Women in Judaism, Part I: Woman = Man (so I was taught)
“Feminist beginnings”, or “Orthodox Judaism’s Oppression”
I grew up in a very liberal home, and went to secular public schools with almost all leftist teachers where we learned that traditional values discriminated against women, and women should be no different than men. It was to the point where in high school health class, they’d show you videos implying that if a man paid for the date, he was an abuser, and so forth. As a child growing up with only brothers, I bought this, and even after I was a Torah observant Jew in my 20s, I still bought this. Though my best friend in high school sure had a better history with girlfriend’s than I did, was chauvinistic, and I treated women as equals. He once said to me that he had a “soft spot” for women, implying that he had to be more caring of them, listen to them more, and give more leeway to women. How could you treat women any differently than men? How was that ‘fair’? Not that I ever did this per se, but try dumping a cooler full of water on a girl who scores a touchdown on your team and watch what happens. Men consider it “all in good fun”, women consider it “abuse.” Try navigating through all this contradiction between what you’re taught and reality, despite believing in the general principle.
There were other chinks in the armor of fairness. For one, in 7th grade health class, the teacher asked, “how would people 100 years ago look at how the girls in the class are dressed today?” The prettiest girl in the class, wearing a pair of jeans as was the custom of secular 7th grade girls in the 1990s said, “They say that we dress like men.” I was shocked. Here’s this ‘liberated’ girl admitting that she is, in fact, dressing like a man. In my head I thought, “I want to marry a woman that dresses and looks like a woman. I don’t want to marry a woman who tries to be like a man.”
Maybe a few years latter came one of the few times I even saw an Orthodox Jew, growing up. There was a Lubuvitch family buying medicine. I asked my mother, who was far more familiar with Jewish practice than I, having at least grown up around some Orthodox cousins whom I forgot existed, why the woman wore a long skirt and long sleeves in the summer. Of course, I was given the answer that this was a woman being oppressed, and the Muslims are even worse, making them cover their faces. I bought it at the time, and it increased by disdain and even hatred for those crazy backwards Orthodox Jews (and more so for the more backwards Muslims) … but yet … this lady looked like a woman.
Going Into the Lion’s Den
Long before I knew that “going into the lion’s den” is actually a biblical phrase, as are many such phrases used in common language today, I realized that what I knew of Judaism wasn’t it. My reform bar mitzvah, even to me at the time, was a joke. It obviously wan’t Judaism. What happened to the strings we’re supposed to wear, and why are we working and driving on Saturday and eating cheeseburgers? Who are we trying to fool? What was the allure of it for my Orthodox great-grandparents if it all really was just that obviously silly as my liberal surroundings told me? One poignant example that troubled me tremendously – My great-grandfather died when I was six years old, but I remember well that he refused to come to my older brother’s bar mitzvah on the Sabbath (and so it was moved to a Sunday which was a Rosh Chodesh). He was also spoken about kindly, and his honestly in business was known to everyone. I also knew that, at least in this part of the family, the women were highly educated even in Russia.
So years later, upon entering the lion’s den to explore what Judaism was, I traveled to Jerusalem on an organized trip and pestered every Orthodox Rabbi looking person with my questions, filled with disdain and hatred, but at the same time … I really wanted to hear what it was that we were rebelling against in modern society, and pick up a few wondrous philosophical points to ponder. (I never planned to entirely change my life around – I just wanted to learn, and maybe prove once and for all that I could throw away Judaism in good conscience.) Upon my return, bubbling with information, I said to my mother [paraphrasing here], “hey mom, the Orthodox Jews say that a woman is more liberated by being covered up because than a man isn’t looking at her as a sex object, and can focus on whom she is inside. What do you say to that?” The response: “While, that’s the other side of the argument ….” Shoe drops. Oh.
How Do We Want to Live Our Lives?
I need not even get religious here – I think the following applies just based on basic logic. If you could prove to me that there is no G_d, and it’s all lies, I’d still say the following (though I believe short of believing in G_d, our instincts would get the better of us, as has happened to the Western World which is declining rapidly in this area.)
It doesn’t matter if you’re a liberal feminist or an Orthodox Jew. It further doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman. Regardless of these variables, all people, as far as I know, want to be respected and looked upon as an individual. If you’re a liberal feminist (future article: when my liberal views went into remission), you’re going to say, “a woman doing what she wants and making her own choices is paramount.” If you’re an Orthodox Jew … you’re going to say the same thing, actually.
Watch Daymond John in season 4, episode 22 of “Shark Tank”, a show where rich people to buy a piece of entrepreneur’s businesses, actually cover his eyes so as not to make a silly decision based on the two entrepreneurs who’ve just stripped down from army fatigues to tight, skimpy, clothing use their bodies as sales objects. Or, watch Kevin O’Leary, who never bids unless there’s something proprietary that he can license, bid on a silly tag for steak because it’s being sold by a pretty woman in a red dress. Sure, there’s the girl in high school who said she can get anything she wants from a guy because she had over-sized …. features. But at the end of the day, she would be feeling pretty lousy, and certainly, in conversations about her with only guys present, she was anything but respected. Quoting Dan Ackroyd and Chevy Chase in Spies Like Us, “You’re thinking with your [male part]” to which the response is, “It got me through high school.”
Men turn into animals, and women are turned into meat. Put a male parrot in front of an orange sweatshirt, it goes wild. Put a man in front of a woman’s tight curves, inner thighs, lots of skin, and flowing hair … he’s going to do the same. It’s a world based on instinct, not intellect.
Conclusion to Part I
Do we want to live our whole lives like a secular high school where the sex rate is approaching 50%, the police blotter is filled with cases of sexual impropriety, the trophy wife concept is alive and strong, and the divorce rate over 50%, or do we want to live a life of meaning and relationship? Would anyone over 15 (mentally) really say they prefer a life of 100 superficial relationships to one deep relationship? Then why don’t people act on it? I know I did. In my Torah observant jewish community, so too did a former chapter head of NOW (National Organization of Women) who did the same, because she felt her goals were much better met as an Orthodox Jew.
Compare the Superbowl in 2013, to the Siyum HaShas, six months earlier. Both pack a stadium, and while the New York Times complains about women being in the upper tier only, does anyone even mention that it was only a few short years ago that Justin Timerlake was fined for pulling off part of Janet Jackson’s attire, but the latest singers are dressed in leather attire previously only fit for pornography? Where do we draw the line on appropriate and inappropriate behavior and dress? Where do we draw the line on what builds our relationships, and what tears them apart, desiring, and desiring?
All will agree the line should be somewhere. Wherever the line is drawn, there will always be someone to stand up and say, “that oppresses me – move the line over a bit more.” But where does Judaism draw the line and why? And wait, doesn’t that make women and men inherently different? Won’t that mean we’re unequal!?
Very well written!