Mujerista Theology, or Finding Sacredness amidst Poverty and Oppression

This post is part of Blessing the Sea 4.

Is search for the sacred a class privilege?

Or to put it differently, are the opportunities to touch the divine – beyond the formal religious settings open to the masses, like synagogues, churches, or mosques – luxuries afforded only to those who can afford them, and conversely, inaccessible to those who lack such resources?

These questions came up for me while I was listening to the prominent Chicana novelist, activist, and academic Helena Maria Viramontes deliver a talk at a writing convention this spring. In it, Viramontes turned the spotlight onto the acts of holiness in the communities engulfed in poverty and state-sponsored oppression. Violence and brutality can take us over, she surmised, whip us into a cycle of reactivity, make us forget our own uniqueness and worth. But we can still transcend them by noticing the sacredness of our surroundings, no matter what they are.

I remember how important it is to raise our eyes from instruments of distractions before it’s too late, before our rage ravages, and we dare not find the fortitude to name faces of flowers; once we hear the hoarse voices of the treetops. then describe them, once we see the way the ecosystem allows permission for us to exist, then be grateful, once it asks us to let go our ego, then do it. . . We become divine in the presence of holiness.” [i]

La vida es la lucha” | To struggle is to live

In her speech, Viramontes traced her ideas to the mujerista theology of Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, a Latina theological anthropologist who studied everyday forms of resistance in impoverished communities. [ii]

Before joining the academe, Isasi-Diaz, who had come to the US as a Cuban refugee, was a Catholic missionary in Peru. A missionary ethnographer? Why not?

To Isasi-Diaz, daily lives (lo cotidiano) are the central expression of “the most oppressed women in our communities who struggle to survive and flourish constantly.”

“Lo cotidiano constitutes the immediate space of our lives . . . where we meet and relate to the material world that is made up not only of physical realities but also of how we relate to that reality (culture), and how we understand and evaluate [it]. . . Lo cotidiano is what we face everyday and how we face it. . . It extends to our experience with authority, and our central religious beliefs and celebrations…

“Lo cotidiano refers to a simple world. It is a world where one has to take of what is scattered along the surface minute by minute: . . . how to feed the family today, how to pay for the oil or gas they need to heat their homes today, how to get money to buy the medicine their children need today. . . The urgency of lo cotidiano often makes it necessary for one to leave the causes or reasons for later, a ‘later’ that often does not come because the urgency of the present never diminishes.” [iii]

Mujerista theology also sees this daily life as intertwined with the Divine, in part because it is a space inhabited by popular religion, a mixture of pre-Colombian and Catholic practices: images of saints and of La Virgen, rosaries, blessings, retablos, home altars, and so on. This sacred space empowers poor and oppressed Latinas women to transform their reality, and “they transform it when they manage to survive by somehow providing shelter, food, clothing, medicines for themselves and their families.”

Everyday spaces, sacred spaces

The sacred is found in all of the practices we deem necessary to resist invisibility, degradation, and invalidation,” Viramontes suggests. “Everything we do can be considered acts against erasure, and hence sacred, a sacredness that heightens our state of being and answers to our instinctive urge to transcend. . . Our kitchens, gardens, special oak trees, porches or patios, workshops, and sidewalk views become. . .  sacred space where we recognize our existences, own our ways of being.

Examples of such sacred acts against erasure in the Jewish culture are the writings during, or as I prefer, despite or fighting back the Holocaust – Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, Primo Levi, the Piaseczno Rebbe.

But it can also come from connecting to the places where you are, not just existing in, or passing through, but noticing them, contemplating their relationship to you and your life, and engaging to transform them.

Similarly, Viramontes proposed several mujerista-based practices to enhance the spirit of synergy and creativity, including: “Commit to finding the sacred in everyday life. Build around those moments of grace. Believe in writing [or any other creative activity] as Scripture in its power to complicate, to create empathy, to direct us towards meaning.”

What I learned from Isasi-Diaz and Viramontes is that the response to moment-to-moment hardships and oppression – cultural, religious, economic, and so on – the response itself is a fulfilling, sacred act.


