Taking back God: American women rising up for religious equality

Front Cover
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Dec 23, 2008 - Religion - 350 pages
4 Reviews
In Taking Back God Leora Tanenbaum recounts the stories of women across the United States, starting with herself, who love their religion but hate their second-class status within it. If you’ve witnessed the preferential treatment of men in America’s houses of worship, you will not be surprised to learn that there is a surge of women in this country rising up and demanding religious equality. More and more, religious women—Christian, Muslim, and Jewish—are declaring that they expect to be treated as equals in the religious sphere. They want the same meaningful spiritual connections enjoyed by their brothers, fathers, husbands, and sons. They embrace the word of God but are critical of their faith’s male-oriented theology and liturgy. They reject the conventional interpretations of religious traditions that give women a different—and, to their minds, lesser—status. Rather than abandoning their faith, they are taking it back and making it stronger, transforming religion while maintaining tradition.

Tanenbaum relates the experiences of Catholics, evangelical and mainline Protestants, Muslims, and observant Jews. The conflict they face—honoring tradition while expanding it to synchronize with modern values—is ultimately one that all people of faith grapple with today. Leora Tanenbaum is the author of 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 lives in New York City with her husband and two sons. In Taking Back God, Leora Tanenbaum recounts the stories of women across the United States who love their religion but hate their second-class status within it.

Preferential treatment of men exists in many of America’s houses of worship, but there is a growing surge of women in this country rising up and demanding religious equality. More and more, religious women—Christian, Muslim, and Jewish—are declaring that they expect to be treated as equals in the religious sphere. They want the same meaningful spiritual connections enjoyed by their brothers, fathers, husbands, and sons. They embrace the word of God but are critical of their faith’s male-oriented theology and liturgy. They reject the conventional interpretations of religious traditions that give women a different—and, to their minds, lesser—status. Rather than abandoning their faith, they are taking it back and making it stronger, transforming religion while maintaining tradition.

Tanenbaum relates the experiences of Catholics, evangelical and mainline Protestants, Muslims, and observant Jews. The conflict they face—honoring tradition while expanding it to synchronize with modern values—is ultimately one that all people of faith grapple with today. "At the outset of this well-written book, Tanenbaum tells her own story to the reader, as she has told it to the many women she interviewed, to provide a context to her own quest . . . She describes herself as an observant Jew who 'respects Jewish law and adheres to it to the fullest of my abilities. Jewish law guides many, if not most, of the small and large actions I take every single day.' A proud feminist . . . She admits to days filled with contradictions in a life that is both modern and preserving of Jewish traditions. As she takes Jewish law seriously, she also leaves open the opportunity to struggle with the law. While Tanenbaum attends Orthodox services, she doesn’t appreciate sitting upstairs and separate, far from the action. But she says she gains spiritual strength from many aspects of the service, and also attends a monthly partnership minyan near her home on the Upper East Side where women have opportunities to have a role in leading the service. Tanenbaum sees her own struggle as mild in comparison to what others face. The author and her subjects seem to connect, as fellow travelers along paths of faith, even as their paths diverge. Women were very open with her, welcoming her into their places of worship and their public and private conversations. She had no problem finding women to interview; she went to conferences, made connections, and then was linked to other women. 'Dissatisfied people,' she notes, 'want to talk.' She found that the Muslim women in particular wanted to be heard, and appreciated the opportunity to talk to someone who would listen to them respectfully and without judgment. Frequently, the curiosity was reciprocal. She noticed that people who are devout want to know about other faiths . . . Muslim women talked to her about their longings for and efforts at women-led prayer, and also about their frustrations with having to enter their places of worship through a back door; one woman told of hearing a visiting imam preach about the permissibility of wife beating. These women . . . are confident that the egalitarian impulse and gender justice are there, within Islam. They also spoke candidly about how they feel about covering themselves with the traditional hijab . . . Tanenbaum’s chapters on Jewish women are incisive, providing some of the best concise explanations of Jewish rituals and practice, and Orthodox feminists’ perspectives . . . Books change their writers as well as their readers, and Tanenbaum admits that writing this book broadened her outlook."—Sandee Brawarsky, The Jewish Week “I’m using Taking Back God in my undergraduate classroom this semester, spring 2009, at California State University, Northridge.  The course is RS 304 ‘Women & Religion’ in the Department of Religious Studies.  It’s one of three text books I am requiring . . . Students are actually reading this text, and they are responding deeply to it.  This is an introductory course that satisfies the General Education requirement for an upper division course requiring a research paper . . . As they read Taking Back God, I required them to post a response to each chapter on my course website, including a specific quotation from the chapter and their comment on the quotation. I have been surprised and moved by the depth of my students’ response to the Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, evangelical, and mainstream Christian women (and a few men) interviewed by Leora Tanenbaum. The feelings and personal experiences shared in this book make it accessible to my students and enable them to share their own feelings and reflections.  The response is good from both religious studies majors and others with minimal interest and background in women’s studies or religious studies, just taking the course to fulfil a requirement. One student even revealed her desire to become a Catholic priest, something she had formerly expressed only to her parents.  I believe she would not have shared this personal goal with me had she not been moved by reading the words of Joan Houk, the recently ordained Catholic woman who described her development from being an active parish worker to a woman who chose to be ordained outside the regular path to priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church.”—Dr. Anne Eggebroten, Lecturer, Department of Religious Studies, California State University, Northridge

