WHAT IS WOMEN'S RITUAL, WHAT DOES WOMEN'S RITUAL MEAN TO ME?
When I was a child, in an Orthodox Jewish family, I was beset by two contradictory feelings about my religion. On the one hand, sitting in the synagogue gallery with the other women, I bitterly resented our exclusion from the "real service" conducted by the men below. On the other, when it came to parts of the service that affected everybody, most particularly the Kaddish for the dead, I, as a motherless girl became part of the distinctive company of women mourners, who were weeping, passing and using smelling salts, comforting each other. I had the feeling then that I was a woman among women, that we were all connected, that despite my difficult family background which generally left me feeling alienated, these moments of women mourning together put me in touch with a reality of suffering and hope that transcended the every day difficulties. It seemed to make me one, not only with those around me but also with a long tradition of women mourning and comforting and gaining strength from each other. Looking back now, I see that at that time I sensed part of his strength lay in the ritual opportunity of mourning together rather than in individual privacy.
I am also reminded of another and similar paradox. In family life and in the Jewish community I resented the primacy given to boys at the expense of girls, and its continuance into adult life. But the lighting of the Sabbath candles was women's and only women's business, and these were the most sacred moments of the week. I sensed something of a much stronger power among women than in the everyday, also, a community of women, going back into ages past, shielding and sheltering with their blessing hands the sacrality of the Sabbath.
None of this was made explicit in day to day life; the women in my family - my stepmother, her mother and her sister - all apparently acquiesced in and promoted the norm of male supremacy in religion and in public life, (though their opinion of men in private life fell into a much more critical stance). The rituals that appertained to women, which included keeping a strictly kosher house, obeying all the food laws, and managing the Festival meals, particularly at Passover and the High Holydays were never portrayed as more than the common practicalities of women's duties.
So the messages that came over to me as a growing girl were mixed: on the one hand, women's interface with the sacred obviously formed the structure of the religion. On the other this was apparently deemed massively less important than men's leadership in religion and all other forms of public life. But underlying this paradox were the unuttered relationships of women together performing their sacred tasks, with the community of shared strengths and suffering that their lives involved.
As a very young adult I left home, joined the world of work and politics and, as I thought ,put religion and ritual behind me forever. This meant becoming a 'secular Jew', joining the anti-fascist struggles of the 1930s and 1940s and later through nearly three decades, working for a vision of a just society. This encompassed not only redistribution of wealth between rich and poor, but most particularly a vision of gender equality. Whatever the success or otherwise of the former, the latter was certainly as far away ever; further, it was noticeable that women were subjected to new forms of exploitation- a position which was passionately addressed at last by the upcoming feminist movement.
At this point, the two halves of my life moved together. The unexpressed solidarity of the women's rituals of my childhood was now celebrated openly and nowhere more so than in the newly created 'Goddess' circles. These, at first purely political, soon moved to spiritual expressions. "Age-old rituals that we invented last Friday night" as one woman put it, summed up this part of our activity. We built on rituals excavated from folklore, from seasonal cookery calendars, from varying religious traditions, from NewAge and Pagan practice and from Jungian psychology. These rituals were simple, built up of a few basic principles: they were women-only, they recognised the sacrality of a place or date or event, together with honouring the appropriate female divinity or divinities of such a time and place or circumstance; candles were lit and water poured, both to burn or wash away current pains and burdens and then to affirm the new and positive; the celebration finished with a "feast" and "storytelling".
More complicated rituals could be devised, but the basic, which also usually included women silently washing each others hands at the start, was as satisfying as any. What do I mean by that? I speak of my own feelings but I know that these were replicated among many other women. That reality of suffering and hope, that sense of connectedness, the ability to comfort and support each other and above all, the certainty that what we were doing was in essence what women had done over a very long period, that it indeed represented for us a triumph of women's union and strength over centuries or even millennia of denial was expressed clearly by the ritual. That it was created within a concept of 'the Goddess' meant for us further acknowledgement of our spiritual selves. I repeat here what I have often said at a ritual: "In raising Her, we raise ourselves; in raising ourselves, we raise Her".
In so doing, I have found that I have reified the indeterminate perceptions of my childhood. The Jewish women mourning, blessing, cooking and managing festal meals were indeed part of a long and continuous tradition of sacred female activity; here is indeed a connectedness, which becomes outwardly manifest in the modern reclamation of the female in divinity. Further, the latter concept has led to a search for its historical and hidden presence in Judaism, and an appreciation of the richness of earlier forms of the religion which have been obscured in what have appeared to be the interests of a patriarchal agenda. Thus such ritual for women binds together the spiritual with the intellectual, and with the political: it helps create a healing and a wholeness, making a major contribution to our self-empowerment.