I am very troubled by what I see as a lack of respect between the secular and religious worlds, both in the U.S. and in another country I know well, Israel.
Because I live and move between the two worlds, and can so readily see the beauty, wisdom and advantages of each side, it pains me to witness the superficial and knee-jerk reactions each side can have for the other. The secular — including the liberal stream which values inclusivity and multiculturalism — can dismiss the religious as mindless sheep who for unknown reasons choose to follow arcane rules, or as hypocrites who profess one thing on Sunday and act differently on Monday. The religious — who have as a central teaching to love one’s neighbor as oneself — can sweep away the secular culture as not a culture but a different kind of herd instinct, following the latest fad or popular TV series with an enthusiasm that should be directed toward God.
One person who seems intelligently and consciously steeped in both worlds is a friend and colleague, Ayellet Vider-Cohen, a clinical psychologist in Jerusalem. She is also the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi and the wife of an Orthodox rabbi. She and I have collaborated before on blog posts, one on women and men in relationships and another on how to deal with discrepancies between partners when it comes to the desire to grow. I asked Ayellet to talk to me about her religious journey. Here is what she wrote:
My religious identity is a very deep identification for me. I grew up in a house where Torah [Bible] was embedded in the very walls, a house where a light would be on until late at night because of my mother and father studying Torah. The Torah I learned was a Torah filled with love.
When I was 10 I had a major fall and I was bedridden for months. My mother was (and still is) a Torah teacher and she taught me the material my classmates were learning at the time. To this day I remember that study with her, how it gave me the ability to experience what happened to my people thousands of years earlier. I was there with them, taking part, in their wanderings through the desert. I felt I lived in their tents, that I collected with them the manna that fell each night. I fought their battles with them, and of course, took part in the “good guys” vs. the “bad guys.”
Torah gave me a new dimension to my life. It told of a world of order, with good and evil and justice and clear norms of behavior, which if only I follow them, would give me a good life. I loved the prayers, I loved sitting next to my mother and praying with her [in synagogue]. I felt in these hours with her, she was only mine, and there was no need to compete with my brothers for her attention because they were in the men’s section and my mother and I were sitting in the women's section. The prayers gave me a lot of hope, they reminded me that after a dark and scary night comes a clear morning, and this helped me cope with the fears that engulfed me in difficult times.
When I got older and matured I started to feel that the religious world imprisoned me. I started to feel the falseness in it, in its unequal values, in its discrimination toward women, in how religious society is organized to serve the patriarchy. But I felt I could integrate the religious values I was brought up with [into] liberal values of equality.
When I became a mother, I wanted to give to my children a house built on a foundation of religious values, with the religious literature and texts I so dearly love. At the same time, I felt I needed to make a significant change in the religious world in order to make it suitable for my children. My awareness of the injustices which occur in the name of religion deepened and strengthened. I was exposed to instances of sexual abuse by rabbis, of preventing divorces of religious women, of discrimination of women in rabbinic courts, of the fact that the place of women in religious texts is non-existent.
Since then, I have become involved in community action whose purpose is to change the face of Orthodox Judaism into something more just and egalitarian. I think when you recognize the distortion and falseness that exists in the religious world, the temptation is to want to throw it all away. But it’s too great a treasure to sacrifice, and I don’t want to disconnect from it. My way of staying connected is to try to change it, to fix it, to renew it within its ancient structure, retaining the ancient texts and rituals along with appropriate changes to the more liberal values that I believe in.
Sometimes I miss the old world I had, the world which was an exact replica of the ancient religious world. But I believe that I have no place in this old world. It’s a world of much beauty but staying there is like living in a museum and I want to live in a religious world that is a home for me, a living and breathing home. A home where I can take the same equal part in religious services as the Orthodox men around me, just as my father did.
In my next post, I will be asking Ayellet to address some of the fundamental rifts between the religious and secular worlds.
Ayellet Cohen Wieder is a clinical psychologist and hypnotherapist. She is the founder and head of psychological services for women's health in Jerusalem, teaches psychology at Ono Academic College and writes a blog on Hebrew Psychology that integrates psychological interpretation into biblical texts.