Yesterday was the Kolech
Conference (Forum of Religious Women- Feminism is not in the title but it is an unspoken part of their charter). Though I was only able to stay for two sessions – I did hear a few thoughts that moved me and made me think.
I felt an overall push this time for women to take up the reigns of leadership – as poskim and as Rabbis. More so than in the US, the modern religious community in Israel feels very bound by halakha, is fluent in the texts that make this system, and still refers to Rabbis for ‘heterim’ or dispensations when their personal needs and law conflict. Which means the realm of writing psak and answering questions engenders Rabbinic control of the community.
Malkah Petrokovsky (Midreshet Lindenbaum) spoke about the importance of family planning and urged Rabbis, Poskim and teachers to take up the issue of birth control and family planning in a public and serious manner. In her experience many of her students feel required to have children immediately and if they ask for a “heter” to take birth control they will often receive permission for only 6-8 months.
I thought her call to put this topic on the table was very strong and well put. She was both emotional about the need to take up this issue and persuasive about the ability for the halakha to cope with change and adapt itself to people’s individual needs.
She also advocated a different vision of halakhic consultation where the posek or poseket gives the lay person the knowledge they need to make such personal decisions on their own, yet within the halakhic system. (In the US many modern orthodox couples already feel that this question should be decided without consulting a Rabbi or halakha).
The question arose at the conference: what changes will occur as women become more vocal and respected within halakhic decision making world. Malkah’s speech suggested that the topics discussed and the sensitivities brought to the table will be different. But her words also suggest that the approach to psak and the structure of hierarchy and control will be different. A “Feminist” halakhic expert (female or male) may no longer dictate law; He or She use their knowledge to empower people to make knowledgeable decisions in light of Jewish law.
I recently attended the conference on Halakhic Prenups, mentioned in this article. I must say there were a lot of fascinating details, that differ from the RCA agreement, which I had not been aware of. Here are just a few tidbits.
1) The prenup is entirely egalitarian. Both the wife and husband-to-be sign this document promising to pay each other a certain amount of increased food stipend if either side is recalcitrant (meaning the husband refuses to give a get or the wife refuses to accept or either side doesn't show up for their court date. )
2) The Israeli prenup builds in a period of reconciliation. During the 6 month waiting period, which precedes the requirement to pay each other the sum mentioned above, either side can request marriage counseling, with either a psychologist or a rabbinic figure. The second person (usually the one who sued for divorce) must attend three sessions in order to maintain their right to the sum at the six month point.
I learned a lot at this training conference and hopefully will share some more details in further posts.
I was excited to read that Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Mark Angel are starting an alternative body to the RCA- The Rabbinical Counsel of America. It will be a coalition and network of Rabbis who are actually Modern Orthodox and eventually will include an alternate Beit Din system as well.
I don’t think the RCA or their Beit Din is all that terrible, it’s not even all that right wing. However, the established Jewish community has consistently stymied the growth of more modern Rabbis. The graduates of Yeshivah Choveveh Torah, the “Open Orthodox Yeshiva,” started by Ai Weiss, have not been allowed to join the RCA, and National Young Israel has even made moves to keep more liberal Rabbis out of their shuls despite the fact that many individual Young Israel’s may be seeking exactly this kind of leadership.
I studied for few years at Choveveh Torah (YCT), in a Talmud class for undergraduates at nearby Barnard and Columbia. So I feel comfortable saying that YCT is refreshingly open and thoughtful about the challenges of modernity, while still being strongly Orthodox and rather traditional in the grand scheme of things.
If RCA and Young Israel, and other institutions of the like, had allowed their Rabbis to quietly join the ranks of the official Orthodox Rabbinical establishment, they probably would have been a minor voice, which slowly widened the spectrum of opinions. Now that the Orthodox world excluded these voices, they have a full out rebellion on their hands and competing institutions.
I only hope that this new Rabbinic Fellowship can find a way to include female leaders as well. I know that YCT is not ready to ordain women, but Modern Orthodox women are studying more, women teachers’ scholarship is approaching the level of Rabbis, and many shuls have opened up communal roles such as Madricha Ruchanit. It would be disappointing if the new Rabbinic Fellowship recreates the atmosphere of the exclusionary old boys club.
I never though Rabbi Herschel Shachter of YU would be called a Feminist!