[i] Viramontes, H. M. (2020). “My Insurgent Heart: AWP 2020 Annual Conference Keynote Address.” The Writer’s Chronicle, 53(1), 21-27. September 2020.


[ii] Isasi-Díaz, A. M. (1996). Mujerista theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books.


[iii] Isasi-Díaz, A. M., “Lo Cotidiano: A Key Element of Mujerista Theology,” Journal of Hispanic / Latino Theology, 10:1 (Aug. 2002) 5-17, excerpted from pp. 5, 8-10, 14.

Spirit and Spunk of a Merchant’s Wife

This book review is part of Blessing the Sea 4 newsletter.

Gluckel of Hameln’s memoir has many layers. Written in simple, vivid language for her children over 300 years ago, it makes a surprisingly fast and lively read.

There are anecdotes galore – funny, heartwarming, or bizarre, like when she and her mother give birth to their babies in the same room and then can’t figure out which one is which. Or traveling under the protection of a family friend, who turns out to be an alcoholic, drinking himself to the point of “falling under the hedge near a pool of water.” Yet, as “he was, after all, a human being and a Jew,” it is now up to Gluckel to oversee his safe delivery home through all the taverns and inns of Holland and Hanover.

There is awareness of political news familiar to us today – European wars, the rise of court Jews, Shabtai Zvi’s affair – but still a lot more than simply the recollections of a merchant’s wife from the era of Louis XIV and Isaac Newton.

For one, the reality that Gluckel (1646-1724) portrays is quite different from today.

One of Gluckel’s earliest memories is among the most telling. When she is 2, her family, along with the rest of the Jewish community of about forty families, are expelled from Hamburg by the city council order.

They flee to a nearby town of Altona, owned by the Danish crown. Despite expulsion, Jews are still allowed to do business in Hamburg, so they commute daily to Hamburg from Altona, but doing so meant that “our poor folks took their life in their hands because of the hatred for the Jews rife among the dockhands, soldiers, and others of the meaner classes. The good wife, sitting home, often thanked G-d when her husband turned up safe and sound.”

Adapting to this ever-changing realities of living in an archipelago of micro-states that comprised Germany was an essential skill. If you’ve mastered it, you will, with G-d’s help, do well. If not, you may pay for it dearly.

How do you make it in a land where tolerance for Jews is on a scale of lukewarm to zero?

Relying, as Gluckel shows, first and foremost, on your family networks. Marriage, like Gluckel’s at 12, becomes an important step to secure a foothold in a particular town, or a connection with a particular family.

Family networks provide the wealth needed to start a business, secure patronage of a local ruler, find a rabbi, obtain education (in Gluckel’s case for both boys and girls), or a place to flee to. Gluckel’s husband Chayim, mostly a dealer in precious stones, was not among the richest, but his and Gluckel’s networks expanded into France, Netherlands, Poland, East Germany, and south to Switzerland.

Gluckel, a merchant’s wife in what we now call the Early Modern period, is inspiring in her leadership. While Chayim travels to trade fairs throughout northern and central Europe, Gluckel is running the household and raising their 14, yes, 14 kids, and yet is ever-present in Chayim’s business dealings. “Not that I mean to boast,” she writes with somewhat false modesty, “but my husband took advice from no one else, and did nothing without our talking it over together.” In another scene, she drafts a contract for her husband’s business partnership with an unreliable partner. When Chayim dies, Gluckel takes over and expands the family business, and with eight of her children still living at home, travels to fairs herself.

Faith was also essential to survival. Judaism provided Gluckel a framework complete with language, literature, observancies, calendar, and social networks.

Religious texts offer the comfort and explanation of the volatile world Jews are set to inhabit. The educated and pious, though not meek, Gluckel often speaks to G-d and quotes from the Tanakh, Pirkei Avot, the siddur, and even from the Talmud trying to make sense of it all.

Say your prayers with awe and devotion,” she instructs her children. “During the time for prayers, do not stand about and talk of other things. While offering your prayers to the Creator of the world, [do not] engage in talk about an entirely different matter. Shall G-d Almighty be kept waiting until you have finished your business?”