“Whether you are an atheist or a faith loving women frustrated that your religion does not effectively coincide with your feminist values, Leora Tanenbaum’s latest book Taking Back God will speak to you. Focusing on the feminist movements in Orthodox Judaism, Evangelical Christianity, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam, Tanenbaum illuminates a forgotten landscape of progressive activism: religion. Taking Back God touches on everything from the religious right’s fight on reproductive rights to barriers separating women and men in mosques and temples. Today most of what we hear about religion and politics is how religious extremism tramples human rights. Tanenbaum gives us the opportunity to remember that religion was once a bastion of progressive activism and that presence is still alive and well. Much of her focus is on feminist women carving leadership roles in conservative faiths that are traditionally less than friendly to female leadership. She details stories of individual women who traveled to Israel and back to become rabbis (and were still forced to use a different title), women who crossed the high seas to be ordained as Catholic priests, and women who led a Muslim service in a downtown New York City gallery because no mosque would allow a woman to lead. Tenenbaum’s personal tone that was present in her other works (including Slut and Catfight) flows throughout. Her intimate perspective is personally revealing and enormously informative. The book seems to be cathartic for her, as though she is voicing her own struggle. Yet she is also successful in creating the space for other women who feel a similar conflict an opportunity to revel in it. She takes two of the most polarizing issues, religion and feminism, and weaves individual stories together to craft a tale of people not politics. She reminds us why we wanted to believe in the first place, and that religion is a cause that is far from lost.”—Nicole Levitz, Feminist Review

"When I was about 9 years old, my family’s Reform temple started asking congregants to identify copies of Gates of Prayer that needed some TLC: a little glue on the spine, the reattachment of a dangling cover. The books had been in use for many years, and they were getting worn. They’d seen some changes, too: most recently, a piece of paper had been adhered to the inside back cover, printed with a version of the Amidah that added the names Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel to the standard Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Despite being outdated and in disrepair, the books needed to last awhile longer. A new Reform movement prayer book was in the works, with these changes and more made directly to the text, but—as I vividly remember being told—it wouldn’t be ready for 10 years. That seemed like a long way off. It was, but as Leora Tanenbaum outlines in her spirited new book, Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality, women in any number of religions have been waiting much longer than that."—Eryn Loeb, Tablet Magazine