Apparently ORA and the Rabbis at a recent rally for agunot are doing a good job. If the charedi world is ranting about you on their blogs - you are probably making them anxious and making a dent. More power to you.
I had the weirdest dream last night. ( I know those of you who read this blog are not used to reading the personal fluffy stuff- but I promise it’s related.) So I had uncovered the truth, that in ancient Hebrew society powerful women, queen like, goddess like women, were in charge. These women, in their collaborative spirit were the first to come up with the idea of the Talmud a way to pool brain power. Different women would remember different pieces of information different Mishnayot. Each woman was like an individual server and together they could recreate all the learning that was being forgotten.
This is clearly a mixture of a couple things I’m reading right now. Tikvah Frymer Kensky’s book on Goddesses traces the decline of the Goddess in Ancient Summerian and Assyrian lore. Male Gods slowly took over the roles women had played, just as in my dream the Rabbis were actually replacing an early group of women. Also on my desk is Albeck’s Overview on the Mishnah, which discusses the theories of how it was organized and finalized by Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi. This fused with Halivni who describes certain student’s whose responsibility it was to remember the official version of Mishnayot and Braiytot, so he like a computer could repeat it back to those who needed it. And servers….well my computer is my closest companion theses days.
Check out Rena Sherbill. She is an amazing spoken word poet who speaks out about feminism, empowerment, women's role in relationships, and the experience of agunot.
When was the last time you read through the end of Shoftim. I remember being individually upset by the stories of Pilegesh bagivah and the celebration of tu beaav as both these stories demand a female sacrifice. But I forgot how intertwined they are.
In Pilegesh bagivah a man sets out to return his wayward concubine, who has returned to her father’s house. Her father is so happy to greet her liaison and to send her away again as a concubine with this man. She doesn’t talk or express her feelings, but all we know is that her initial attempt to get away fails because of the collusion of her father and the man she serves.
On the way home this man chooses not to stop at the non Jewish village along the way but to continue to the S’dom- like town of Givah. His choice strikes me as some strange hypocritical act, choosing the evil Jews over the seemingly neutral non Jews. Here ensues a story dramatically similar to the Story of Lot in S’dom (from this past weeks parsha). When the people demand the male guests, the host and guest decide to toss out the concubine – the one he cared so much about as to retrieve from her father’s house- to the wolves, where she is brutally gang raped till morning.
He goes to sleep, he forgets about her, he finds her only because he stumbles over her limp hand as he leaves the house in the morning. Yet he is inflamed with self righteous anger about how his concubine was treated by this den of Jewish wolves- what did he expect when he locked the door behind himself. It is not even clear that she is dead, but he chops her up into 12 pieces and sends them to all the tribes as a proof that the tribe of Binyamin is corrupt and deserves to be eradicated. Indeed Israel comes to his aid and there is a bloody civil war as a result.
The Binyaminites perhaps did deserve what they got, though a lot of blood was shed on both sides. Still the sacrifice is the woman, whose name we don’t know, who isn’t even a proper wife, who may not have even been dead when her uncaring proprietor chopped her into pieces to get revenge. Do the Binyaminites learn anything? For that matter do any of the Jews learn anything?
After the war the Jews swear not to marry any of their daughters to the tribe of Binyamin, but still are concerned with the identity of the tribe which is about to be extinct because apparently all the women have been killed- though some men remain. So what do they do they find another city that deserves punishment (people who didn’t show up to fight the civil war to begin with) they kill all the men and women accept those women who are virgins. (Because in this pure world of theirs I suppose it is important that the Binyaminites marry virgins!) Then these women are forcefully given to the Binyaminites who survived. And when there are not enough women to satisfy their needs, women are sent to the fields to dance while the Binyamin men are allowed to kidnap them avoiding the problem of breaking their oath not to marry their daughters to this morally decrepit tribe.
No one will claim that this is a story of a model society. In fact it seems to suggest that in morally decayed societies the powerless women are those who feel the brunt of the depravity. They are used as pawns: to satisfy sexual and financial needs of husbands and fathers, to protect individual men from the ravages of the street, to prove a national point, and then to rehabilitate the very corrupt tribe that abused the concubine to begin with.
Someone told me recently that I sound bitter in this blog. I took a short break to think about how I can make feminist points that may at times reflect frustration, anger or plain surprise without having the public think I’m a ranting extremist bra-burning feminist. (I like my bras thank you very much). On the other hand I see no reason to trade in my express loud feminist boom for the sweet, barely audible, nice- Jewish girl’s voice I used most of my school days.