The most crucial event of her life, the one that she keeps returning to is Chayim’s death. And here too, she contemplates it as a woman who keenly feels G-d’s presence in her life.

When his soul took wing, there flew with at all my glory, wealth, and honor. My dear mother and her children sought to comfort me, but it was as oil poured upon fire, and my grief grew only worse for it. . . The days that the dear friend of my heart lay dead before me were not as bad as those that followed. Then it was my grief deepened hourly. But in His mercy, G-d at length brought me patience, so I have taken care of my fatherless children as far as a weak woman can, bowed with affliction and woe.”

Quoting Talmud’s teaching that “man is bound to give thanks for the evil as for the good” (Berakot Mishna IX), Gluckel is trying to come to terms with her loss:

I know that this complaining and mourning is a weakness of mine and a grievous fault. Far better it would be if every day I fell upon my knees and thank the Lord for the tender mercies He has bestowed on my unworthy self. I sit to this day at my own table, eat what I relish, stretch myself at night in my own bed, and even have a shilling to waste, so long as the good G-d pleases. I have my beloved children, and while things do not always go well, now with one, or the other, as they should, still we are alive. . . How many people there are in this world, finer, better, juster than I, . . . who have no bread to put into their mouths! How then can I thank and praise my Creator enough for all the goodness He has lavished upon us?

Simple wisdom? What could be deeper?


More on Gluckel. And read the book!

Meeting Life’s Challenges with Palms Together

This fall, I am participating again in a three-month practice period at Zen Center Los Angeles. Traditionally called Ango, this is the time of intensified practice to strengthen awareness and concentration, built around a particular theme. The theme of this year’s ZCLA Ango is gassho. As its website explains:

Gassho is the act of placing your two palms together without a gap between your two hands. [It] is a gesture of greeting and respect. It also acknowledges an offering and is in itself an offering of gratitude and appreciation. . .

When we are in a state of gassho, all opposites are unified as one. The practice is to keep closing the gaps between yourself and everything else. For example, you gassho to remember that there is no gap between your home and your place of practice; no gap between yourself and differing points of view; . . . no gap between the past and the future; no gap between you and your unhoused neighbors, and so on. Whatever you encounter, bring it together with yourself in the here and now of gassho.

You may consider these possible ways to practice gassho at home:

• Before turning on and off your computer.
• Upon entering a room and upon leaving.
• Before and after your meals.
• Upon greeting your partner and children.
• Before using a cooking pot.

• Before placing trash into the garbage.
• When getting into your car.

In my Jewish practice, I usually gassho when I complete my Jewish morning prayers, or finish reciting the Amidah during services. It’s a way for me to express gratitude to G-d, to exit meaningfully.

My personal commitment in this Ango and the entire year ahead is to learn, as ZCLA’s Roshi Egyoku put it in her video, “to gassho to all situations in our lives.” I will focus on practicing gassho as a way to respond to life’s difficult situations, how not to react to them rashly, or with anger, but to treat them mindfully with respect – as a challenge, as an offering.

Here is when, why, and how to gassho in the Soto Zen tradition:

Serialized Blog on Morning Prayers as Meditative Practice

In August-October 2020, the Applied Jewish Spirituality institute in Jerusalem, which offers classes and resources on Judaism and mindfulness, published my 3-part mini-blog called “Setting the Right Intention with Morning Prayers.” The series describes how to set up an individual spiritual practice that combines Jewish morning prayers with mindful techniques. It draws on both traditional Jewish prayers and psalms, and Buddhist texts, as well as my original photos. I’ve been using and modifying this practice for over a year since returning from the summer 2019 study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

I was motivated to write this blog by an ongoing interest in Judaism and Buddhism, in particularly, Zen. I’d been practicing meditation in the Soto Zen School tradition since the mid 1990s, and in 2016, after nine months of study and preparations at Zen Center Los Angeles, underwent jukai, a lay ordination, with a ZCLA affiliate. Meanwhile, I have remained deeply engaged with the Jewish faith and tradition.

