This Shabbat begins the month of Elul and the Penitential Season. Given the state of the USA and the world I have a lot on my mind right now of course. A question that came up while I was in England, on seeing so many completely covered Muslim women, was why do traditional religions insist on such great modesty from women, while men seem to be able to dress almost any way they please. I posed this question to the rabbi of the synagogue I frequent at home.
Part of my question was based on this knowledge. At Sinai, on revelation of Torah, and in Nechemia Chapter 8, on re-revelation, all of Israel, men, women, and children, stood together as one. The same was true for the courtyard of the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle in the wilderness. It was not until establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem that this changed. It is recorded in the Talmud (b. Sukkot) that the sages instituted a separation, ordering the women to sit in the upper courtyard only. Why? The men could not comport themselves properly during the Festival atmosphere. Rather than taking the men to task for misbehaving, the sages chose to marginalize the women instead. And this has translated to a second class status through to modern times.
Of course orthodoxy will deny this and tell you differently. When we say the traditional morning blessings, men say she’lo ‘asani isha – who did not make me a woman. And they justify this by saying that women are in a higher spiritual state and they are thanking God for making them however God chose to make them. Yet the blessing women say is she-asani kirtzono – who made my by His will. If what the men say is correct, then they should say this blessing too.
The rabbi sent me three web pages in response. The first, https://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/650631/jewish/Do-Women-Have-Something-to-Hide.htm states that just as the Torah scroll is Judaism’s most sacred object, so we wrap it up to protect it, so too we cover women to protect them. I couldn’t believe this! Women are to be objectified, placed on a pedestal and cherished? Absurd!
The other two articles, https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1248044/jewish/Who-Decides-What-Is-Modest.htm and https://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/2355529/jewish/Jewish-Feminism.htm by Chabad wives talk about how women dress, and imply men also dress modestly. Yet Orthodox men can wear short sleeves and even short pants if they choose. Orthodox women cannot show elbows or knees. This is not the same standard.
And of course these articles mention the requirement (sort of) to cover the hair. Numbers 5:18, in the ordeal of the accused woman states that she should have her hair uncovered. Nowhere in the Torah is there a direct commandment for married women to have covered hair. But a presumption is made from this that they should do. So Orthodox women wear wigs, or snoods, or some other form of hair covering.
All of this while men do not control their actions. In Avot we find “Who is the mighty person? The one who controls their (evil) inclination.” (4:1) Yet we often see men in Orthodoxy getting away with things.
Hence the rabbis at the Yeshiva University High School that almost destroyed the entire organization. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/08/23/yeshiva-university-high-school-sexual-abuse-lawsuit/?noredirect=on) And the actions of the Pierce County Chabad rabbi towards women in the community that led to his resignation (https://www-1.thenewstribune.com/news/local/article233735042.html). These were in the way of sexual misconduct. Yet Chabad of Washington did not learn from the YU disaster, and did nothing to reign this rabbi in. And a colleague rabbi is alleged to have colluded with him, and has not faced consequences yet.
These kinds of acts by men in Orthodoxy that continue to abuse women and others are not in keeping with derekh eretz, proper acts, or with the teaching of Avot, or of any other teachings of Torah, yet they keep happening, and the leadership allows them to.
At the same time, traditionally, they place women on pedestals, objectify us, and treat us like property (consider the Ketubah, the traditional marriage contract – Tractate Ketubot begins “ha-isha nikneit” the woman is purchased/acquired). There are many orthodox women in Aginut – the chained status because their ex-husbands refuse to write them a Get – the Jewish decree of divorce, simply out of a sense of pig-headedness. And no court, rabbinic or civil, has any power to force the issue.
As a queer/trans woman rabbi with connections to the traditional world, I have a lot of internal turmoil and struggles when it comes to issues like this. There is a lot I love about traditional Judaism, but when I come across rationalizations like this, I really cringe.
It is my prayer, as we enter the penitential season, that those in power recognize the error of their ways, and truly come forth to make Teshuva – repairs and repentance, because far too much damage has already been done.