Three weeks ago, I played a video entitled “Kingdom of David: Rivers of Babylon” from the PBS Empires series. The series first aired in 2003. For the first time, and I’ve played the video in class for probably six semesters in a row, I noticed that all of the biblical scholars, archaeologists and rabbis interviewed to discuss the Torah, the history of the Jews, the Talmud, the exile and the prophetic tradition were men. This reminds me of a few months back when a female colleague of mine discussed about an encounter she had had with the producers of another documentary about the Hebrew Bible. They had only interviewed one woman. When asked about this decision, the producers told her that their audience finds men more authoritative than women when it comes to explaining topics of a religious nature.
Two weeks ago, on a Wednesday, an older woman walked into the liquor store where I work. She wandered around for awhile and then appeared somewhat overwhelmed, which is usually my cue to inquire if the customer needs help. She said she was just fine. Five minutes later she was still wandering the store apparently unsure what to purchase so again I approached her and asked if she’d like some help. She seemed somewhat desperate at this point and asked for my opinion on the Irish Cream Liquors and which one tasted the most like Bailey’s. I told her I wasn’t exactly sure. I had not tried them all but the one she was holding in her arms was very popular and we sell quite a bit of it. She continued to hem and haw explaining to me that she was having a bunch of old ladies over for lunch. She intended to offer them sips of Irish Cream afterwards. Then out of the blue she looked at me and said that she still couldn’t decide so she was going to ask a man for his opinion. This man also happened to be my boss. He said that he hadn’t tried it, but that it was very popular. His words, exactly the same as mine, seemed to be enough to convince her. She bought the liquor and left.
A rabbi friend of mine posted on Facebook.com a week ago a petition called “Let My Torah Go” from the organization “Women of the Wall.” I clicked on the site. The petition derides the unfairness and injustice of denying women access to the 100 or so Sifrei Torah held there for public use at the Kotel (commonly known in English as the Western Wall). In addition, not only can women not bring a Torah from somewhere else to the Kotel to use, neither are they allowed to publicly read from the Torah at the Kotel. The petition requests that the state of Israel live up to what it has said about the Kotel: that it be a “’public, holy site for all Jews,’ ” and grant equality to women as equal participants in Jewish religious and public life. The petition ends with the following statement, “Women make up half of the State of Israel. Women make up half of the Jewish world. It is time for women have access to Torah at the Kotel. Let My Torah Go.”
Last Thursday I ran a bunch of errands. In the middle of driving from one to the other, I pulled out into traffic at one of the busiest intersections in Lowell. I sat there, somewhat in the middle of the road, waiting for the traffic to move so I could proceed. There was really no other way to get into traffic except to force my way into the stream. A middle-aged man in the car next to me started talking to me in a very loud voice. He was not yelling nor screaming but he was clearly quite upset. According to him, I was being selfish. I was supposed to wait until it is safe to go before I pulled into traffic.
These stories, each in their own way, are just a few of my daily experiences with sexism. Let me tell you. It’s tiring. It’s demeaning. It’s maddening. It’s unjust. It needs to end.
Let me say it again so that my words resonate this time. Sexism needs to end. One of the ways to further this feminist mission is to point out its existence. Another is to respond to it. The woman at the liquor store “needed” a man’s point of view to make a decision. I told her that I had just said that exact same thing my male manager did but she wouldn’t take my word for it. The women at the Kotel cannot use the Sefrei Torah even though they are there for “public” use. I signed their petition. I also thanked G-d for the “Women of the Wall,” who continuously stand up for women’s equality and rights as b’tzelem Elohim. The man stuck in traffic with me “confused” my assertive driving skills with selfishness. I rolled up the window slowly. He knew I was shutting him out. Documentary producers continue the pattern of interviewing mostly, if not only, male scholars arguing that they are more convincing and authoritative than female ones when it comes to explaining religion. I’m not showing those kinds of videos again.
A few days ago, my girlfriend and I saw “Jerusalem” at the Museum of Science in Boston. This IMAX movie was written and directed by Daniel Ferguson and narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch. Suddenly, as I watched the movie I noticed a difference. It was a brief respite from the sexism surrounding me.
“Jerusalem” focuses on the lives of three teen-aged girls, each from a different religion (one Greek Orthodox, one Jewish and one Muslim) and looks at the city from their perspective. During the movie, the girls visit many of the same places during their daily routines but offer different interpretations of the sites. Likewise, each of the girls express the love they have for the city and how important it is to them and their families. They acknowledge the city is also important for people of other faiths but they don’t know why because they don’t speak to people of other faiths. Interspersed throughout the girls’ stories is the history of the city, including its importance according to Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the original inhabitants of the land, the Jebusites. The only “authority” interviewed was a female archaeologist Dr. Jodi Magness. The movie ends visually and narratively with a yearning for a different kind of Jerusalem, a city in which people from different faith backgrounds talk to one another. By talking to each other, the movie suggests that the inhabitants of Jerusalem would see just how much they have in common.
There were a number of issues the movie didn’t explain well. To be fair, I don’t think these were the filmmaker’s goals. For example, if you aren’t Muslim entering Dome of the Rock is limited at some times, non-existence at others, yet the viewer moved freely through the holy site and its adjoining complex. If you are a woman you do not have the same access to the Kotel that men do, but the viewer moves freely in the male section of the Kotel. In addition, at the Kotel, women cannot carry, let alone read from the Torah as the video shows the men doing. There are other issues too but that is for another time.
The movie wasn’t perfect but it was a pleasant alternative. I also wouldn’t call it feminist given some of its underlying assumptions and unfettered and unproblematized access to sites, but it was definitely much less sexist than most. It was also visually stunning, although sometimes slightly dizzying, and the interviews were reflective, meaningful and informative. As far as I can recall, it was the first movie I had seen about the three monotheistic religions and the holy city of Jerusalem that did not presume maleness as its starting point or its main focus. It was a breath of fresh air. I hope that more movies about religion (and specifically the monotheistic faiths) follow suit.
Women are half the human race and it’s high time we are treated as such. Our voices need to be heard. Our participation needs to be valued. Our perspectives, wisdom and understanding need to be honored. Our lives and our stories need to be told. We need to be cherished for who we are: an integral, invaluable part of the human species. Stop sexism now! Thanks “Jerusalem” for the brief respite. It was much needed.
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).