I am touched to see Rabbi Daniel Raphael Silverstein introduce the last post in the October Applied Jewish Spirituality newsletter as follows: “The multi-talented writer and teacher Lane Igoudin recently completed his 3-part series on creating a personal liturgy that combines morning prayers with mindful contemplation. This final installment is especially beautiful and rich with concrete ideas for practice.

I am now working on new pieces that follow up “Setting the Right Intention” with more strategies for incorporating spiritual practices into daily life.

Article in The Forward: This High Holiday Season, We Are in Charge

Delighted with my first publication in a major Jewish newspaper: an opinion piece in The Forward on the challenges of celebrating Jewish High Holidays amidst the unprecedented synagogue and communal space lockdown. These extraordinary times offer an opportunity to create individual sacred spaces to celebrate the end of one Jewish year and the start of another. Our homes have already morphed into surrogate offices, schools, and playgrounds; now they’re about to become miniature synagogues 

Published in New York, The Forward is the oldest, continuously running (since 1897) Jewish news publication in the US, which for decades was the largest Jewish newspaper in the US, and at some point, had a wider circulation than The New York Times. Now entirely online, it has 50,000 subscribers and, according to its website, “more than a million unique visitors each month.”

Against Polarization

Something has changed drastically in the last several years in the political debates in the US: not so much the topics, but the debates themselves. They’ve gotten more virulent, either/or, “wish so-and-so gets sued; put in prison; catches COVID” kind of vitriol. My Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts are bloated with such posts from people standing on the opposite sides of the same issue.

How similar they are in their intolerance. What a sad spectacle it is to watch them demolish one another.

Complex issues today are reduced to a dualistic, either/or interpretation, as if there can only be two sides to any issue. If you believe yourself to be part of a certain camp, you must subscribe to its full agenda. Otherwise, you run the risk of being flogged by your own brethren and excommunicated.

A case in point. A friend of mine shared this Facebook post, which struck me as odd. I don’t see a contradiction. We should teach our kids – and I try to do it too – to be just and compassionate, so they could grow up into ethical, engaged citizens and be proud of the country they’ve built.

To me, it goes deeper as there seems to be a cultural shift underway from liberal inclusivity towards a new sort of tribal, compartmentalized fragmentation. As a product of the 1990s, I believe in tolerance and multiculturalism. My partner and I built our bi-religious, interracial adoptive family from many backgrounds, not excluding or devaluing one of the cultures, but welcoming all of them to create a new and vibrant whole.

And it worked. For decades, I have felt at home in this multicultural America, with friends and neighbors of all races, religions, and sexual orientations.

This inclusive, multicultural vision has been under attack from all sides, with a renewed preference of one over many, however that one is defined and reduced to, and deliberate deafness and blindness towards the others, towards diversity.

I refuse to let go of the inclusive, multicultural vision, however. I find it easier to withdraw from the debate, rather than participate in something that is flawed, incendiary, and ultimately destructive. I don’t avoid politics. I have my beliefs and preferences. I support certain candidates, sign petitions, participate in the protests, but will not engage in vitriol.

We are not becoming stronger, or winning new supporters by screaming louder, or insulting those who disagree with us. We can however, be stronger, if we are willing – actively willing – to engage in coalition building, to be less rigid, to explore the true, multi-dimensional complexity of issues, and to accept that even when we disagree with the others on some issues, we still value them. This discordant, but friendly inclusivity is what I hope to see return.

Setting the Right Intention with Morning Prayers: A Personal Liturgy

This is part 1 of a 3-part post I wrote for the Applied Jewish Spirituality blog about discovering the time and place for daily meditation in morning prayers.

My Hebrew name is Akiva ben Ariel. Akiva comes from Yaakov, ‘the follower’, in Genesis; Ariel being my father’s Hebrew name.

My dharma name is Kyojin, meaning ‘abiding in compassion’. I received it from my Zen teacher during jukai, a 700-year-old lay ordination ceremony, which culminated my years of study of Soto Zen Buddhism.

​These two spiritual names are not at odds. Continue reading…

 

Last Year in Jerusalem

In the summer of 2019, I was studying in an intensive program at the Conservative (Masorti) Yeshiva in Jerusalem. It turned out to be one of the most transformative experiences I’ve ever had. Here’s a brief account of my discoveries from that time.

