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Monday, July 11, 2016

Rabbinic Sexism Is Not Religious


Here is a screenshot photo from a video posted to Facebook July 7, 2016 by Israeli nonprofit group Women of the Wall. It shows religious men ripping up the prayerbook, to applause and cheering, of a group of women who have gathered to pray at the Western Wall, the only remnant of the holy Jewish Temple and the holiest Jewish site on earth.

The group doing the praying is controversial among Orthodox Jews. It fights for nontraditional (read: non-Orthodox, pluralistic) freedom of worship for women at the wall who are engaged in doing things that men traditionally do. This includes reading from the Torah, and wearing tallis and tefillin.

The sight of this video literally nauseated me. This among numerous other visible manifestations of condescension, sexism and outright woman-hatred that are unthinkingly considered part and parcel of Orthodox Judaism.

“Deborah, a prophetess…judged Israel.” — Judges 4:4
With regard to this verse, R. Berekhiah had four sayings: Woe unto the living who need help from the dead; woe unto the strong who need help from the weak; woe unto the seeing who need help from the blind; woe unto the generation that has to be led by a woman.” — Midrash Tehillim 22:20, cited in Bialik & Ravnitsky, The Book of Legends/Sefer Ha-Aggadah

I didn’t set out to be the big feminist criticizer of Judaism but that’s looking like the path I’m on right now. And it makes some people uncomfortable.

More than once I’ve been asked, nicely and not, to please “keep it down.” I am told that I speak “against the Rabbis.”

There are worries — well by now they’re probably more like solid perceptions — that my type of talk will get our family “in trouble” with the “invisible hand.”

They don’t use those words. But we all know that they exist: “the system,” the hidden decision-makers, the ones who quietly decide, by whispers and word of mouth, who is kosher (for inclusion in the community of believers) and who has crossed the line into apikorsus, heresy.

The requests carry with them the quiet weight of a threat. 

I know of more than one woman who began covering her hair and pretending to be ultra-Orthodox, solely “to help the girls get married.”

I know of men who feel they have witnessed rabbinic sexual abuse but will never speak out for the same reason. “The family (meaning its marriage prospects) would be finished.”

You may think such pressure would not affect me; many think that because my public name and my pen name is Dannielle that I am only part of the secular world. But like other Orthodox Jews, I am subject to what other people think, of course. It's a small community.

And I live a dual life, and I know how to “pass.”

Every day I wake up and say Modeh Ani and wash Negel Vaser. I put on a crocheted French beret, a way of covering my hair in the Orthodox tradition. That person is “Dossy, wife and mother.”

I pick out my clothes and depending on what I wear for the day. Normally that is a work-appropriate pair of pants, a blazer and a shirt with professional jewelry. That person is known in the secular world as “Dannielle, the professional communicator.” And at work, we keep our religious preferences to ourselves.

A few weeks ago I would not have put myself into any conversation about Orthodox Judaism. For I would have called myself “Conservadox,” meaning I believe in the principles of Conservative Judaism and the principles of Orthodox Judaism and try to knit them together.

But the more closely I examine myself, the more I realize that the term “Conservative” doesn’t describe me. Not because I’m perfectly observant, but because I believe in Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith which are considered the fundamental basis of Orthodox Judaism. These are quoted below as described by Chabad.org.
1. Belief in the existence of the Creator, who is perfect in every manner of existence and is the Primary Cause of all that exists.
2. The belief in G‑d’s absolute and unparalleled unity.
3. The belief in G‑d’s non-corporeality, nor that He will be affected by any physical occurrences, such as movement, or rest, or dwelling.
4. The belief in G‑d’s eternity.
5. The imperative to worship G‑d exclusively and no foreign false gods.
6. The belief that G‑d communicates with man through prophecy.
7. The belief in the primacy of the prophecy of Moses our teacher.
8. The belief in the divine origin of the Torah.
9. The belief in the immutability of the Torah.
10. The belief in G‑d’s omniscience and providence.
11. The belief in divine reward and retribution.
12. The belief in the arrival of the Messiah and the messianic era.
13. The belief in the resurrection of the dead.
If you notice, nowhere in the Thirteen Principles does it say that you have to believe blindly in every utterance that emanates from the mouth of a rabbi. And it is some of those utterances that I think have taken us off-track.

There is an old joke once that goes something like this.
Wife to husband: “Why do we have to do this again?”
Husband to wife: “The rabbis tell us.”
Wife to husband: “Who is Rabbi Tellus?”
There is a lot more to be said on this subject. But the opening salvo here is as follows:
  • I have the same right as any other person of faith to speak my mind, regardless of how I look or whether I fit into a “mold.” In fact, I am not required to fit into any “mold” whatsoever.
  • Idol worship can include worship of human beings. Sadly there are those who believe we must worship the rabbis, no matter what they say or do. But just the opposite is true: They are instruments of Torah and must be held strictly to its standards.
  • No matter what the rabbis in the Talmud thought of women, their comments are just that — comments. And so my status as a female does not render me less qualified to speak.
  • Our conscience is a holy thing. It is morally wrong to quiet ourselves when we see injustice happening.
I do not believe that “all rabbis are bad.” Just the opposite; these are by and large selfless public servants who take a lot of flak just to do the right thing.

I do think that contemporary rightwing rabbinic culture (which represents itself as the only authentic version of our religion) is unhealthy for Judaism, and it is unhealthy for women. It has nothing whatsoever to do with religious observance and everything to do with a host of other factors that will only drive people away.

Finally I believe that feminism is not an ideological challenger to Torah-true Orthodoxy. Rather, it serves a corrective purpose to the misogyny that runs through much too much of its traditional literature and current practice.

A very big topic. More on this to follow.

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All opinions my own.