"At the outset of this well-written book, Tanenbaum tells her own story to the reader, as she has told it to the many women she interviewed, to provide a context to her own quest . . . She describes herself as an observant Jew who 'respects Jewish law and adheres to it to the fullest of my abilities. Jewish law guides many, if not most, of the small and large actions I take every single day.' A proud feminist . . . She admits to days filled with contradictions in a life that is both modern and preserving of Jewish traditions. As she takes Jewish law seriously, she also leaves open the opportunity to struggle with the law. While Tanenbaum attends Orthodox services, she doesn’t appreciate sitting upstairs and separate, far from the action. But she says she gains spiritual strength from many aspects of the service, and also attends a monthly partnership minyan near her home on the Upper East Side where women have opportunities to have a role in leading the service. Tanenbaum sees her own struggle as mild in comparison to what others face. The author and her subjects seem to connect, as fellow travelers along paths of faith, even as their paths diverge. Women were very open with her, welcoming her into their places of worship and their public and private conversations. She had no problem finding women to interview; she went to conferences, made connections, and then was linked to other women. 'Dissatisfied people,' she notes, 'want to talk.' She found that the Muslim women in particular wanted to be heard, and appreciated the opportunity to talk to someone who would listen to them respectfully and without judgment. Frequently, the curiosity was reciprocal. She noticed that people who are devout want to know about other faiths . . . Muslim women talked to her about their longings for and efforts at women-led prayer, and also about their frustrations with having to enter their places of worship through a back door; one woman told of hearing a visiting imam preach about the permissibility of wife beating. These women . . . are confident that the egalitarian impulse and gender justice are there, within Islam. They also spoke candidly about how they feel about covering themselves with the traditional hijab . . . Tanenbaum’s chapters on Jewish women are incisive, providing some of the best concise explanations of Jewish rituals and practice, and Orthodox feminists’ perspectives . . . Books change their writers as well as their readers, and Tanenbaum admits that writing this book broadened her outlook."—Sandee Brawarsky, The Jewish Week

"Taking Back God describes the experiences of ninety-five American women, aged nineteen to ninety-five, as they strive for advancement in five different religious traditions. Leora Tanenbaum interviewed women from Catholic, Evangelical, and Mainline Protestant, Muslim, and Orthodox Jewish communities to reveal the common threads in their struggles for women’s religious inclusion, including Tanenbaum’s own experiences working for equality within a life of committed Orthodox Jewish observance. Women’s voices come from the mainstream, and their beliefs and actions for change are based upon devoted study of original sacred texts. Across the board, they express similar concerns: a desire for enhanced women’s leadership, women’s representation in the language of liturgy, and clear recognition that the female body has also been made in the image of God. Taking Back God offers an insider’s view of women’s daily struggles. Chapters devoted to each religious practice cover institutional and personal responses to women’s tactics, theology, and creativity as they work for change. The book gives a wide context to American women’s efforts to create change from the middle of the religions that support their lives."—Ellie Barbarash, Jewish Book World

"Leora Tanenbaum has written this fascinating book dealing with Catholic, mainline Protestant, Evangelical, Muslim, and Jewish woman who are challenging their religious faith communities from a position of commitment and not of alienation. Woven into the book is Tanenbaum's own story as a woman in Judaism, but who is committed to being an observant Jew. The section on Judaism gives a historical survey of the growth of Orthodox feminism in America . . . What is illuminating for the Jewish reader is to learn about similar struggles and tensions in Christianity and Islam. The situations in the different religions are not identical, but the similarities are striking. Tanenbaum skillfully weaves interviews with 95 American women of all faiths into her own extensive research on the history of each religion. The book underlines how, across religious divides, women of faith can learn from and inspire one another. What unites the compelling individual stories she tells is the sincere struggle of women to achieve spiritual fulfillment within their tradition and not to be treated as second-class citizens . . . Tanenbaum stresses the importance of women achieving leadership roles in their religious communities because 'when a woman is distanced from leadership roles, it is all too easy to consequently become distanced from the tradition.' She ends her book with suggestions for religious women of all faiths 'who simply want to experience their faith to the fullest."—Jennifer Stern Breger, Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance

