When couples fight, marriage counselors advise them to acknowledge each other’s feelings before discussing their differences. Only when both sides feel validated, can a productive discussion take place. This advice sounds simple enough, yet we are astonishingly bad at acknowledging each other’s feelings when it comes to public debates.
Take for example Jenifer, whose story was published on ynet last Wednesday. As Jenifer was getting ready for the final stage of her conversion, the ritual immersion in the mikveh, the men who were supposed to witness her immersion walked in too early. They saw her naked. Jenifer describes her shock and humiliation. Even if this case was an accident, she asks indignantly, should women immerse in front of men in the first place? Is this practice modest and appropriate? And in light of recent events in Washington D.C, isn’t this practice an invitation for abuse?
Many of the responses to Jenifer’s story attack the validity of her feelings. They say that her emotions are either exaggerated (its not a big deal! Relax!), or fake (what are your secret motives for sharing this now, anyway? What evil agenda are you promoting?), or plain wrong. You are brainwashed by feminism, they tell her. And if God wanted women to convert this way, who are you to question His will? If you truly identified with the spirit of Judaism, you wouldn’t feel like immersing in front of men is belittling or humiliating in the first place.
The men who walked in on Jenifer, saw her naked body. The men who dismiss or question her feelings about her experience, presume to see the naked truth of her soul.
These belittling and dismissive responses sound extremely familiar. This is what women hear when they want to be active participants in rituals and prayers. This is what women hear when they want to learn Talmud. This is what women hear when they want to be community leaders. And now this is what women hear when they criticize the conversion process.
In all of these issues, mainstream rabbis and laymen can make valid arguments against change. They can discuss with us the halachic process, point to side effects and risks, and respectfully disagree with our requests. They can argue that while our feelings are legitimate, there is no way to accommodate them in this or that case. Yet time and time again, many of them choose instead to reject our very feelings, portraying them as illegitimate, non-Jewish, and unworthy of discussion. Time and time again, they basically tell us to shut up.
Dear critics, your dismissal of our emotions is a tragic mistake. If you would listen and acknowledge us, we may be more willing to accept your authority. We may be more willing to seek solutions of which you might approve. But when you reject our description of our own experience as malicious, insidious, or simply wrong wrong wrong, you successfully alienate even those of us who did not vie for revolutions in the first place. Because when someone insists on talking about me as if he knows what I should feel better than myself, he becomes irrelevant to me. A source of amusement, even. I know what I feel, and telling me otherwise simply makes me laugh.
If you continue to reject our experience of our own emotions, dear critics, we will either lose interest in your position or stifle our feelings to accommodate you. And how can we raise the next generation of Jews to be passionate about the covenant and take joy in it, if we constantly repress our own feelings, our own emotional needs?
I am tremendously happy to be Jewish. My faith and practice are a constant source of meaning and joy in my life. I love our tradition and care about its continuity, and I want my daughter to feel the same way. And this is why I wish mainstream Orthodox leaders would be more open to listen to our voices. Even if we can’t always agree, we can at least retain a sense of partnership. We can continue walking on a shared path. And maybe we can even find new and creative ways to balance continuity and change.
So please, when you hear Jenifer’s story, don’t argue with her position right away. Don’t presume to tell her how she should feel. Listen first. Acknowledge first. And only once you did all that, let’s discuss.