Tuesday, July 31, 2012

One reason we're not Orthodox: Feminism

It's hard being in the middle of the road. Especially when people don't understand why you're there. My parents look at me and my wife and the fact that we "do religion" at all and assume that we're one step away from joining a Hasidic cult (to be fair, my grandfather did set precedence here). Meanwhile, Ortho folks online have pointed out that if I want to start keeping some mitzvot, I should be following normative halachic standards for doing so.

So at some point in the future, I will write a mega-post on all the ways and reasons why Mrs. Yid and I can't be Orthodox. For today, we'll just focus on one big one: Feminism.

Mrs. Yid and I are feminists, which I define as, "Women and men should be able to have the same privileges and autonomy." (I asked Mrs. Yid for her one-sentence definition and she just gave me a glare.) As such, Judaism's traditional gender roles are somewhat problematic-- not because gender roles in of themselves are always bad, per se, but rather because in maintaining those roles and boundaries within the context of a modern society, a lot of negative tools are often used-- such as guilt, coercion, or threats-- to keep people in line.

I also realize that there are areas where reasonable people can disagree on this issue. For instance, while I have no interest in praying in a men's section and my wife having to pray in a women's section, I acknowledge that some people-- men and women-- get something out of it, and depending on the parameters of this arrangement, assuming that the women are actually being treated respectfully in a manner that they're comfortable with-- could potentially be ok with. But while it's one thing to say that, per your halachic understanding, women can't be counted for a minyan (partnership minyans, while not without their own problems, have been a creative solution to this particular issue), it's crossing another line entirely when you say that if a woman is simply present without a mechitza, the entire minyan becomes invalidated. I'm sorry, that's when my tentative respect for halacha meets the road and I have to go with my fleeting secular values.

Part of my biggest problem is that seems that a lot of what goes on in Orthodox gender dynamics (both in and out of shul) has much less to do with halacha and much more to do with exerting control over people, and that really rubs me the wrong way.

Case in point: the 2012 Siyum celebrating the completion of the 7-year-Talmud study cycle. Check out the way the organizer and reporter work in the women's angle.

About 20 percent of the people in attendance will be women, said Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin, executive vice president for administration at Agudah, and the Siyum's chief coordinator. They will sit in upper tier seats and be hidden by a 12-foot-high mechitzah, a partition to separate men and women, fashioned from four tiers of curtain at a cost of $250,000. At 2.5 linear miles, it is the largest mechitzah ever created, says the organization. Women will watch the proceedings from behind the partition, on huge video screens. 
 Michelle Huttler Silver, a modern-Orthodox professional photographer, will be one of those women. She has studied Talmud in the past, though not as part of the Daf Yomi. "The fact that we can fill up not just this stadium, but so many places in the world, to celebrate the completion of Talmud is amazing," she said in an interview. "So many people uniting for the same cause is really the beauty of the event."

I's nice that some of these women don't have an issue with having to sit behind a tarp and watch the event that they're attending on TV, but how is it that no one has a problem with Agudah treating 18,000 frum women as if they were lepers? The tickets were sold for over $50 each, and the women knew they were going to be in their own section. Can't you assume they'll be dressed appropriately? Why the need to surround them in a tent? I know the genders are supposed to be separate during prayer and you shouldn't hear a woman sing, but when did this turn into, "Thou shalt never see a woman, ever!" Also, how big of an issue would it be for people to see a woman from across a stadium? Are Talmud scholars ordering X-ray glasses now? Wouldn't you think they'd be busy looking at the stage full of illustrious rabbis? And what kind of reporter, after hearing something like that, just parrots the fact that, "Wow, this mechitza is the biggest ever, and cost a ton of money!" Think of how much good that money could do if you put it towards charity, or even sponsoring more Torah study. And instead you pulled an Ashcroft. Go you, Agudah.

But it's not just the Haredi community that's on board the modesty train. Haaretz ran a column by a Modern Orthodox woman who also thinks that modesty is the best thing since sliced kugel. For your reading pleasure, I tied up Mrs. Yid and forced her to read it with me:

The other day, during a meeting at a coffee shop, I showed the producer I was meeting with a newspaper article about my latest Haredi film. The movie, intended for viewing by women only, had recently premiered at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival. Suddenly a man at the next table barged into the conversation, launching into a scathing diatribe: "These Haredim don't serve in the army and they live off government money! And this insanity about not hearing women sing is primitive. They're crazy!"

