As its first community event, Yeshivat Kol Isha is hosting a workshop on “Owning our Pleasure” with Michal Ma’ayan Don, a national leader in the healing and celebration of women’s sexuality and empowerment, as well as in sacred sexuality in general. Even voices in my own mind question me, What’s the place of this in the yeshiva? How’s it connected to what we are learning about Hilkhot Niddah? And what audacity do I have in publicizing events about pleasure while we are in the midst of the conflict and people on all sides are suffering and paying the heaviest of prices, in blood and in freedom?
Bear with me while I try to speak to these questions for myself — and for you.
Although I founded Yeshivat Kol Isha this October, it has grown its own momentum and flavors. The stunningly brilliant circle of women learning the laws of menstruation in classic halakhic texts from a feminist post-denominational standpoint, has co-created a space where they can bring the integrity of their own experience to bear on their reading of the sources. And the circle can hold dissonance and disagreement between the women. I’m not sure how many of the women feel comfortable about this event on pleasure, so I speak for myself alone. I’ve been aware that I’m hesitant to tag on Facebook for them to invite their friends. I should ask them how they feel about it. I’m scared to know.
Even in my own process in the last few months, I’ve experienced shifts in my own understanding and consciousness that have changed the way I see what we are doing, how I relate to the halakha as I am percolating directions for the future. I’m looking forward to all of our voices finding their place in our upcoming Yeshivat Kol Isha Visioning Retreat.
Now back to why an event, on pleasure, for women and men, and in Jerusalem at this of all times.
One of the important take-aways for me about learning the laws around menstruation and sexuality and approaching them with a minyan (quorum) of women has been the shift from being objects to subjects of the text — with our own approach and interpretation. The question of owning our pleasure is central to this shift. Instead of being talked about, legislated about — and some may even say controlled — here we have an opportunity to have a direct experience of our divinely given energies and capacity as unmediated as possible by fear and control of others, except that which we have internalised. That too we have a chance to release and revisit.
Why women and men?
There are two elements to the answer to this question. The first one affirms our decision to have our primary circle of study in a women’s only space — a move not all religious feminists would agree with — while simultaneously wanting to bring men into the discussion. Here is where our open community events come in. I want men and women to hear each other’s deepest heart secrets and yearnings and to understand each other better. I want safe contained spaces in which this can happen. I want the hurts that women and men carry to be apparent each to the other and as this consciousness grows for us to operate out of more awareness and compassion.
The second element of bringing men and women in the discussion together is because I want to try to avoid hetero-normative assumptions that only in a mixed space there would be sexual feelings that could arise, and in that paradigm, that we should keep men and women separate. In addition, I see sexuality on a continuum and so hetero-normative assumptions don’t personally make sense for me because of that as well.
Why now in Jerusalem?
We cannot deny that there has been increased violence in Jerusalem and in the West Bank. Not to mention other forms of intra-group violence most notably violence against women.
What does it mean to own one’s pleasure? I understand it to mean taking responsibility for ones power and healing one’s hurt and coming out of a position of victimhood. This is where the personal is political. Taking responsibility for healing our hurts on the personal, physical, emotional, embodied level changes how we relate to the works on a macro level. I won’t speak for all Jews, and certainly not for all Palestinians.
Ali Abu Awad, a leader of the Palestinian non-violent movement has said that Jewish fear is the biggest enemy of the Palestinians.
I will say for myself that, as the granddaughter of concentration camp survivors, I have inherited recordings of genocidal annihilation. That can effect how I feel about myself in the world in the most fundamental basic ways of belonging on earth and having a right to exist. When the victim patterns are installed, the oppressor patterns come with it, so it can put me at risk of carrying out violence too because of what feels like the utter impossibility of facing the devastation that I have to face when left alone with my hurt and when unable to pass on the hurt to others.
Opening our hearts in general, and feeling and releasing patterns and hurts in the body, open our capacity to feel pleasure. Energy moves and shifts. Sometimes accessing pleasure can also bring up and release pain and hurt. It’s all part of the process of engaging the fullness of who we are and living the deepest lives we can live.
That’s some thoughts about why “owning our pleasure” is good for us — and for the world. It makes us more responsible and it gives us back our power.
May the Jewish people live up to our name of עם מדושני עונג, a nation saturated with pleasure.
Join us this Thursday night in Jerusalem for “Owning our Pleasure” with Michal Maayan Don, the first community event of Yeshivat Kol Isha.
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