CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR
Tell me about White Fire, what is the book about?
The subject is about a pilgrim, a spiritual pilgrim-someone who is looking and wondering where we are.
White Fire, what does the title mean?
In the Talmud, the commentaries to the Torah, and in the Five Books of Moses, the text reads: “Torah is written with black fire upon white fire.” Consider perspective…if women are like white fire and one can not read that text-the foreground / background conundrum, one misses a message. This is a book whose content involves the message of considering another perspective, “the other half of the sky” as John Lennon said, quoting Chairman Mao, about women.
Who do you want to read White Fire?
I would like anybody whose interested in just trying to find another way to live in the world now with some slim hope that things could be different to read this book. Women spiritual leaders are changing faith groups. Their energy is changing faith groups; they have a different style of the way they do things. Many men have come up to me and said: “This is the first time I’ve ever hugged and kissed a rabbi.” If women are more accessible, then maybe the feminine is not the transcendent distant entity.
As a religious representative it’s not just that you are a woman in a position of authority, you really are representing in someway a different face of the divine. Maybe, that could make a difference too about global pronouncements of what can change. At the very least anybody who reads this book will acknowledge that maybe there really is a different way that hasn’t been tried. And the reader is left with some hope.
But now that women are in leadership I think that we have a profound responsibility to seize that authority we’ve been given. And as outsiders to seriously challenge the status quo. I read the newspaper everyday. Is no one awake to stop what’s going on? Who has any way of stopping the direction we are going? I know that ministers during the holocaust spoke from the pulpit, many who were not killed, were arrested. To call yourself a spiritual leader today, you should be afflicting the comfortable. If you can’t comfort the afflicted, let’s just go after afflicting the comfortable.
Is this a political book?
Politics is basically anytime two people sit down together. The only place that I can talk about the Middle East or any aspect of peace is out of the political world because I don’t know politics. But I can speak from a place of spirit. And I’m not a pacifist.
The war is the war against the dominant who use their power to dominate others. I say the war is against those with the will to dominate and we can’t do it the same way. We can’t just dominate them. We have to do it another way, with love. And every woman I spoke to in this book said basically the same thing.
Why did you choose the women you interviewed? Did you find women who represented different aspects of religion and spirituality?
First of all, I wanted to make sure that every major faith group was represented. Then I wanted a certain mix of ministries and I’m talking about witches and everybody. I think that most of these women whether they want to or not adorn a new day because they are women. Even the ones who are most traditional, Rebbetzin Jungreis, for example. No rabbi’s wife has ever done what Rebbetzin Jungreis does; her authority to fill Madison Square Garden, put together multiple marriages. The Carmelites, sequestered nuns in Indiana, they produced this completely audacious book that is called the Companion to the Brethrey. It’s sold over 200,000 copies. It’s not a companion to anything, it just is it.
For me, I like to see all the different ways their passion might take. Susan Cook, a Baptist minister, said to me that at first all her colleagues were male. She was the first of everything. Who was there before her? Guys, she’s following guys. She starts doing a little research into the story of Ruth, women’s power. She starts speaking from that place. That’s when she starts to become her own minister. That’s when she finds her ministry as a woman. I think in many ways what I was looking for as I wrote the book was as many different ways as I could find.
There are women, and Starhawk is one, who is from a Jewish family and then goes away from that tradition. Do you think this says something about the times?
Starhawk is a wonderful case in point because the other thing that I think is characteristic of women, like it or not, is they’re “syncretists.” I think the times absolutely demand it.
First of all, the center of the old no longer holds. Not in relationships that are supposed to last a lifetime, not in family structure, nothing is holding. The idea is that the transcendent, the G word, whatever you want to call it, that’s the rock. That’s the piece that is unmovable in the continuously empowering experience we call life. Matthew Arnold- living between two worlds, dying and waiting to be born. So, that’s the other reason women are in this place today.
