Why Asians Aren’t Dancing in the Streets With their Impersonal God

I am a feminist Jew because I am the mother of a daughter and a son.

I am a feminist Jew because the God of my foremothers doesn’t recognize a caste system. When my God blessed Jacob’s children, he also blessed Jacob’s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. Yet it astounds that mentioning the God of my foremothers – the imahot – is still optional in the Conservative Jewish liturgy. To my mind, this sends a message that the imahot can be optional in the hearts and souls of our children.

I am a feminist Jew because I’m angry over the injustices too frequently lorded over Jewish women.

A few years ago, my children’s day school finally included the imahot in every prayer service. But it came after a struggle. The message that landed in my mailbox announced that in consultation with local Conservative rabbis, the school decided to include the imahot in the Amidah as standard practice. Amen. And yet the message felt perfunctory to me, as if our foremothers were shadowy figures. Had Abraham, Isaac and Jacob finally decided to share their God?

Perhaps lost in redaction, our foremothers are not mentioned as a group in the Bible, but thank goodness they star in many ancient and modern midrashim as role models and prophets.

I am a feminist Jew because Sarah was said to be a greater prophet than Abraham. She understood that God didn’t demand the sacrifice of her first-born son. During her pregnancy, Rebekah knew that she had two great nations inside of her, but that the fate of the Jewish people rested with her younger son. These women triumphed over infertility and infidelity (even when they sanctioned it). I am a feminist Jew because the imahot are summoned to help the Jewish people in times of distress. Rachel was buried at a strategic place on the road where she can hear the cries of her people in captivity. Her prayers uniquely move God on their behalf.

I am a feminist Jew because prayer is instinctively beautiful for Jewish women.

Prior to the modern debate over whether to include the imahot in the liturgy, women had the wisdom and clarity to call upon them in their own prayers throughout the centuries. The imahot are front and center in the techinot, prayers of Jewish women from medieval times through the 19th century.

I am a feminist Jew because our foremothers were called upon to help Jewish women express their deepest desires and most fervent hopes in both set and spontaneous prayer.

I am a feminist Jew because I can frequently call upon the God of my foremothers. God of Sarah, hear my prayers to keep my children safe in planes, trains, automobiles and all manner of place and time. God of Rebekah, help me to recognize perilous situations. God of Rachel, help me guide my children through disappointment and desperation. God of Leah, comfort me when someone doesn’t love my children the way they deserve to be cherished.

I am a feminist Jew because the G0d of Bilhah and Zilpah brings women to the foreground where they belong.

Some sources – the sources that shaped my vision as a feminist Jew – acknowledge Jacob’s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah – the mothers of four of Israel’s 12 tribes – as matriarchs, bringing the number of imahot to six. In terms of Jewish symbolism, six corresponds to the six days of creation. Who on earth has been more responsible for the creation of the Jewish people than Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah?

I’ve read about the brouhaha of nursing a child in a public space. I am a feminist Jew because I know that Sarah, a mother who weaned her own child when he was 3 years old, would have defended these women asserting their right to be mothers. Rachel would have heard the cries of those hungry babies and interceded so that their mothers could do the most natural and loving thing in the world for their children – nourish them.

Leah continues to hear the prayers of all mothers who send their children to serve their countries in dangerous places. Rebekah hovers near mothers who must make tough choices for their children. Bilhah and Zilpah understand women who feel marginalized.

I am a feminist Jew because women recovered Leah’s story to teach my children and their children that the woman thought to be plain with weak eyes, was as strong and holy as her husband.

One evening, I found myself conspicuously ignoring two of etiquette’s basic rules, talking about both religion and politics with a good friend. Veering from one topic to the other, we eventually found ourselves ensconced in a discussion about theology. I was working to articulate my belief in an impersonal God, when my friend presented a profound question: “If you don’t believe in a personal God, then why do you pray, and what does it mean to pray?”

My friend was culturally and socially affiliated as a Jew but found the idea of Jewish theology and prayer to be off-putting. “How do you,” she asked me, as someone who does not experience God as personal, “find prayer so meaningful?”

The question is an apt one and relates to what prayer itself means to me. Some colleagues and friends within the same denomination have more personal conceptions of God and think of prayer as a time to communicate with the Divine. Given that I do not believe I can speak to God, my experience of prayer is rather different.