"A remarkably accurate, cogent and in-depth portrait of gender inequality across a wide swath of American religion. With one chapter on each of the five religious groups . . . The book's greatest potential lies in the possibility for readers to discern common points of struggle, history and hope between women's experience across religious boundaries . . . What remains after one finishes the book, however, are not questions about style or tardiness. What sticks is a powerful sense of the cognitive dissonance common among women from diverse religious traditions who can give up neither their faith nor their desire for gender equality—women who are, in the terminology of theologians Miriam Therese Winter, Adair Lummis and Allison Stokes, 'defecting in place.'"—Valerie Weaver-Zercher, Christian Century

“From the story of two Muslims who organized a woman-led prayer service despite bomb threats, to the tale of a devoted Catholic advocating to be legitimately ordained as a priest, Tanenbaum covers women working both within their faith’s social structure and against it, as well as those who thirst for change but feel powerless to speak up. With attention to Catholic, evangelical Christian, Muslim, and Jewish women—along with chapters on sexuality and language in worship, perspectives from primary texts and contemporary, foray into ancient history, and her interviews and attendance at services and conferences—Tanenbaum is thorough but never patronizing. Warm and informative, her own voice enriches the text as she talks about women rising up against the practice of their preachings.”—Christina Femia, Bust

"Tanenbaum gives voice to a chorus of American women from many denominations—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim—who are challenging their second-place roles within religious communities. Tanenbaum argues that although Jesus and Muhammad and rabbis of the Talmudic era tried to improve women's status, other men evolved the contemporary religious practices that subordinate women. She details the American efforts to shatter the 'stained-glass ceiling.' The first woman minister, a Congregationalist, was ordained in the U.S. in 1853. The Reform Jewish movement got its first female rabbi in 1972; the Catholic and Muslim faiths still prohibit women leaders. The challenges faced by the dozens of women Tanenbaum interviewed—all working to reform their religious communities from within—are moving. So is Tanenbaum's personal struggle as an observant Jew who reveres tradition but chafes under its restrictions. Living with ambiguity, these women keep the faith while hoping for change."—Jane Ciabattari, More magazine

"Why do they stay?  Why do women remain in religious traditions whose forms of worship, language, sacred texts, and laws of everyday behavior have been structured to degrade and erase them?  And what kind of work are these women doing to make their faith communities more equal?  These questions drove author Leora Tanenbaum to interview a multitude of women, participate in national conferences, and attend worship services across the country to hear the answers. Taking Back God tells the stories of women who have a fierce love of their religion, but also a powerful calling to end its sexism. Tanenbaum’s project is broad in scope, illustrating the modern movements in religious feminism among the major monotheist traditions . . . The devout women breathe with life in these pages because the author allows them to tell their own stories of their individual contributions to religious feminism, and she permits them to claim or reject the label of 'feminist' according to each woman’s wishes.  The book is filled with moving stories like Renée Septimus’s, who, barred from being named in her son’s lineage at his bar mitzvah and unable to see him read from the Torah for the first time from behind the divider of the women’s section of the synagogue . . . I learned a great deal about feminist issues in other faith traditions from these stories.  There is much that is parallel, but also much that is unique. The author goes to great lengths to accurately recount the story of the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, too.  Many Christian Feminism Today readers will remember meeting Leora Tanenbaum when she attended the 2006 EEWC conference in Charlotte, North Carolina.  She interviewed Nancy Hastings Sehested, Letha Dawson Scanzoni, Nancy A. Hardesty, Anne Eggebroten, Mel Bringle, and others. She quotes the works of Virginia Ramey Mollenkott and Patricia Gundry.  She draws a nuanced picture for her readers, explaining the difference between an evangelical and a fundamentalist, and citing the historical links to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Hildegarde von Bingen. In the past, some authors and scholars from outside EEWC have told only part of the story or been mistaken on details. What a joy to read a work so faithful to the facts and respectful of the journey of evangelical feminism . . . This is a compelling, swift-reading collection of the voices of the women who are leading movements of change in their mosques, synagogues, and churches. Taking Back God provides a meaningful view of religious feminism from the macro level."—Alena Amato Ruggerio, Christian Feminism Today

