We’re extremely pleased to give you a guest post from Allison McCarthy, who is offering a unique addition to Girl with Pen with author discussions on recent books with a feminist twist. Allison is a freelance writer based in Maryland and a recent graduate of Goucher College. Her work has been published in The Baltimore Review, ColorsNW, Girlistic, JMWW, Scribble, Dark Sky, and The Write-Side Up. –Kristen

Leora Tanenbaum is a full-time writer and the author of classic contemporary feminist texts such as Slut! Growing Up Female With A Bad Reputation and Catfight: Rivalries Among Women–From Diets to Dating, From the Boardroom to the Delivery Room. She worked for ten years at the Jewish Education department of the National Headquarters of HADASSAH: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her new book, Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), explores the complex relationships between American women and faiths such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Drawing on a wide variety of sources, including many historical texts and personal interviews, Tanenbaum analyzes the dynamics of religion and feminism with skillful insight and nuanced sensitivity. In a recent phone interview, Tanenbaum discussed her work with this groundbreaking new book:

1.) Although this book may seem like a departure from the themes of your previous two books, it still carries a strong current of secular feminism. Do you see this book as continuing the work of your previous books?

    It does on the face seem to be very different, but everything I write is ultimately about the same concern: to improve the lives of girls and women. Obviously, if we improve the lives of girls and women, it will improve the lives of boys and men. [My books] share in common the ways females are socialized in our culture and certainly in our culture, religion is chock-full of socialization of females to behave in certain circumscribed ways.

2.) Have you always self-identified as an Orthodox Jewish feminist? Were there any conflicts in your life that fractured these two identities?

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    I have never identified as Orthodox. My community is Orthodox and I send my children to Orthodox schools; my social life and friends, my synagogue, they all revolve around the Orthodox community. But I don’t consider myself Orthodox. That’s partly a function of the fact that I take Jewish law very seriously and for people who take Halakhah (Jewish Law) seriously, Orthodoxy tends to be the best fit. But it is very difficult to be feminist and Orthodox. Orthodoxy is a movement that advances many ideas that I do not share. If I did identify myself as Orthodox, many people would be led to the conclusion that I believe in the inequality of women and the inequality of lesbian and gays, which I don’t. There are any number of ideological issues in which I part with Orthodoxy. Having said that, I don’t call myself Conservative or Reform because I’m not a part of those movements. There is a feminist Orthodox organization and I write about it in the book, The Jewish Feminist Orthodox Alliance. I’m also involved in an alternative prayer group which, in many ways, follows Orthodox practice but departs from mainstream Orthodoxy in that women take on leadership roles in this prayer service that, normally, they are not permitted to take on.

3.) Can you talk about the ordination issues within sects of Judaism, Christianity and Islam?

    In an Orthodox Jewish Synagogue, men and women sit separately. The architecture is such that women either sit next to the men, but separate, with a partition between them, or they sit behind the men with a partition between them, or they sit upstairs in a gallery overlooking the main sanctuary. Women are not allowed to lead any part of the prayer service, including reading from the Torah, which is the centerpiece of the service, and in Orthodoxy, women are not allowed to become rabbis. If you’re a woman and you’re Orthodox, you’re really never a full participant; you’re really an onlooker. A lot of women don’t mind that. Sometimes you want to be a passive onlooker or don’t want to be asked to take on a leadership role. But you can never achieve equality unless you have equal access to leadership. Within Orthodoxy, there’s really not much space for feminist activism because of the way everything is structured. A lot of people opposed to feminism say, “Well, if you don’t like Orthodoxy, why not go to a more liberal movement, like the Conservative movement?” But the problem there is that other movements have different theologies and someone who has the belief system of adhering to Jewish law may not feel that [another denomination] is a good fit for them.

    This issue is similar to Catholic women being unable to be ordained as priests. Many people believe that the horrible sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church would not have occurred had there been women in leadership positions. Likewise, Muslim women cannot be recognized as imams, so Muslim women also are shut out of their power structure in their communities and mosques.

4.) What common patriarchal practices do Judaism, Islam and Christianity share?

    All three religions have at their center a belief in a God who is described in male terms. This has resulted in the idea that God is male. Even though Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all emphasize that God is neither male nor female, in practice most adherents do think of God in male terms. This had led to the belief that men are closer to God than women are. The feminist theologian Mary Daly has said that “If God is male, then the male is God.” With this mindset in place, it’s easy to understand how the religions have developed over time to value men more than women. If God is neither male nor female, then why do we talk about God in masculine language? My opinion is that it would be better to alternate masculine and feminine language—to describe God as both he and she—in order to bring to the forefront the fact that God transcends gender entirely.

5.) Your book is written from frequently marginalized perspectives: modern spiritual women of Muslim, Christian, and Judaism’s organized religious sects, with a focus on those who are invested in their religion’s rituals and traditions. Why do you think the religious beliefs of these women are so often ignored in mainstream feminist writing?

    Mainstream feminist thought hasn’t addressed religion all that much. I think in general, intellectuals tend to look down on religion because people who have faith are to some extent admitting that they’re not using reason totally in how they perceive or understand the world. They’re willing to suspend reason, at least in part. I think that makes intellectuals, feminists included, somewhat dismissive. I find that approach very interesting because I consider myself intellectual and feminist. The reason I love Judaism so much is that I see it as a highly intellectualized religion. In Jewish tradition, the cerebral is so highly valued. But it’s still a religion and there’s still a belief system about a deity, and at the end of the day, if you don’t buy into belief systems about a deity, it’s very easy to dismiss those who do have that belief.

6.) Your style choices for this book reflect a thoughtful, conversational tone of intimacy with your reader, yet the research is still highly rigorous. Was it important for you to approach writing this book in non-academic ways?

    In all three of my books, I strive to create an atmosphere that’s similar to a consciousness-raising group. I want the reader to feel that he or she is part of a larger conversation of like-minded people who are sharing personal details of their lives with a larger goal to change things, to make them better. To me, if it’s too academic or too distanced, I’m not going to be able to achieve that goal. One thing that I do is try to make the reader feel immediacy with my interviewees: I describe what they look like, what they’re wearing, what their voices sound like. I very much want the reader to feel included and enveloped in this larger conversation.

7.) What advice would you offer to women looking to merge a feminist political identity with their religious institutions?

    The first thing I would recommend is to learn as much as you can about your religious tradition and your religious history. In Christianity and Islam, the cores of those religions really are feminist in my opinion. Jesus was a feminist. A large part of his mission was to get women to be treated with respect and he personally treated women with respect. Mohammed the prophet also elevated women’s status in seventh century Arabia: he gave women rights in inheritance and in marriage that they did not have before. Know your facts about your religion and if you already have a good knowledge base, deepen your knowledge base. I would also recommend finding other like-minded people in your religious community–the Internet is fantastic for this. Communicate and strategize for what you can do together. The voice is so much louder when you have more than one person talking. I also recommend that, if you are part of a church or mosque or synagogue, you approach a religious leader and talk to them about specific ideas about how women can be given a more visible role and more responsibility. Change happens from grassroots pressure, but it also happens when people from the grassroots work together with their leaders. My other suggestion is in all of these religious traditions, there is a very strong emphasis on giving money to charity. When you’re figuring out where you’re giving your charitable dollars, don’t just unthinkingly give it to your local religious institution if that institution is not treating women with equality. Do some research and find an organization that does advocate for women’s equality and give your charitable dollars to that organization or non-profit instead.

8.) What writing projects are you currently working on?

    I’m not working on another book yet, but I hope to write about LGBT people of faith.