My response came from ideas I had previously studied in rabbinical school and had over time woven together with a few of my own. I began with the language and theory developed by my remarkable professor, Lawrence Hoffman. Dr. Hoffman articulated the idea that prayer was a “sacred drama” in which we were all actors. We had roles and parts in communal prayer, and our prayer books were “a kind of dramatic script.” Each of us in that drama plays an important part in communal prayer — namely ourselves. By playing ourselves, we leave ourselves open to being changed by the words we say, movements we make, and rituals we undertake.

Drama, even when we watch it acted out, has the ability to make us feel and think differently. Many have theorized that it trains our emotions so that we can encounter the drama of our own lives more ethically or with greater insight. As Aristotle explained over 2,300 years ago in the Poetics, which focuses on the role of Greek tragedy as a subset of drama, “It achieves, through pity and fear, the catharsis of these sorts of feelings.”

Defining catharsis as something akin to the “purification or purgation of the emotions aroused in a tragic performance” (as does the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), tragedy pushes us to feel more deeply and understand more fully both other people and ourselves. It, like other forms of drama, shakes us out of our routines and forces us to confront anew our worlds and our emotions.

Prayer, at its best, heightens the potential of drama and its influence on our lives. If we are the players in the drama, and consciously playing ourselves in that drama, and doing so with a community of people who are likewise consciously playing themselves in that drama, then that drama can be elevated and take on a feeling that I would describe as sacred. The words we say or sing and the actions we take as part of the drama define the nature of that prayer. (Personal prayer, though at times more akin to meditation or silent soliloquy, likewise has many dramatic aspects.)

The meaning of prayer is shaped by the scripts of our traditions, how we enact them, and who at a given moment is acting them out. Are we pouring our hearts out? Are we seeking healing after a painful or tragic experience? Is it the prayer leader singing or reading, or is everyone present singing or reading? (Is there even a prayer leader?) Are we dancing and clapping, speaking softly, carrying a sacred object, or engaging other senses altogether — or perhaps limiting sensory perception of one kind by closing our eyes or being silent?

What marks my prayer experience is not merely the chance to reflect — as Mordecai Kaplan put it, in “a dialogue between our purely individual egocentric self and our self as representing a process that goes on beyond us…” I do not see prayer as a dialogue or conversation at all, but rather as the chance to transcend myself.

In a paradoxical way, it is when I am most present and most aware of others with whom I am present — and the drama for which we are all present — that I am able to move beyond myself.

The words I say or sing and the movements I make are as though external to me, at once very much my own and at a remove from the sense of uplift that comes over me. Some might describe this as a mystical experience, while others might describe it as one rooted deeply in my own psyche or biology as a human. But I feel it as one of complete connectedness and, as one rabbi from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality put, it “alignment” with the world.

The drama becomes so much more than just that for me. Even as I gesticulate or rock back and forth, sing or chant, I feel the miraculous nature of my own life as a human and the unbelievable reality of a life with so much order, when measured on a cosmic rather than human scale.

Knowing that my spiritual forbears enacted this sacred and ever-changing drama thousands of years before makes the limitations of my day disappear in a whole new sense of time — or the lack thereof. In the rhythm of ritual, I feel the pulse of my being — and then its connection to the ordering force of the universe that I consider to be God. I am praying, not to an impersonal God, but in heightened awareness of God’s presence within me and throughout the world.

Abuse of Sonogram is a big story in India. In its first show, called Satyamev Jayate (truth ultimately triumphs), in May this year, it featured female feticide. The show has turned India upside down and new laws are being passed to prevent the abuse. A salesman sells the sonogram machine to the Doctors as an investment that will return their capital in six months, and unchecked income continues after that by performing abortions – not male babies but female babies. Guardian reports 6 million girl abortions in the last decade in India, reconfirmed by ABC news i.e., aborting 50,000 female babies a month.
In the sting operation, one doctor asks; if the baby does not die thru aborticides, what should be done, the other says, throw it in the river when it comes out. Yes, it is disgusting and heart wrenching to watch. This, one particular evil has led to disproportionate ratio of men and women to a point of sharing the wife with brothers and friends or selling one’s wife to the highest bidder.
The good news is that the prophecy of Krishna is relevant, in Bhagvad Gita IV-7 Krishna narrates to Arjuna: “Whenever Dharma, or the situation of law and order, is endangered on this world, I incarnate onto this world to re establish Dharma, law and order, and to protect good and destroy the evil elements of the society.” The movie actor Aamir Khan is indeed an incarnation of Krishna in mitigating the evil of female feticide, dowry, child abuse, and other evils of the Indian society.

