Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Women in Judaism

This video is a is a piece of performance art by Maya Escobar.

Maya is not a kool-aid drunk anti-feminist, but her portrayal of one is nearly perfect: She looks and sounds like every NCSY lady I've ever known and the arguments she presents are precisely the arguments given by Orthodox anti-feminists. For example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRUTMADR5gY (thanks to RBC for the link)

As you will see, Maya is acting like a Jewish woman who has swallowed whole all the familiar anti-feminist apologetics . Telling us how spiritual women are and how men will get an upgrade once the Messiah's arrived, reminds me of Ramban's famous line from the "Disputation": "In our country, they say that he who wishes to tell a lie has his witnesses live far away," meaning that a fine way to prove a point is to bring evidence that's impossible to falsify.

During the Disputation Ramban was speaking about the claims of Christianity, but the same can be said about the claims of Jewish anti-feminists.

Just as its impossible to prove that Jesus defeated death and took the keys of hell from Satan, it can't be proven that being female offers any spiritual advantages. What can be proven, however, is that Jewish woman are kept at a disadvantage, disadvantages Jewish women are asked to accept in exchange for invisible benefits they can neither see nor touch.

Aside: At the end, the character Maya is portraying suggests that Jewish women who are dissatisfied with their back of the bus status secretly wish to be men. There's some truth to that, of course. Jewish women wish to be men in the same way that Jim Crow blacks wished to be white, meaning they want the same freedoms and opportunities that are available to men. Though Judaism has made much progress in this regard, the RW and Ultra circles still run like MadMen. Telling women they're more spiritual, pat pat, run along, is just a way to protect the status quo.

Reminder: There's nothing inevitable about the status quo. Its not written in the sky, e.g,  that woman must not wear Tefillin, nor has a voice from heaven declared that women must use separate entrences or seat themselves at the back of buses. All of that is man made, and while in some cases you may be able convince me that there was nothing originally misogynistic about the rules qua the rules, the rules don't exist in a vacuum. If you look at how they are often enforced, and how they have influenced the ongoing development of our thinking about women, you can't conclude that they are benign.

Here's a simple example: Once upon a time Jewish women came to shul. According to "Life is With People" a sociological history of the shtetl, it was considered normal for them to walk to synagogue with their husbands on Saturday morning. There was even a female synagogue officer who was responsible for "lining out" or reading each line of the prayer out loud so that illiterate women could participate in the service by repeating each line as it was read.

In decadent America, men became hyper-concerned about the immoral influence of women and they began to impose their fears on synagogue architecture. Mechitza walls became more foreboding, making it more difficult to see and hear the service. Women were forced to enter through uninviting back doors. Etc.

Naturally, the women who were married to men who belonged to such congregations got the message and stopped coming to shul.

Seeing that women were absent, the men came to all sorts of conclusions about women, and their unsuitability for the synagogue, conclusions which justified a new round of synagogue construction with even fewer accommodations for women.

As a result, our community expectations regarding women and synagogue attendance shifted dramatically - and in the span of just a few decades.

Today we think there's something a little odd about a woman who comes to shul every Saturday, and downright strange about one who shows up each week on time, but if we can trust the researchers who wrote "Life is With People" this was once considered normal. While the first adjustments to synagogue architecture may have been motivated by pure desires and holy wishes, they resulted in fewer opportunities for women, and as women suffered the consequences of those reduced opportunities, men developed a lower opinion of women who merely sought to buck the trend and to continue doing what women once always did.

We might argue that the same thing happened with women and tefillin. The Rishonim and Achronim may have thought it was inappropriate for a woman to wear tefillin, but most asked men to tolerate it, while some asked men to discourage it. Now that men, on their own authority, have decided to discourage it by actively demonizing and attacking women who wear tefillin the ground has shifted. A woman who wears tefilin is now considered a harpie and a harlot and its fair game to call her morals and her motives into question. Her opportunities to express herself spiritually have been narrowed while its become acceptable to behave antagonistically toward those who don't accept the new order. 

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