Rita Gross: Soaring and Never Settling
By Dr. Arlette Poland
I was a lawyer. I had a successful practice although unconventional in many ways. Then, I got the urge. Some call it a ‘calling.’ It was time for me to be a professor, a teacher. The question was what shall I teach or profess. At first I thought it was law-related things since that described most of my education and life experience. I had taught Yoga Philosophy for 14 years, privately. I was a certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher. I dabbled in Pilates as a student and teacher. I meditated every day for several decades. All those years, I was teaching and never realized how much joy that work gave me.
Once in graduate school to attain the Ph.D in Philosophy in Religion with emphasis on women’s studies in religion, I came across Rita Gross. What an experience she became in my further unfolding as a feminist. I had already been a feminist in the context of law and politics. In like manner as Rita, I changed to another career but kept the feminist eyes and heart. As Rita shifted and searched through various religions, she nurtured her feminist side consistently. It was her unbridled seeking that drew me to her. I admire anyone who follows their own ‘calling’ regardless of the road that answers it. Rita’s twists and turns echoed some of mine, as I traveled from one profession to another and from one religion to another.
I was raised a Christmas Tree and Easter Egg Christian. At 36 years of age, I learned I was born Jewish. I then began an intense study and practice in that direction. However, even that part of my journey was not singular, any more than Rita’s turns had been. I was also studying and teaching Yoga Philosophy. I was teaching Iyengar Yoga and I was studying some of the new American Religions. As I entered graduate school and ‘met’ Rita via her writings, I felt in her kindred drive. Her soaring helped mine.
I remember I took a few classes in Buddhism from a Theravadan Nun from Thailand. This Bhikkuni was strict and not particularly kind to me. I had no issue with that. I was surprised and somewhat amused, however, when I wanted to use Rita’s book Soaring and Settling: Buddhist Perspectives on Contemporary Social and Religious Issues as a resource for one of my papers and the Nun felt that Rita was not properly Buddhist. She would not allow me to use any reference from or to Rita for the paper. I did not ask why. My feelings for Rita at that time were already deep and sisterly, so I knew that Rita would not want or need to be defended. Rita was my special friend and our relationship, while book-based, was real to me and could not be broken.
A few years later in graduate school, I was working on my dissertation and Rita figured prominently as a resource and a nudge. All of her writings that I knew about involved challenges to systems. These challenges inform me today as I teach and write. I think this was my favorite attribute of her writing. This was a woman who told it like it was from her unique and multi-layered perspective. I felt a kindred connection with her in that way. Her claim to that level of freedom of expression moved me into my own… and with that style and audacity.
In the years since graduating and as a Professor, I am now still a fan and disciple of Rita Gross. Her no-nonsense approach sits alongside the instructions from Alfred North Whitehead about teaching (Aims of Education). He advised that we inspire the student to fall in love with the subject first. With Rita’s nudging in my heart, I push and prod the students to recognize the joy and incredible possibilities that lie in the subject being taught. I keep in mind her admonition from Feminism and Religion: An Introduction. One of her closing statements became a central theme in my studies: “Nothing so stimulates one’s imagination about the possibilities of religion than thorough study of or continued dialogue with a completely different perspective.” (1996, 245) This was a woman who walked her talk. Her spiritual path exhibited her determination to meet this challenge. Now, my teaching and life follows her lead.
Rita Gross was uncompromising and lived what she advocated. My impression of Rita Gross was and continues to be of a woman who searched, found and searched some more. She soared and never settled. I thanked her then. I thank her now. I will thank her again when I get to meet her soaring in another life.
Arlette Poland, Ph.D., J.D., is a university professor whose specialty lies in Buddhism, Judaism, and Science and Religion. She is also a Dharma student, bodhisattva and feminist. Dr. Poland lives in Palm Desert in Southern California. She is a frequent contributor to American Buddhist Women. For questions or comments she can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org