Gangnam Style is one catchy-ass tune, the most infectiously, dancelicious song since C+C Music Factory’s Everybody Dance Now. But unless you look like me, or live in South Korea, we Asians find white enthusiasm for this monster hit suspect.

The Korean entertainer Psy (short for Psycho) looks an awful lot like William Hung. You remember that lovable dork from American Idol who sang “She Bangs”?

2012-10-06-PsyHungGirls.jpgNon-Asians freakin’ LOVED William Hung. Not only did they love him, they LOVED that they LOVED him. And when fandom morphs into this irrational meta-love — when we lovethat we love something – that’s telling.

For example, men will publically profess they find actress Helen Mirren sexy because they secretly think it’ll earn them brownie points for finding a 67-year old female do-able, but also because subconsciously they believe it atones for their much deeper furtive attraction to girls barely into their teens. SAME deal.

The kind of people who loved William Hung were the ones thinking: “I may not have any Asian friends, but I can’t be racist, because I LOVE this guy! He’s HILARIOUS!” So if Psy is the doppelganger of William Hung, then Hung’s big daddy is The Donger.

Remember Long Duk Dong? He was the ridiculous Asian foreign exchange student who lusted impotently after Molly Ringwald in the John Hughes movie Sixteen Candles.


And Long Duk Dong of course is the spiritual grandson of Mickey Rooney in that American classic, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

But why be Captain Bringdown whinging about racism when we could be dancing to the the biggest Asian hit single since the 1960’s Sukiyaki? K-pop is surging not just in South Korea, but all over Asia. So yes, it is high-time a Seoul singer finally crossed over, but why Psy and not Rain, that other K-pop mega star? Maybe its partly because Rain looks like this

2012-10-06-rainlong.jpgIf one of Rain’s many Korean hit singles went into heavy rotation worldwide Gangnam Style I think white women would be intrigued to have their lady bits excited by a singer who didn’t look like Justin Timberlake or Justin Bieber or Ice Tea or Ice Cube. Getting drenched by Rain might be akin to the first time eating sushi; “This is different, but I think I LIKE it!”

But believe it or not, that kind of thing is not allowed to happen. Apparently, there’s an unwritten rule that states the Asian man onscreen can’t get the girl. Jackie Chan’s love interest in Tuxedo was Jennifer Love Hewitt — but no kiss. Same deal with Jet Li and Aaliyah in Romeo Must Die, not even a chaste peck on the cheek.

This is why Asians feel so queasy about Ken Jeong starring in The Hangover movie franchise. I’ve been following “Dr. Ken” from his days of doing standup at The Apollo Theatre. His set was killer. But if the Asian price of admission to Hollywood stardom is wearing a prosthesis that makes his penis the size of a grain of rice, than you can keep your red carpet.

2012-10-07-gqkenjeong02.jpgPhoto by Peggy Sirota/GQ

If you haven’t seen the movies, a recent GQ photo spread will suffice. I actually love these photos, because this pictorial so perfectly illustrates mainstream culture’s no-go-zones for Asian men: “Make us laugh, just don’t touch our women.”

In the white supremacist fantasy club that is mainstream culture, Asians are only allowed past the velvet rope if our women promise to “love you long time” or if there is ZERO chance that an Asian male will seduce away your women, hence Long Duk Dong, William Hung, Ken Jeong, and now (sigh) Psy.

So when you and your Asian friend are driving along and Gangnam Style comes on the radio, go ahead and pump up the volume, but just don’t expect us to give you congratulatory high-fives. I, for one, am going to sit this track out, and wait for the next K-pop star to come along. If he looks less like a shumai pork dumpling, and a little more like me, then I’ll be dancing in my seat.


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