Me: Why is her film for women only? Would it be immodest for men to see it? I'm confused.

Mrs. Yid: I like how this screenwriter is so talented she had to pad her article with this random guy interrupting her. Tell me more of this pointless lead-in! What were you eating at the coffee shop? Was it a scone?
For those of us steeped in modernity, it is often impossible to see beyond the seductive bubble of popular culture. I wanted to tell this man that the headlines from Israel that had so enraged him, sensationalizing events perpetrated by extremists, were eliciting vicious and unwarranted attacks against all religious Jews, resulting in the proverbial baby thrown out with the dirty bathwater.
Me: Yes, the wackjobs in those stories were extremists, but it's an extreme example of the inherent problem in a culture that comes to value modesty over dignity. And you can bash modernity's "seduction" all you want, but that's not the same as actually making an argument for why modesty is important, much less good.

Mrs. Yid: Also, I think it's legitimate to be irritated with people not pulling their weight, especially when you're surrounded by other people that want to squish you.
Some 20 years ago, while a rising theater and film director, I experienced a profound sense of cognitive dissonance in my world. On the one hand, I yearned for spiritual meaning, inner wholeness and a lasting relationship, yet I was bombarded with advertising images depicting female beauty as utterly flawless and female pop stars performing sexually explicit acts peddled as women's liberation. The feminist in me wondered: What's wrong with this picture?
Mrs. Yid: Apparently the feminist in you is nuts. Yes, giving people freedom causes some people to go to extremes. What were you saying about throwing out babies with bathwater?

Me: If she's so well-versed in the entertainment industry, shouldn't she be aware of how much BS is involved in those female images and be better able to ignore them?

Mrs. Yid: I've noticed that when housewives wash their dishes on TV, everything is spotless and gets cleaned up really fast. Clearly I'm doing it wrong! Cue crippling self-doubt about my womanly worth!
Most of my female friends weren't married and many, under the duress of sexual permissiveness, had suffered pointless affairs and abortions, scarring them ineradicably. Upon further reflection, it became clear that the insidious force behind prevailing trends was a multibillion-dollar industry whose sole intention was to send us out to shop in the hope of remedying our gross inadequacies.
Mrs. Yid: Everyone is out to sell something, including rabbis. If you don't like it, don't do it. Use your brain. I mean, it's just as much within your rights to pick OJ as hippie-dom, but they also don't seem to have a lot of body issues without all the accompanying guilt complexes about tznius.

Me: Yeah, she's still just talking about how bad "society" is without explaining why people should specifically go the religious route, much less Orthodox Judaism. It sounds like all you really need is to turn your TV off.
While seeking to transcend this toxic cultural climate, I had an opportunity to step into the mysterious and remote world of Haredi Jews.
Me: I like how she describes them like a lost tribe. Or like she's on safari. And here I thought only heretical liberal Jews like me were shallow enough to do that.
I appreciated that tzniut (Jewish laws of modesty ) shifted focus from the body to the person, from objectifying and sexualizing women to valuing inner beauty. Though I didn't own a long skirt, I saw these ancient concepts as a refreshingly counterculture expression of female dignity and, ironically, I decided it was time to go shopping.
Mrs. Yid: So, it turns the focus onto the person, by which we mean that if you show half-an-inch too much leg you get tomatoes thrown at you? Sorry, that's extremist. Ok, what if I wear a too-flashy gray sweater? Surely I won't get any yentas carping on about how I'm tramping up the community and not keeping the mitzvah, right? Oh wait.

Me: Tell me more about how unsexualized women are. From behind the giant curtain I made so I don't have to look at you, you super-respected bunch of Eshetot Chayil!
True, many Haredi traditions were more difficult to understand. I remember a Shabbat kiddush where the women sat in the kitchen while the men occupied the dining room. I bristled at first, but then realized how much I loved the warmth and holiness I experienced. I unexpectedly began to see virtues in gender separation. In my Hollywood world, where Jen's husband, Brad, goes off to make a sexy movie with Angelina and never comes home again, it doesn't take a genius to see that glamorizing society's lack of gender boundaries doesn't promote healthy marriages or family values.
Me: And teaching your daughters they belong in the kitchen promotes great values, right? 

