“Religion and my gender are my two primary identities, the most significant lenses through which I see the world.” – Rachel Lieberman
Every book marks the beginning of a journey for a reader. Some journeys are long, some are short, and some are so profound that it’s questionable if they ever happened at all. My journey with Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay was the latter kind of journey — so profound and thought provoking that I wonder if it was all an illusion.
If at this point you’ve left this article to figure out what local bookseller has a copy of Faithfully Feminist, slow your roll. Its release date is currently set for August 11. FF, as I’m now going to refer to it, is a collection of essays by various feminists detailing their personal journeys inside the major Abrahamic religions. But the writers go deeper than that. They aren’t discussing vague practices occurring in the broad spectrum of a religion; they’re breaking it down by denominations. While Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are the tent poles, the essays are from Catholics, Mormons, Southern Baptists, Hassidic Jews, Orthodox Jews, Messianic Jews, Sunnis, Shias, and just plain old Muslims.
While I find the book as a whole to be short on solutions, it is chock full of important questions that any faithful feminist should ask themselves.
“Do we ever encourage the men in egalitarian spaces to embrace and adopt roles or commandments that were traditionally reserved for women, or does it only go one way?” – Rachel Lieberman
Rachel, an Orthodox Jew, penned my favorite essay in the entire collection. Much of what she wrote revolved around how inclusion actually works. Are women being included in the religious hierarchy or are we simply reframing ourselves to fit into the molds of men? She also brought up the significance of holy texts that only use “male god language,” which is a concept I had never considered despite my years being a feminist and a woman of (several different) faith(s).
Now, because the book covers so many different faith interpretations and interpretations of a god figure, one would think from the outset that it was trying to achieve some sort of interfaith conversation based on mutual understanding. Unfortunately, that goal, while attempted, is not cleanly executed. The way the essays are edited and strung together, it feels as if the women are all speaking over each other as opposed to speaking to each other. Such a feat seems nearly impossible when you consider the fact that they are all talking about the same two concepts: inclusion and otherness.
Yet despite this subtle discord there are statements made by women of differing faiths that one can not help but agree with, such as this pearl by Elise M. Edwards, PH.D, a devout Christian:
“I will not give up a faith that has nurtured my spirit and sustained my family for generations because others who claim my tradition hold views that I vehemently oppose.”
Well, I vehemently agree. Dr. Edwards eloquently illustrates that to be a functioning feminist in your religion requires you to have thorough knowledge of that religion. Her essay acts as a reminder of how important it is to have a highly intimate relationship with your god figure. Sure there are scholars and pastors and spiritual leaders but even they in all their knowledge cannot save your soul.
So if you’ve made it this far in the review you’re probably thinking one of two things: (1) this book is perfect or (2) I must own this book because it is perfection. But alas, even perfection can have its disappointments.
The deeper you get into Faithfully Feminist the more clearly you can see the barrier that is around it. The book is written in large part by the upper middle class religious elite. I’m talking about women who have gone to Ivy League schools and then gone to prestigious seminaries and have then gone on to literally change laws and practices in their faiths. Women who have made it to the mountain top. While this can be cool in theory, on paper you can feel the direction from which they are speaking: down. Hearing from women who’ve made it who are also part of an elite educational system creates a barrier between faithful feminists that are just starting out, i.e the exact kind of feminists who would want to read this book.
Of course, because the editors are smart women, they’ve peppered in the writings of women who are not yet at the mountaintop but are instead 75% of the way there. Those women are the connectors. Instead of saying, “Look what we’ve done, now it’s your turn,” they’re saying, “Be present for what’s about to happen,” and as a young reader I can appreciate that.
A book this reflective, a book this important, will not sit easily on your shelf. It is not a quick summer read to drag to the park or the beach amongst the sounds of children and seagulls. It will keep you up at night. It’s not a simple page turner. In fact, after some chapters you won’t want to turn the page for fear of what reality you might face in the next. To be faithful and to be feminist is to live in a sense of hyperawareness. The writers and editors of this book do not shy away from that point. They thrust the reader into a sea of truth with no life jacket.
Faithfully Feminist is a must read.