Beyond the rhetoric, I do want to convey to my readers the nuanced voice of good scholarship and luckily the Gemarah is quite a nuanced book. Of course this may mean that my posts are a bit longer...
Yesterday’s daf brought up the topic of women’s role in rape. The bible itself makes a point of saying that an engaged woman who is forced into sex is not guilty of adultery, a distinction the Bible makes seemingly in contrast to other societies it knows. Hence the woman’s desire and/ or consent is the deciding factor as to whether the sex is considered rape or adultery, which would result in capital punishment at worst or at best in being forbidden to return to her husband.
So if the woman’s feelings during the rape determines the identity of the act, this might seem quite women focused. Not quite. R. Abahu, the first voice in this discussion, worries that a rape victim may have enjoyed part of sex, even if the beginning was against her will, therefore all victims of rape may not return to their husbands. The burden of proof is on the woman to scream out for help from beginning to end. And without such proof, he assumes that the physical act of sex is likely to bring pleasure to the woman.
It is nothing new that the Gemarah attempts to come to a conclusion based on statistics without taking an interview with the individual women whose life and marriage is at stake. Of course I would have to agree with the Gemarah that such a woman is partial and may choose to lie if she indeed felt desire or pleasure during the rape. She wouldn’t want to be forbidden from returning to her previous marriage and even within that marriage she probably would have a hard time speaking openly to her husband about this extramarital sexual experience. However in this vacuum of her forced and traumatic state of mute, the assumptions of women’s experience of sex are determined by the Rabbi’s imagination about women’s sexuality.
Do some women feel bodily pleasure during rape? Is that measurable? Do some women orgasm during rape? We discussed this at great length here at Matan. Mot women did not think that women feel pleasure during rape. Maybe I’m going out on an essentialist limb here, but my gut reaction is that sexual feelings may be more psychological for women. Only a phallic man would assume that a woman being raped will be likely to feel pleasure.
But more importantly a woman should not feel guilt (emotional or actually meted out through punishment) for feelings evoked by the violent act of another! Rava (our feminist hero for the daf- sort of) counters R Abahu and says even if a women says I want to hire the rapist and pay him for him to continue- meaning she desires him and consents- she is not held responsible. If the beginning was rape the entire act is rape.
While Rava uses the most extreme case he can imagine, one where the woman falls in love with the rapist, clearly his statement also exonerates the woman who resists at the beginning and resigns herself, stopping to struggle during the rape. He does not require visual proof from start to finish that every moment of the act was rape and not consensual.
This issue was eerily echoed in a Shabbat meal this past week. A group of women were discussing their own living nightmares about how they would react if they were attacked. Almost all these women said they would not struggle, they would given in keep quiet and hope the man wouldn’t kill her when he was done. Let me note these were not meek women. These women would all be misunderstood by R. Abahu who doesn’t understand the complicated network of reasons that silence and paralyze women).
One woman at our Shabbat table had been to a self defense class. She explained that one should yell and resist from start to finish. If the rapist isn’t allowed to ever feel in total control then you are more likely to get away. You don’t want to be waiting passively to find out what will happen at the end. Surprisingly, unbeknownst to R. Abahu, by requiring women to resist loudly to prove that she is not consenting, he is in fact describing the self defense of the moderns- not how to defend yourself in court after the fact, but during the rape itself.
This is a very touchy and complicated issue and I hope to learn more as the dapim march on.
I was at a panel discussion tonight on the topic of Chevrah Meurevet, mixed groups, Co- education, or co-ed socializing. The panel clearly missed the mark on several accounts. Mainly they could not define the value of having young men and women mix, but rather just assumed that it was a given that they couldn’t do away with even if they wanted to. Secondly they vaguely referred to the costs of having mixing at all, without defining what we are so afraid of: Men and women touching? Premarital sex? A level of friendship that might lead to adultery? This vagueness, which skirted around the issue, left the audience feeling that even the formula laid out by the panelists - separate sex education side by side with serious content based programming from time to time for mixed groups- did not address how the sexes are meant to interact with each other, (friendship, love, collegiality) or what values are actually being embodied with by this approach.
Here are a few more specific things that really upset me.
