For many feminists, experience is crucial. Experience has long been associated with feminist epistemological theories which suggest that reflection on and analysis of one’s experiences offer crucial insight into society. In the history of the women’s movement, this insight and analysis has many times translated into direct action to change the way our society functions.
Experience too has been problematized by various postmodern and postcolonial feminist theorists. They rightly point to the situated-ness of all experiences along class, race, gender, ethnic, religious and other lines. (For more on these ideas, one could read Postcolonialism, Feminism & Religious Discourse edited by Laura E. Donaldson and Kwok Pui-lan.) The context of each and every experience is different. It would be unwise therefore to assume that experiences produce adequate knowledge about societies and how they function. For example, the experience of white middle-class British women living in India during the British occupation is very different from her indigenous contemporary and completely different from lower caste men and women of the same time period. It is important to remember here that patriarchal privilege rears its head and favors some people’s experiences over others, often codifying an experience as “the experience.” When we talk about experience then we should acknowledge that there is no such thing as a generic experience. In fact, some post-modernist feminist thinkers think that situated-ness can color experience so much that our experiences may not even be reliable descriptions of the way society functions.
Nevertheless, I still find experiences important because I understand them to be our primary mode of embodiment. For many feminists, including myself, there is no thinking without physicality and, for me, experiences are what bring the mind and body together. Yet, they do more than this. Experience functions in three ways. First, as embodied creatures, humans experience the world. Second, as social creatures, humans use their experiences to understand the world (i.e. what they are experiencing). Finally, coming around full circle, humans, as embodied, social creatures, use their understanding of experiences to create different, and, more importantly, better experiences of the world around them. Here are where ideas like justice and equality enter into the picture.
This brief (while incomplete) philosophical discussion of personhood and epistemology brings me to my point. New experiences of the world change how we understand it. They also change how we live our lives or at least shed some light on how we’d like to live differently. My experience of a community over the past few weeks has shifted my understanding tremendously regarding what a community is and how it functions. I also feel profoundly different about my community, appreciating them so much more thanks to these experiences.
It all started on November 18th when my community’s Rabbi had surgery. To my surprise, the community functioned as it normally would even without our chosen religious leader. In fact, one could say our community functioned better and worked harder because we also had the responsibility to care for her and make sure all of what she does was covered. For example, the Rabbi functions as our regular prayer leader so someone had to step in to fill the role. Shifra and I did that by organizing us and other members of the ritual committee to lead Shabbat services of various kinds. A more important example was caring for the Rabbi through the surgery and in the long process of recovery. The temple’s president organized meals, transportation and visits for the Rabbi during her surgery and recovery. Members even took turns picking up her children from school, taking the Rabbi grocery shopping and even watching her dog.
It was an experience of community I had never had before. In what could have been just utter chaos, dissension and arguing, there existed something different. The best communities, by the way, are those that can come together in times of struggle rather than fall apart. We, as a community, did just that and, what’s more, in the midst of it, we practiced the values of sharing, mutual empowerment, and taking responsibility. Each person pitched in where they could and was honest when the task was too much for them. It wasn’t perfect but it worked much better than I ever expected it would.
Now I realize that it worked for two main reasons. First, everyone knew they were part of a community that was important to them. They also realized that for it to continue functioning as normal, they had to do their fair share. This was the underlying basis of the community long before the Rabbi was sick but I hadn’t realized that until this experience with it. In fact, because of this experience I’m convinced that the empowerment of members is the basis of all good communities.
Wait! There is more. This experience also reminded me that a community is a community regardless of who is called to lead it. We didn’t need (at least for a short period of time) one leader. We could function just by accepting responsibility and contributing our gifts, talents and skills. That doesn’t mean that the leader is less important. Rather, it points to something else entirely. Communities function because they are communities not because they are a group of individuals following a leader. In other words, my community does not function because of the Rabbi and her leadership (although this helps tremendously) but because we come together for each other. We are united in a common cause and working for a common goal – to be good Jews doing what we can to make this world a better place.
In many ways over these past few weeks, my religious community has been a gift to me. It has enhanced my experiences of what it means to be a part of a Jewish community. It has also showed me the potential of people united for a cause and emphasized just how much communities need empowered members. The community also showed me just how much communities care. Finally, this experience offered me the opportunity to reflect on communities, how they function, what they require and what is really important about them. A heartfelt thank you to each and every one of its members for this chance.
Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently on the faculty at Merrimack College. Her most recent publications include: “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).