Shoshanna Jaskoll’s recent Times of Israel blog posting, “Vanishing Women,” is impassioned, well written, and insufficient as a critique. The insistence of some Haredi leaders upon women’s utter excision – literally — from Jewish public life of which she writes is merely an extreme expression of a continuum of women’s (and others’) exclusion and disempowerment that is reinforced by Halakhah. Placing women behind mehitzot, (partitions or screens for segregated prayer), denying them opportunities for public religious leadership, and expecting them to adhere to a system of gender exclusive practice created by male authorities all lie along this continuum as well. I understand why some women, no matter how egalitarian they are in the other segments of their lives, feel that this exclusivist halakhic arrangement works for them spiritually. Still, it is intellectually dishonest to criticize the Haredi rabbinic leadership for its sexually obsessive and misogynistic treatments of women, while treating the “kinder, gentler” exclusions of women as somehow different. They might be different in degree or level of harshness, but they are not necessarily different in substance.
More specifically, Ms. Jaskoll’s analysis of why women are vanished (more like banished) from everything in the Haredi public space, from billboards to books to baby ads, misses an important point. Commenting on this public vanishing act, she writes that, “Though the aim of this practice is to be holy and desexualize casual encounters, it instead has the opposite effect, making every interaction between genders a potentially sexual — and thus sinful — one and effectively renders any normal interaction between the sexes impossible.” This presumes that the stringencies of which she writes are based upon a sincere commitment to holiness in encounters between men and women, their extreme misogynistic outcomes notwithstanding. In fact, there is good reason to assume that the intent behind such exclusionary campaigns is the demonization of women as sexually predatory “Others,” capable of overpowering weak willed men who cannot ever be expected to control themselves.
Avoiding the usual apologetics, let us call each degree of exclusion of women from various aspects of Jewish life what it is: exclusion. It is an exclusion which teaches young girls that they can be and do whatever they wish in their lives, just not in religious life. It is an exclusion which proclaims deep solidarity with agunot, women chained by their recalcitrant husbands’ refusals to give them Jewish divorces, yet which fails to reform the system that put them there in the first place. It is an exclusion which sends the insidious message that “real” adherence to Jewish standards of modesty and sexual propriety can only happen when men and women are totally separated, meaning actually that women are the ones who need to be supervised or sidelined. It is an exclusion which creates a schizophrenic split between secular values and religious tradition, while refusing to consider that perhaps those values can be part of a religiously authentic, traditional worldview.
I write all of this as a Conservative rabbi who is witnessing the erosion of the Conservative movement worldwide, yet who also recognizes the truth that institutional Orthodoxy refuses to admit: values of egalitarian inclusiveness are inherently Jewish, they are influencing religious activists like Ms. Jaskoll, and they are here to stay. Even as movements like mine are sickening institutionally, they are winning philosophically and halachically. This is because the “frum (religious) street” has learned from us. It is now growing tired of hide-bound authorities who cannot get past discredited attitudes about women’s status, and who care more about staying in power than they do about real people’s lives, narratives and suffering. Rabbis and lay people who have had enough of the authoritarian nonsense dressed as Torah-true propriety are voting with their feet and their partner minyans.
I most certainly am not insinuating that anyone who disagrees with my egalitarian perspective is a sexist, misogynist, or abuser of women. I know, love and respect plenty of modern religious and Haredi men and women who are decent, devoted husbands, wives, Jews and people of the world. Further, I recognize that, ultimately, it is not my business to tell my fellow Jews how to connect with God and Torah. What I am arguing is that the Haredi extremes which Ms. Jaskoll decries are not created ex nihilo: they come out of long-time historical and halachic contexts, and they lie along the above mentioned continuum of religious leaders’ control of women.
We are witnessing the profound impact of egalitarian values upon those exclusionary traditions. Consider that the more women’s dignity and personhood is affirmed in modern religious and civil circles, the higher and more barbed-wired the gender and societal walls created by threatened extremist religious leaders become. This is tragic when we consider that the origin of those values hails in part from our Torah’s own emphasis on humanity being created in God’s image.
Writers and leaders like Ms. Jaskoll have the Torah knowledge and halachic commitment to make the authentic changes in Jewish society which she began to enumerate. Let me suggest that they begin to make those changes through a thorough critique of every aspect of women’s marginalization, whether chosen or imposed, liberal, centrist or Haredi, within Jewish religion. (I include in this critique the exclusive right of men to begin divorce proceedings, which I am sad to say even we Conservative rabbis retain.) They can commence this critique by considering that if we do not want women to vanish, we might start by not putting them behind partitions.