"Tanenbaum knows everything about the religious feminist cohorts. Rich in anecdote, careful in analyses, strong in message, this highly readable and sophisticated text will not only inform the public at large but also chart the way forward for so many women who have chosen to take this journey."—Blu Greenberg, author of On Women and Judaism

"Taking Back God is an enlightening, inspiring look at how our faiths can—and should—reflect our highest ideals about morality and God. It's a must-read for anyone who cares about religion in America today."—Danya Ruttenberg, author of Surprised by God and editor of Yentl's Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism

“Religious feminism is not dead! If you believe in gender equality and belong to any of the three great ‘religions of the Book,’ Taking Back God will both energize and anger you. An observant Jew herself, Leora Tanenbaum carefully nuances the secondary status of many women in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. She shows how women are challenging repressive traditions in light of the core values of their faith. As a Christian feminist myself, I especially appreciated learning about Jewish and Muslim women in parallel circumstances and with similar interpretive hurdles. Tanenbaum blends extensive research with human interest stories and an embracing attitude that keeps one turning the pages.”—Reta Halteman Finger, Assistant Professor of New Testament, Messiah College, Grantham, Pennsylvania; and former editor of the Christian feminist magazine Daughters of Sarah

“In Taking Back God, Tanenbaum has done a great service by presenting a riveting account of the sexist sins of our fathers in not one but three major religions, and by giving the faith-filled women fighting to elevate women’s place in these religions the respect and attention they deserve. To every woman of faith who has ever sat in her church, mosque, or temple feeling belittled, hurt, angry, and alone, this one’s for you.”—Angela Bonavoglia, author of Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church

“It is a joy to find a book on women and religion that speaks from the point of view of religious women—women who love not just spirituality but organized religion, who care about tradition and ritual, and who hear the voice of egalitarianism as divine. At last, a treatment of Islamic gender debates that does not isolate Islam from other religions, or assume that Muslims are inherently more sexist than others. This book is a sincere attempt to understand, in a broad, generous, interfaith perspective, the concerns of religious women for equality and justice.”—Mohja Kahf, Associate Professor, Middle East and Islamic Studies Program, University of Arkansas; and author of The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf

“Leora Tanenbaum is so uncannily accurate in capturing not only the facts but the nuanced heartbeat of a world that I know well—I read the book in one sitting. This is the most comprehensive overview of the status of women and religion I've read. It chronicles the harm religion can do to both men and women, but also holds out a promise of radiant hope.”—Frank Schaeffer, author of Crazy for God

"In this well-documented, engaging, and encouraging book, Tanenbaum, herself an observant Orthodox Jew, explains why many religious women find themselves marginalized by their religions and what they are doing about it. Drawing on wide reading and interviews with almost 100 people, both key players and observant women, Tanenbaum spells out religious women's 'love-hate relationship with tradition.' This book stands out from others in a similar vein by covering five different faith traditions. Tanenbaum recounts Roman Catholic women's attempts to have women ordained priests; evangelicals' efforts to overcome sexist interpretations of the Bible; the push back by conservatives in mainline Protestant churches—which ordain women—against 'feminized' religion; Muslim women's endeavors for equal access to Friday prayers; and Orthodox Jewish efforts to open Torah study to women. In concluding chapters, Tanenbaum surveys religious women's sexual lives and gendered language about humans and God in worship. She succeeds in capturing the courage, humor, and grit of her protagonists without demonizing their opponents."—Steve Young, Library Journal

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Review: Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality

User Review  - Kate - Goodreads

It was interesting, but I put it down and never went back to it. Read full review

Review: Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality

User Review  - Goodreads

It was interesting, but I put it down and never went back to it. Read full review

Contents

Women on the Verge of an Uprising
3
A LoveHate Relationship with Tradition
33
Catholic Women vs the Vatican
55
Copyright

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About the author (2008)

Leora Tanenbaum is the author of 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 lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.

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