Last year in Jerusalem… struck by a teaching of Rabbi Kook, explained to us passionately by Yiscah Smith, one of the yeshiva teachers. The Lord, she said, in creating you, has given you a unique spiritual path, and thus it is your religious (!) duty to follow your authentic path, and to remove any obstacles that might obstruct it. At once, my decade-long spiritual wanderings and the deepening faith are united; the exact junction of my life illuminated.

Last year in Jerusalem… hiking the hills in the Valley of the Cross near my home in Rehavia, the air heady with sage and fennel, much like the hills in Los Angeles, but the scent and the terrain somehow familiar to me deep within my bones.

Last year in Jerusalem… led into nigunim, wordless incantations sung acappella as a group, by the young, charismatic nigun teacher Joey Weisenberg. Our voices rise and fall, merge and separate, and after losing the count of repetitions (10th? 20th, 30th?), the measured, controlled sense of time falls aside, replaced by the sense of peace and shekhinah, the divine presence, right here in the heart of Jerusalem, which carries me like a cloud.

Last year in Jerusalem… transported 2,000 years back into the times of King Herod with a tour of underground tunnels, as I stand fifty feet below the crowded Old City on an excavated street running alongside the wall of the Temple. The street is narrow: I can physically touch the Temple wall with my right hand, and the stone beams of a house across with my left, while my feet are planted on the well-worn but intact cobblestone.
Who were my ancestors that would walk these steps bringing offerings to the Temple?
What offerings am I bringing?

Last year in Jerusalem… discovering the architecture of a Talmud page in a class taught by the charismatic Rabbi Joel Levy, and then battling over the meaning of each word, each phrase, with Sam, my havruta partner, as we join our skills – his in Hebrew and Aramaic, mine in literary analysis. And then the raucous discourse accumulated over centuries begins to take off the page: opinions, stories, fables, barbs flying back and forth and into outer space.

Basic color-coding of a Talmud page:

Mishnah (Palestine, 3rd century CE)
Gemara (Babylonia, 5th century CE)
Comments of Rashi (11th century, France)
Comments of the Tosafists (12th-13th cent., France/Germany)
Comments of R. Nissim ben Jacob (11th century, Tunisia)

Last year in Jerusalem… leading my first mincha (afternoon service) after a couple of weeks of basic training; my voice rough from a lingering cold, cutting the air of our study hall, which doubles as the yeshiva’s daytime synagogue. When after the first couple of lines, others are beginning to join in, I feel elevated because this is happening, the communal prayer – I can do it, I too can make it happen.

Last year in Jerusalem… a Shabbat dinner set on a balcony overlooking a winding, leafy street in Baka, a neighborhood southwest of the Old City. Our prayers, laughter, and the clicking of the wine glasses are echoing the prayers, laughter, and clicking of the wine glasses from the balconies next to ours and across the street. After dinner, our hosts take us for a stroll through the quiet, carless streets of a million-soul city, teens congregating in groups, adults conversing with each other, and I feel thankful for the experience and wistful to be in a place where this could be every Friday night.

Walking from the old City (L) to Baka (R)

Last year in Jerusalem… praying at the egalitarian section of the Wall by the Robinson’s Arch. Here, at sunrises on Wednesdays and at sundowns on Friday nights, away from the crowds and the hubbub of the gendered sections, I experience an intense sense of connection to the divine. With familiarity, my eye picks out one rectangular stone among many, the one with a subtly redder hue, as if beckoning me towards my unique, pre-determined path. If there is a spiritual center of the Universe, this is it, this is the ground zero.

Celebrating Int’l Family Equality Day with a Blog Post on FamilyEquality.org

Proud to share my guest blog post on the Family Equality website as part of the celebration of the International Family Equality Day (IFED 2020). To me as a gay parent, and a former refugee who has lived in different cultures, this cause – equal rights for LGBT families everywhere – is very dear to my heart.
Family Equality approached me for an essay a couple of months ago, and it has now gone live through its nationwide mailing list, Facebook, and Twitter. Take a look by clicking the photo below. Thank you for your time and sign up to stay in touch.
IFED Blog photo