Monday, January 30, 2012

Misogyny on a spectrum

For the past month as the news of gender segregation and abuse of women has come out of Beit Shemesh, I've been wondering how to respond here. Being yet another person to wag my finger at the ultra-Orthodox and condemn them for their misogyny didn't appeal to me. I've done it on this blog many times and folks are doing it all over the internet.

Also, I've felt that the response has been lacking. Sure, the haredim involved are deserving of condemnation (and more), but is their behavior truly shocking? Stories like this have been coming out of Israel for years and have increased with frequency as their percentage of the population has grown. But what about the complicity of the plain ol', not ultra-Orthodox and even the modern Orthodox? Aren't they also participants in the same system and laws that have generated these displays of misogyny?

Sure, they aren't violent and that is an important distinction to make. And they don't seek to impose their way of life on nonbelievers. But aside from those examples, I couldn't help but wonder, is moderate Orthodoxy really all that different from the more fundamentalist version now widely condemned? Is separating women from the men during prayer, not allowing them to lead services or read from the Torah or a thousand other things just? Aren't they also pernicious, if only more subtly so? The ultra and centrist and even modern Orthodox all seem to be on the same continuum. They all accord women second-class citizen status. They are argue that they are hamstrung by Jewish law and tradition and cannot make changes, cannot give women full rights.

In a blog post on Jewesses with Attitude, Susan Reimer-Torn articulates this point much better than I can. She writes about what has led to a "deeply festering misogynistic impulse" and finds evidence of it not just in ultra-Orthodoxy but in the gender distinctions that pervade the whole Orthodox enterprise. She writes:

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. 

True, what the writer describes isn't behavior that involves attacking women or forcing them to sit at the back of the actual physical bus, but what about the spiritual bus? The social bus? What is good about telling girls that their potential is dictated by their biology regardless of their actual talents or ambition?

This post perfectly explains why I haven't been able to muster any outrage when confronted with the news coming out of Israel. I don't see why I should work so hard to defend one subtle system of misogyny from another more flagrant and occasionally violent one. I'll leave them to fight it out, each one clubbing the other with their interpretations of Jewish law, both of which marginalize women. Sigh.


Shoshana K. said...

I really appreciate this response to the issues coming out of the haredi community right now. I've also been struggling with how to respond to something that is so unsurprising to me that it actually shocked me when other people are raising eyebrows now. I mean, it isn't anything new to me that there are levels of sexism so deeply ingrained in the community that are coated with the veneer of tradition. So why should this shock and shake us when it's only taken to the extreme? The whole thing simply makes me tired, rather than outraged, because it's simply an extension of the very thing that drove me to distaste with women's treatment in Orthodoxy in the first place.

Thank you for putting the entire thing so succinctly.

Dvora Meyers said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I really struggled with what to write, worried that I sounded radically "anti-Orthodox." But then I realized that I fundamentally disagree with Orthodoxy on this front and the hypocrisy of it all really bothered me so I dispensed with caution and wrote what I was feeling about the matter. (I might've used more colorful language among my friends.)