Religion ceased to have relevance some 35 years ago, so in a declining institution here come the girls. They’re speaking from another place and I’m not going to go into whether women are inherently different. I have no idea. But I do know this-women have been kept outside. That I know is true. As a Jew, I know that, as a lesbian, I know that.
Judaism teaches that the experience of being powerless and being repressed and being prejudiced against is part of the lesson. Part of the lesson is God’s grace and the other part of the lesson is not to trust human beings but to bring forth in yourself the most generous and compassionate peace. And I’m not going to say that women are better at that than men but I am going to say that anyone who has been kept outside the door a long, long time has great sensitivity to it and can use it for the sacred. I think one piece of it is the reason women are slipping and sliding around not being nice girls who color within the line. And they’re reaching…first of all many of them came from different backgrounds. Nobody said to them at 8 years old: “Oh are you going to grow up to be a minister, are you going to grow up to be an Episcopal priest?” No. Many of us started out from very, very different places, with different skills. I’ve met women who were television producers, all kinds of people who are now ministers. It’s a mixing and matching in religion that’s always gone on. You read Jewish poetry from around 100 c.e., you hear a Persian influence, you even hear it before that. All traditions-Christianity is a complete borrowing from Judaism, so it isn’t just that women who are doing it but all people are.
It used to be that when you went to a seminary they didn’t teach you how to lead a service. The service was always read the same way. They didn’t have classes in how to write a sermon, how to lead a service. You’ve got to really speak to who those people who are out there. And we come from a really different place than generations before. You know… what did my people do on a Sunday? They had no money. Now, our people get in their cars, they play tennis. I don’t have all afternoon, I’ve got to get them NOW.
This brings up a question about celebrity with the women you interviewed. Didn’t Marianne Williamson give up her very large pulpit and start again in Detroit?
That’s the risk, the work is always personal. As of last May, Marianne had resigned the pulpit and in the interview she said: ” I don’t know if they want a Jewish woman.” That’s the thing about these Jews-Starhawk calls herself Jewish, Sylvia Boorstein calls her self Jewish and Marianne Williamson saying: “I don’t know if they want a Jewish woman as a minister. It’s a church and they may not want to go in that direction. I’d like to rename this place the Renaissance Spiritual Center.”
They did re-name her church but in a couple of months they wanted a minister. I think she’s trying to reach everybody. She talks much more about Jesus than she used to even in her Course in Miracles work.
Did you find when you interviewed the women who are celebrities that it hindered their spiritual work?
I have a very small community here (HaMakom) and I get letters; stuff that if I had gotten when I was 25, I’d be in trouble. Absolutely, because if we are all made in the divine image, then when somebody comes to me in their naked need, it awakens in me this piece which is: in that moment that somebody comes to me, they need God’s face. And so I am there. That’s my best job.
When you are marketed, you begin to forget the source of the gift. It doesn’t belong to you. These people (Williamson) have 50,000 ! in attendance. They can travel anywhere. It is a cult of celebrity, ego-essence. The essence I’m talking about is where the work gets done.
Did you like the women you interviewed?
I think a lot of these women have done a great deal of personal work. They are worried about their own spiritual lives. I have to speak from the spirit of the book. When I read the book, I’m inspired again. I really felt that everyone I met was sincere. They really felt that they were serving. And I felt that, also. I went in to this as an investigator, for sure. But don’t forget the investigation comes from a very personal place-my own experience and my own challenges. I was looking for their best. That’s what my intention is. Today I am convinced that the only place some things are going to get changed is in small places.
What do you feel comes out of the book, a description of the personality, spirituality, a description of the times?
All of the above. Because first of all, the vessel is very important. It’s not just personality, it’s the physical being. You use what you have. Some of these women are very quick and very funny. Some of them are very pleasant. If you didn’t have personality…I mean is God that interesting?
