In her bold article in the Jewish Week (Jan 3) Dr. Gail Bendheim decries the recent events in Beit Shemesh and calls for “examining carefully and courageously what it is about our religious life that has led to such a deeply festering misogynistic impulse.” The answer seems obvious to me as I imagine it must to any woman raised in an Orthodox Jewish family.
By the age of 10, I had come thousands of mornings to the bifurcated blessing when a boy gets to thank God “for not making me a woman” and a girl thanks the Creator for having fashioned her “according to His will”. I knew that the Bible excluded females from legal inheritance or bearing witness, and that our sacred texts permit a man to have more than one wife while a woman even suspected of adultery endures a terrible ordeal. I had stood on the sidelines while my dad prepared my older brother for a bar mitzvah, understanding that it was not in the natural order of things that I be celebrated. I was not much older when I memorized the dictate from the Ethics of the Fathers cautioning sages that women are unreliable and shallow. By the time I turned 13, I was coming to terms with the Talmudic truism that the birth of a girl is a consequence of sexual haste and a uterus impure.
These slights and calumnies are so well known to us as to render their enumeration something of a cliché. But the laundry list needs to be trotted out when a well-spoken Orthodox psychologist wonders what it is in our religious life that leads to a “festering misogynistic impulse.”
I can’t claim that any of the above leads in a straight or inevitable line to the abuse of an 8-year-old religious girl on her way to school. And there is of course, much in our tradition that protects and even exalts the female. (Exaltation as Dr. Bendheim wisely says, is the flip-side of debasement). The point is that while this extreme behavior is not a foregone conclusion, it is far from incongruous with the social mores and religious attitudes of even the more moderate Orthodox world.
Real life examples of the exclusion and humiliation of women, even in non-Haredi circles, abound: Just a few months ago, a close friend was in Sloan Kettering for cancer treatment. Despairing and lonely, she wandered in her bathrobe to a room where she heard there would be Jewish prayers. She took a seat in the back row and brightened up when a bearded man she thought was the rabbi approached her, feeling sure he would ask after her health, offer her a much-needed blessing. Instead he told her to hide herself behind a makeshift partition so that the all-male service might begin.
Some years ago, I lost a dear friend at the age of 50, and stood by while her Orthodox family explained to the three teenage daughters whom she single-handedly raised that a hired male stranger was entitled to say the kaddish prayer for their mom but, they, lowly nekevot, were not. And on a lighter note – when was the last time anyone saw an Orthodox man nervously jump up and down (as my mom did daily) in anxious concern that the soup he was serving his wife was hot enough to suit her taste?
Underneath the observable behavior, there lurks an unspoken counter-knowledge. We daughters lived in daily awe of the discrete strength of our mothers much as we frequently intuited the fragility of our fathers. In an Orthodox family, this reversal of assigned attributes is too subversive to ever be spoken. We understood that the established order was imposed to restore to men a power-base they did not come by naturally. Even the mores of the so-called moderate Orthodox are rooted in an ancient fear of exposing men’s weakness and unleashing women’s power.
Excess is a predictable – or at least a foreseeable and in its own way, even a coherent – outcome of all these culturally-sponsored practices. Any form of race or gender repression paves the way for more grievous abuse when those with the upper hand are so inclined.
Before we can expect any sustainable change, Orthodox women will have to agree to examine their own complicity in the current state of affairs. The policy of assigned gender roles with the male dominant seems to meet the emotional needs of many of the faithful. Besides being squarely in their comfort zone, some will argue that second-class citizenship for women is prescribed by the law, sanctioned by our sacred texts.
I am reminded of the reaction of French women to the first echoes of American measures against sexual harassment in the work place back in the Nineties. French women didn’t want any part of it. They didn’t mind being kept off balance, subjected to male whims or sexualized. For them flirtation was the spice of life, a source of leverage, while the game of seduction went back hundreds of years and had its own rewards. Life was unimaginable any other way: social precedent functioned as a kind of secular yet sacred imperative. Many Orthodox women have their own version of attachment to the status quo along with reasons, both conscious and unconscious, for resisting change.
The majority of the Orthodox look on the recent events with horror along with Dr. Bendheim. I understand their outrage. I understand their disappointment. I empathize with their shame. I simply do not understand their surprise.