Mrs. Yid: Gender separation makes sense for High-school bathrooms. Having a random dinner conversation, not so much. What holy things are the men talking about that might be ruined by having ladies around? Also, the fact that you feel warm and fuzzy hanging with your girlfriends is not a good argument for why you shouldn't be allowed to be in the same room when "guy-talk" is happening. Plenty of ladies have spa days or girls' night out, what they don't do is decide they can't be in the dining room when men are present "just in case" they have an affair. Take some damn responsibility, lady!
True intimacy, as Torah tells us, can only be built on a foundation of inviolable trust. A Haredi woman would be horrified if her actions or appearance were to attract another woman's husband. I could embrace such sensitivity.

Me: Why is it a woman's fault if the man is attracted to her? Her job should not be to spend her life running away from potential horn-dogs. Even if we accept the premise that men are incurable sex fiends, isn't it the goal of Torah to refine the human spirit? How about putting more strictures on the MEN so they can elevate themselves above their animal instincts?

Mrs. Yid: You know, it's not very feminist of this lady to support controlling other ladies' lives and behavior to avoid tempting men. If you really want to avoid husbands being attracted, just blindfold them. Stop playing into the idea that anything a woman does is an invitation for sex. You taking dinner out of the oven does not equal, "Hey Avram! Check out my tuchus!"
Can Haredi culture go overboard in its quest for modesty? When women are denied a voice or when intimidation is used to hinder critical thinking, there is a problem.

Mrs. Yid: Like when you don't let women participate in conferences about women's issues? Like that?
And assaulting women, either physically or verbally, in the guise of enforcing tzniut is unconscionable. As Adina Bar Shalom, daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, recently asserted, "The exclusion of women from the public domain violates Torah. Halakha treats women with the utmost respect."
Me: I sense a "No True Scotsman" here.

Mrs. Yid: What about agunot? Halacha seems pretty biased against women there.

Me: I would be able to take this "That's not real Halacha" argument more seriously if the Modern Orthodox community was aggressively standing up for the rights of its women and advocating to give them the widest possible latitude as permissible by halachic standards. Instead we get dog-piling on Orthodox liberals like Avi Weiss, a lot of sliding to the Haredi right and a small and not very vocal centrist group that acknowleges this stuff is crazy but doesn't seem to have any idea how to combat it.
On a recent trip of mine to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Rebbetzin Dusia Rivkin recounted to me a visit to her son, a Chabad emissary in New Orleans. At their Shabbat table sat several colorful, non-Orthodox students from Tulane University. Mrs. Rivkin, appalled by their unseemly conversations, voiced concern about the negative impact on her young grandchildren. Rabbi Rivkin responded, "The Lubavitcher Rebbe promised that if I took care of his children, he would take care of mine." Mrs. Rivkin, regretful of her judgmental attitude, understood that it was incumbent upon Haredim to impart the beauty of Torah, especially to those who have never experienced it.
Me: First, how actually "colorful" or "unseemly" was this conversation? Were these kids swearing or talking about drinking, drugs or sex in front of little kids? Or were they, chas v'shalom, talking about a lady professor wearing pants? Wait, was it unseemly because they mentioned Jews going to university? Because that's kind of not their fault. Second, assuming they were actually being rude in front of the shaliach's kids, this stuff can be avoided if you establish respectful boundaries ahead of time-- or do some thinking and determine that maybe you don't want your nine year old to have Shabbat dinner with frat boys, Jewish or otherwise. Also, how is the ghost-rebbe going to protect these children? Sounds kind of creepy?

Mrs. Yid: How are lady Haredim going to impart the beauty of Torah to others when they're deliberately shut out from educational opportunities? And how are dudes going to be able to impart the beauty of Torah to women if they're dressed inappropriately? Unless they're religious Muslims, of course, but that might be a hard sell.
Orthodox Judaism is a treasure trove, but it's the middle road, what King Solomon called "the path of pleasantness," that doesn't impose strictures on others or reject those with differing views. This is what will inspire the world toward a more civilized and harmonious future.
Me: Not to be mean, ma'am, but you're no King Solomon. If you want to try to convert people (religiously or just rhetorically), you have to actually talk about why your way is good, not just why theirs is awful.

Mrs. Yid: Doesn't impose strictures on others? What Orthodox Judaism are you looking at? Your cheerful rainbow umbrella is not an umbrella. It's a series of shoeboxes where you define everybody in it by what kind of skirt they wear.

