Guest Post: Where is it Written?
Guest Post by Kajsa. Kajsa is married to Monty Kaufusi, and together they have 3 precocious children and two stinky dogs. After working part-time as faculty with BYU’s Ancient Scripture department, Kajsa is devoting herself full time to her writing, with a book forthcoming. This book narrates her uniquely religious upbringing, LDS mission, time working for BYU, and eventual confrontation with her ecclesiastical leaders and subsequent faith deconstruction. Her B.A. is in Anthropology, with an M.A. in Biblical Studies. Kajsa has presented her work with Society of Biblical Literature, guest-published short pieces with Patheos, The Exponent, podcasted with Latter-day Faith, At Last She Said It, and Rameumptom Ruminations. Her research interests are broad, ranging from Biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, feminist theology, and the interconnection between Medieval Judeo/Christian/Islamic philosophy. https://berlinkaufusi.wixsite.com/website
Early in my girlhood, I knew that I pushed the norms on what was seen as traditionally acceptable for an LDS woman to aspire to. Vague memories of emotional meltdowns fill my mind, my body stretched out on the couch dramatically, tears rolling down my cheeks as I lamented to my parents the tension I felt between my desire to “use” my college degree as a professional and the messages that living prophets had shared for the last few decades about women’s roles. “What’s the point?!” I wailed. Within the culture I was raised in, wife and mother were clearly the ideal that a woman could, and should, seek to obtain. If, after children, I decided to go into the workforce, that was of course my choice, but without question, career and self-development outside of what fell under the umbrella of “wife and mother” were certainly less than ideal.
My father used his apologetic gifts to sooth my emotions and try to get me to see how it was possible, as President Hinckley had stated, to “be the woman of whom you dream” while at the same time fulfilling my role of wife and mother, but I wasn’t buying it. I reached my teens just as LDS women’s education began to exit taboo territory, but conflicting narratives still swirled around me. In my Young Women’s classes, the phrase “all I ever want to be is a mom” was a common one, rewarded with proud looks from the leaders and approving nods. On more than one occasion, my mother would patiently listen to my venting, squeezing my hand, encouraging me to not let go of my dreams. “You can find a way, Kajsa” she would tell me, seriously. “Do what hasn’t been done!”
For those Barbara Streisand fans out there, you may be familiar with the hit 80’s movie, Yentyl. A brilliant young Jewish woman, raised by her Rabbi father after the death of her mother, yearns for religious education but is silenced by her conservative 19th century European Jewish community. In one scene, as she browses through the books peddled into the town square by a bookseller, she is re-directed by the man to the women’s section— books with “lots of pictures.” “But I don’t want to read those books, I like these ones!” she counters, pointing to the religious volumes. “These are men’s books,” he counters, “sacred books. Picture books for women, sacred books for men!” he sings to the crowd as people pass by. “Why?!” she retorts, hands on her hips. “Because!” he counters, “that is what the law says.” “Where?!” she pushes on, “where is it written?! Show me where it is written. Here, in this book! Show me where!”
Throughout my young adulthood, I found myself asking that question a lot—“show me where?!” As a missionary, I served during the time that our mission housed the traveling exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the spring of 2008, I remember entering the lobby of the Hill Cumorah Visitors center, my eyes immediately settling on a lengthy replica of the great Isaiah Scroll, found in the caves at Qumran in 1946. That scroll became a particularly dear friend to me. During down time, I would stare at the Masoretic text of the Hebrew lettering, occasionally copying down characters, loving their beautiful shape. When Rabbis would come into the exhibit from Rochester or NYC to take their synagogue groups on tour, I quietly followed behind, soaking in the knowledge they were passing onto the crowd, coveting their ability to read ancient Hebrew. A fire lit inside me then, a desire to study religion further, maybe even professionally, as a scholar. I wanted to know so badly how to read those texts, how to discuss the various approaches to their interpretation, and to be able to confidently form my own ideas about the scriptural narrative.
I have a holy envy for the traditions of the Jewish people. Centuries older than Christianity and millennia older than the tradition of my birth, Judaism has withstood tribal aggressions, diasporic influences, genocides, expulsions and inquisitions, pogroms, Holocausts, and anti-Semitic aggressions. Through these refining fires, Judaism has enriched, expanded, diversified, and drawn deeply from its narratives to find usable and perhaps unappreciated history from which springs forth contemporary movements, specifically women’s movements, that enrich and beautify the faith, empowering Jewish women in the process.
A few years ago, I assigned my New Testament students to attend two religious services outside of the LDS tradition during the semester, submitting a short piece on the worship service they attended, comparing and contrasting the experiences. One Friday, I attended Shabbat services with my students at Salt-Lake’s Kol-Ami synagogue (in Hebrew, Kol-Ami means “voice of my people”). Known as a liberal synagogue, the group’s Rabbi was Rabbi Elena Schwartzman, the granddaughter an Eastern European immigrant Grandfather who was also a Rabbi, renowned for paving the way for Jewish reform in America. Seeing her lead the congregation with effortless grace and confidence, as a woman, flooded me with emotions I couldn’t quite put names to. Rather than try to understand it, I simply allowed myself to sit with it all, allowing my spirit to be blessed by her knowledge and spirit. It was evident that this group had full confidence in her to lead their congregation as the voice of their people, connecting them to the God of their ancestors.