No, what interests me about God is how it manifests in the world. Watching the parades… so the personalities of the women are very important to me. Some of them would make great CEOs and they may know how to seize the moment. Jean Houston found the labyrinth, Lauren Artress made it in to a whole big thing with keychains and coasters and the whole business. Other women I’ve met who have tremendous stuff going on don’t have that piece. I think that the book is about where is God today in this world? Where is it happening that people are finding the transcendent and putting it in to their lives? Where are people finding a practice for themselves? People want something in their lives that holds them, that defines them, that helps them understand what their purpose is. And a large part of where that is, is in women’s spiritual leadership. The times definitely call for this.
I think what I was really trying to do here in giving great variety in personality, practice, the constraints of different faith groups-ranging from Catholicism, Islam, Orthodox Judaism to completely feminine centered traditions like Wicca or Yorba is to show that this is a voice that needs to be heard. And to be heard in this time. This is the way that people have come back to religion in many cases. Because the women who are doing the work LOVE the work. I didn’t meet one who said “I can’t wait to retire.” If you love what you’re doing, you are going to be a shameless proselytite for your way. That alone makes people feel that they are really wanted.
She really wants me to come to this coven, she really wants me to be at this event. It’s a way in which perhaps men maybe haven’t really reached out to people. And that’s all we want from God. We just want somehow from God…you know, wake up in the morning and say “Hello God, here I am again, it’s Malka.” “I’m so glad you’re here Malka. That’s why I gave you your life back today. We need you on this earth.” Women are giving that message in their fervor to people.
There’s a lot to do with healing. We as a culture developed a belief that science and technology are the only true answer. Here we are now and we find ourselves in horrible situations with terminal diseases of our own and people we love very much. Science can’t really help us, technology can’t really help us and the therapists we go to can only help to a certain point. What’s left? There is an amazing idea that praying for people might actually make a difference. I’m not talking about curing. I’m saying that women have been at the forefront of bringing the language of healing and creating healing services across the board. Healing is essential. We want to die with some sense of peace. We want to let go of somebody who is dying with with some sense of peace. That’s the healing part. And a number of women in the world-Debbie Friedman in Judaism, Diane Winley and her denomination of Protestantism speak of the language of healing.
Let’s talk about the Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders which you attended in Geneva in October 2002.
There were all these different women there to talk about peace. How are you going to do that today without disintegrating in to everyone’s individual opinions? Iraq, Israel is that what we get together to talk about. No. We’ve got to talk about how we can bring this to a different level? And one of the best ways I would do it, is to make friends with somebody who’s from a group that you’ve been told to fear and stay away from. Make a friend there. Every Holocaust Rescuer I spoke with had some relationship to Jews, however tenuous, before they saved them. And that didn’t happen in Geneva.
Many years ago I went to a conference in Bendorff Germany. The place is sort of like a convent but there are no nuns there. I went for a walk one day while I was there-in this beautiful German village in the country side. I saw a cemetery and it is for the Jews in Bendorff and the last grave is 1938. The cemetery went all the way back to the 1500s. The cemetery was probably half-full.
There I am, sitting in intimate groups at the conference with German Lutherans, Catholics and Muslims and they are pointing the finger at me about Israel’s imperialism. That’s hutzpah! Did I really say the trouble I was having? No, I realize that people are so eager in these conferences to play well together that you aren’t given the opportunity to really speak what’s in their heart. I don’t know what there really is to say, except to sit down with another woman in any part of this world and just allow your fear and your grief to reach me and let me feel safe enough to let you see mine. And in this place we are mothers. I mean what if every mother didn’t let her son go to war?
Are you trying to do this with your book, get people to sit down in a non-confrontational way and make friends with these women?
Yes and that’s why I really did look for the place where I could make connection and express my affection for them. Some of the women were so different from me, some of the interviews were difficult. For me, I had to do two things: one be an ambassador of my people and myself and two: be open and clear-minded that I was open-hearted to these women. I hope that people who buy the book will find one of these women to fall in love with.
It doesn’t matter who.
Conversation with Malka Drucker on the release of her book, White Fire: A Portrait of Women Spiritual Leaders in America.