On this one, it's Liberals: 1, Orthodox: 0. If you think I'm wrong or off-base, feel free to tell me in the comments.


Antigonos said...

Once again, FY, you are conflating ultra-Orthodox viewpoints with mainstream, and modern Orthodox. The woman you quote is haredi.

How about a mechitzah that goes from the bimah to the back of the shul, down the middle, with the men on the right and the women on the left? That is waist high with some very unobtrusive open grillwork to shoulder height? That splits during the Torah reading, the women having their own reading from a Torah scroll, with aliyot and with the usual cantillation, in an adjacent room [the reader is a woman, too]?

How about an entire religious kibbutz, which sings zemirot together on Friday nights and Saturday lunch, men and women together, just as the men and women both can join the Daf Yomi group in the evening and they have two mikvaot, one for the women [with a hairdresser twice a week] and one for the men. Incidentally, many Mizrachi religious women wear slacks, pointing out that [1] the prohibition is against wearing A MAN'S clothes, not women's clothes tailored in styles similar to men's, and [2] the traditional costume of some Mizrachim included trousers for women [Yemenites, for example] No one throws anything at them.

How about women who choose to wear tzitzit [in point of fact there were several rebbetzins in Eastern Europe in the 19th century who did so]? Who choose to cover their hair only when davvening? The women of R. Samson Rafael Hirsch's congregation in Germany in the same era did so, without criticism.

When your wife has to work the evening shift on Fridays, you can light Shabbat candles, you know, and she can make Kiddush in your absence.

The Agudah is not Orthodox, it is haredi. They are welcome to their way; they don't tell me how to live my life and I don't accept that they have any right to interfere. I justify myself to God, and no one else. Blu Greenberg, the wife of an Orthodox but thoroughly modern rabbi, and who considers herself a feminist, has written a book entitled "How to Run a Traditional Jewish Home" [dreadful title]. You both might enjoy it.

Friar Yid said...

Antigonos- How do you personally differentiate Haredim from Modern Orthodox? I feel like it may be easier to make that distinction in Israel vs. the Diaspora, but I'm interested in your take.

The woman describes herself in her article as Modern Orthodox. I will take your word for it that her views are more representative of the Haredi world, but that sleight of hand encapsulates part of the dilemma Mrs. Yid and I have been having -- the visible and vocal Orthodox Jews we hear about seem to all be parroting Haredi positions and alternating viewpoints seem to be either much less common, or below the radar.

I absolutely agree that your various examples, while still somewhat jarring to my own aesthetics, sound much more sensible and sane. It sounds like the communities you're discussing have managed to figure out reasonable parameters for combining halachic requirements with not abusing or bullying female participants, which I think is an incredible and valuable counter-point to the Haredi approach.

I'm curious, though, how representative are these communities of where most of the Orthodox world is these days? Do you think that these approaches to tznius & gender are representative of, say, 50% of Orthodoxy? 30%? That's part of what I'm struggling to figure out. My impression is that the Haredi model is not only growing ever-stricter, but also that its influence is continuing to encroach on Modern Orthodoxy's hashkafa (especially in America), which I find rather upsetting.

I was somewhat aware of the historical roles women took upon themselves, such as the Maiden of Ludmir and the practices of of European geodlim who didn't require their wives to cover their hair or insist on separate seating at every occasion. I freely admit that I'm still working on trying to hash out my own biases and try to figure out exactly what makes sane Orthodoxy tick. That said, I'm finding it rather difficult, and I'm not sure whether to attribute that to Haredi gains in the "market share" or that the MO community is not interested in standing by its guns.

It's funny you mention Blu Greenberg. I bought a copy of her book for Mrs. Yid a few years ago. My impression is that she finds it quite dated but seems to enjoy reading it for chuckles.

S. said...

I'll raise you one. There were women at the siyum in MSG 7.5 years ago. In the nosebleed seats, to be sure. But there was no mechitzah. What changed in less than 10 years that one is required now?

Friar Yid said...

And not only that, if in 7 years they've gone from a women's section to a velvet cage, where are they going to be in another 7? Or 14?

Sorry if I'm being a hater about this, but I just can't see raising children in such a community-- or one that didn't feel secure enough it its own leaders and standards to object to this kind of craziness happening.

Antigonos said...

FY, because of length restrictions on comments here, I'll reply on my blog.