During the service, noticing a fussy baby among the attendees, she nonchalantly descended the slight podium where she led service, came into the pews and reached for the infant, plopping him gingerly on her hip. Baby in-tow, she continued leading the service, bobbing the little boy up and down to the rhythm of the songs she sang, swaying him back and forth with her as she led the prayers in well-practiced rhythm. She held him for a good 20 minutes, eventually handing the rosy-cheeked (and now content) baby back to its father.
While the service continued, I couldn’t get over what I had just observed. In fact, there were tears in my eyes reflective of the beautiful stirring of my soul—both transcendent and disturbing.In the faith tradition of my birth, women are excluded from nearly all leadership positions and most certainly the ones with power; doctrinally, only men hold keys of authority (Priesthood keys) and thus women are never seen leading the congregation unless leading music, perhaps. Additionally, while some have proposed that the Relief Society presidency also sit on the stand during Sacrament Meeting so as to display a healthier balance of power, the general response to that suggestion seems to popularly be that “a mother needs to sit with her children and it would create too much distraction having the kids running up to the stands from time to time.” Here, in this one experience at the synagogue, both scenarios were confounded by a lived experience, and the impact of that powerful happening has stayed with me ever since, reminding me of what could be, and for some, what is.
Recently, a friend of mine who has removed her records from the Church, gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. My friend is ethnically Jewish, and since beginning her journey out of the LDS tradition, has returned to her Jewish roots to examine and glean from those traditions. Both she and I have formally acknowledged that giving birth to daughters fueled the fires of our feminism and the desire for our children, both boys and girls, to see women claim their place as religious leaders, if it is in their path, and certainly to own their own spiritual authority through their connection to God, which is their birthright.
Following the births of all my children, I have often wondered why a female presence within the blessing circle was not allowed. Eventually, I did write about that possibility (to view, click here), suggesting ways in which it could be accomplished (doctrinally and physically). Since the pandemic, I have seen many families choose to bless their child at home, with the mother holding the infant while the father administered the blessing. While I have been fortunate to have a husband who gives insightful and powerful words of blessing to our children, many times I’ve pondered on what words I would be inspired to utter to my newly born child, if perhaps my religion had a place for and saw value in such a thing.
And so again it was with a flood of holy envy that I recently read that my dear friend, after giving birth to her baby girl, reached deep within her ethnic roots and her own spiritual authority, and gave a blessing to her infant child. These are her specific words:
“I bought my daughter a tallit and wrapped her in it while giving her a very private mother’s blessing in the hospital, which was a sacred, and meaningful experience for me. I resigned my Mormon membership when I found out I was pregnant with a girl. I did it for her.”
In my mind, I had a clear image of this sister wrapping her precious girl in the ancient tallit, lips close to the baby’s ear as she connected to the Divine and whispered inspired words of blessing to her daughter, infusing into her the identity, strength, and inspiration of generations of women before her. She asked no one for permission to perform this beautiful ritual, because the only permission needed was her own, and the power from which the blessing sprang was God’s, and she, the conduit.
Even now, writing about this brings strong emotions to my heart and palpable vibrations to my soul—we as LDS people perpetuate a spiritual void that can only be filled by the visible contribution of our women in ways that validate and sustain their unique spiritual capacities. How long will it be before we, as a people, are moved upon by the spirit of truth and necessity to honor the God-given power of our women to bless and minister in unique ways? How long before our leaders hear the petitions of God’s daughters, uttering the words that Moses saw fit to utter in the case of Noah and her sisters who sought justice in their inheritance, “the daughters of Zelophehad speak right!” (Numbers 27:7)
In the meantime, I see more and more women` like my friend who are no longer asking for permission to do what the spirit compels them to do, and the ears of their daughters are hearing, the eyes of their sons are watching, and the faces of their husbands are smiling as their family units are enriched by these women stepping into their power. Additionally, it should be said that our religious communities lose the power and capacity of these women who distance themselves from formal worship, and yet, what option are they left with when they look into the eyes of their infant daughters, gifts from God to develop into powerful and capable women in Zion?
To protect the delicate divinity within their daughters, they choose to enrich and empower them outside formal religion that outsources their God-given authority and places their visibility behind what is seen and acknowledged. Like Yentyl, too many LDS women have been told what is their place and what isn’t. What questions to ask and which ones not to. What answers are approved, and which aren’t. Reminded that, while personal revelation is important, if it contradicts what is coming to us through our Priesthood leaders, it’s wrong. It is my hope that one day, as with our Jewish cousins, progressive minds and hearts will see a way to honor both tradition and lived experience, moving our theology forward to a more equitable representation of both men and women in ritual worship and congregational leadership. To those who argue that it cannot or should not be done, I find myself pushing back and again posing the question, “where is it written?”