Despite a couple attempts, for the most part the perspective was male (even from the one woman on the on the 4 person panel). The discourse was what should we do with the women, should we let the women in. I wanted Malka Bina- the head of Matan, who had already expressed a rather conservative position -to say, ‘we women have to decide whether we want to let the men in!’ or ‘Women’s only education is good for women.’ I think she was trying to express similar sentiments; but, instead a powerful feminist statement, she told a story of a strong woman who desired to learn with the men, until she was beaten down and rejected enough that she finally discovered that she could be a good meek Jewish he women and learn Gemarah with the women.
Then, in an attempt to fill in the women’s perspective, Rav Bigman posited that women feel more subjective Kedusha when they pray in women’s tefilot than when they are called to the torah in progressive minyanim that include women in a limited fashion. I suppose he didn’t poll me before he made such a blanket statement. I don’t want to get rid of all single sex spiritual expression- but I don’t want men making an argument for sex segregation in the synagogue based on the excuse that they are protecting women from loosing out on women’s tefila- most of which are dying, dead, or at the very least infrequent!
Lastly the pink elephant in the room as I mentioned above was sexuality. These questions I don’t have answers to but were blatantly absent from the discussion. What are the actual dangers of mixing the sexes? Is there a way to increase respect on both sides of the gender divide and yet to prevent premarital sex? Is premarital sexual experiences- lets take touch- something that teenagers can actually be asked to avoid completely? If we emphasize exclusively intelligence and serious conversation, will we deemphasize a natural healthy sense of sexuality? If men and women feel more comfortable together, will there be a rise in successful married relationships or failed ones? If boys are trained to talk and listen to women, will they not naturally fall in love and want sex all the more? But if we think respecting the intellect of a woman is going to curb sex, then won’t sex in marriage turn the woman back into an object?
Ok the last few questions were leading…but I do honestly believe there is a lot to explore, for which I do not yet have the answer. But I want to work on developing some theories, and not simply start wringing my hands at its complexity.
On tomorrow’s daf (Ketuboth 17) the Talmud describes the importance of dancing and making merry in front of a bride at her wedding.
I was struck by the strange addition that is wedged in between quoting lyrics of a song sung to the bride and a passage describing the types of juggling performed for her. The flow of the Gemarah jumps from songs for a bride (“you don’t need eye shadow nor rouge- you are beautiful) to songs for Rabbis. First the Rabbis sing the very same song about natural beauty that doesn’t require make up to Rav Zeiri at his misibat smicha (his ordination party). Then it describes songs sung about he intelligence of the smicha students being ordained, and lastly the Gemarah records the song of peace sung by the women of the Caesar’s palace who greet the visiting Rabbi. All songs that focus on the beauty, intelligence, and prestige of men.
And then without a blink of an eye the Gemarah returns to the wedding, returns to dancing with the bride.
What came to mind was a chapter in Boyarin’s book Carnal Israel. He advances a theory that the Rabbis are more in love with their learning and their chavrutot (male learning partners) than their wives. He doesn’t go so far as to call the Rabbis gay- but I think he may be hinting at it (as far as I can remember). In our Gemarah as well the discussion about singing songs of women’s beauty makes the Rabbis think of each other and not the women who they have been objectifying as virgins and non virgins for the last 17 pages.
In fact I’m not sure if the Rabbis are genuine at all when they sing and dance in front of the bride. Hillel says in his humane tone, that one should praise the beauty of a bride even if she is not beautiful. He compares her to a piece of bad merchandise, which should be praised only if it can’t be returned to the shuk. If anything it is for the husband, who has already chosen his produce to whom the song is meant to comfort. Hillel could or should have said, every bride has something genuinely worth admiring, instead of suggesting that some occasions it is appropriate to lie.
Also the Gemarah tells us of Rav Acha who used to dance with the bride on his shoulders. When other Rabbis enquire whether they should follow his example, they are told they too can carry the bride on their shoulders only if they can envision the bride as a board (a non arousing image). I’m not arguing that lustful Rabbis should go around carrying other men’s brides on their shoulders. In fact I didn’t miss it at my wedding, and I think a chair carried by strong modern women, does the same trick. But I am disturbed by the detachment that these Rabbis must summon in order to falsely praise brides that they don’t find attractive and coldly carry around brides they in fact do fancy. What must they be thinking about as they detach from their true emotions? Maybe their chavrutas.