Watch this space, as they say, or rather, watch that space :-)

Friar Yid said...

Will do. Looking forward to your thoughts.

Friar Yid said...

Correction- I have been informed that Mrs. Yid has in fact found Blu quite helpful to get an "insider's view" on how a normative Orthodox household works in practice. She does seem to find her Martha Stewart-iness a little weird, though.

zach said...

I'm an NLP'er (not neurolinguistic programmer, but No Longer Practicing) who was always unhappy with the status of females in Orthodoxy. Yet I think the mechitzah has served its primary purpose well. Decorum in most Orthodox shuls is appalling enough as is; mixing horny boys & girls together would only detract that much more from what is supposed to be a spiritual experience and make it more like an NCSY get together. Architecture permitting, the rabbi & sheliach tzibbur (male of course, that isn't changing anytime soon) at center, along with laining & such.

Friar Yid said...

Thanks for your comment Zach!

Decorum in most Orthodox shuls is appalling enough as is; mixing horny boys & girls together would only detract that much more from what is supposed to be a spiritual experience and make it more like an NCSY get together.

I've heard this argument, but I have to say I'm not so sure I buy it. Yes, there are some people (and certain key age groups) that have trouble controlling themselves, but I don't understand why someone would want to extrapolate that lowest-denominator onto one's entire community. If part of OJ is supposed to be working on being holy and using structure and discipline to exercise self-control, it seems to me that the idea of mechitzah (particularly extreme ones) actually contradict that idea. How much self-control does it take to not slobber over women if you structure your shul so you never have to ever look at them?

Granted, I am not shomer negiah and neither is anyone I know, so our standards about what's appropriate are not identical to Orthodox Judaism's, but I've been to my fair share of mixed seating services and only once or twice have I ever gotten the impression that some people were more interested in checking out fellow parishioners than davening or following the service.

Perhaps this can be traced to both the fact that OJ has a lot of gender separation in general (which, IMO, tends to fetishize/sexualize the opposite sex far more than casual contact), and the fact that OJs, particularly men, regularly daven far more often than liberal Jews. If liberal Jews are dragging themselves to shul on a weekend (much less a weekday, for the particularly committed), it's not going to be to check out the hot folks. They can do that at home.

Antigonos said...

Oh yes, the ultra-Orthodox are the most sexually obsessed group I've ever encountered. Makes the Victorians look positively libertine.
I occasionally get the odd [literally and figuratively] husband in my Women's Health Center who won't look at me, but stares off into space while he mumbles that his wife sent him to pick something up, or who very carefully will put the kupah magnetic card on the far corner of the desk so that there is no way I can reach it before he withdraws his hand, thereby eliminating even an inadvertent touch.

Every time this happens, I remember Mrs. Lichtenstein,z"l, the wife of one of the owners of the Lichtenstein & Holder bookstore in Meah Shearim. She was an extremely pious, wig-wearing Hungarian lady who had survived the Holocaust, and her looks showed it. Fat, wrinkled, old, could not have been described as sexually attractive by the farthest stretches of the imagination. When some young yeshiva bochur would ask the floor for a book, she'd snap at him: "You can talk to ME, sonny. If I turn you on, you need a pyschiatrist".

As for Blu Greenberg's "Martha Stewartness" -- in the Balabosta Olympics, that's par for the course. I'm a better Jew[ess] than you because I scrub more. However, as I tell my frantically cleaning neighbors each Pesach, dirt isn't hametz. I leave the dirt :-) Life is too short.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Oddly ultra-feminists, the real man-haters out there, have much in common with UltraOrthodoxy since they want a total separation from men just like UO men want a total separation from women.

Antigonos said...

Blog post's up at:


Friar Yid said...

Garnel-- Maybe the two groups can get together and make those gender-separated sidewalks/streets a reality.

Better yet, entire gender-segregated neighborhoods or cities! They'll never have to look at the "wrong" gender again!

Antigonos said...

Thought this might interest you:
http://www.jpost.com/JewishWorld/JewishFeatures/Article.aspx?id=279896 or http://tinyurl.com/blhlnaa

Antigonos said...

I not only don't live in a religious neighborhood, I live in an almost entirely Mizrachi one, yet this is only one block away:

Now, if Mrs. Yid were here, she might find classes that would interest her...now that I'm retired, I might just begin some in the fall.