Last night, I saw that Bob Dylan has released a new album. Apparently, it is very good.
The announcement brought up happy memories. I grew up on Dylan and we learnt his lyrics almost as we learnt religious texts. (Leonard Cohen came later.) I don’t remember precisely what we said about “Just Like a Woman” then. When I read it now, I certainly don’t feel that it offends my feminist sensitivities. Indeed, there is a lot of sadness and pain in the song, and there is no generalisation from the individual girl/woman who has caused this pain to women in general.
Unfortunately, this is not true of many blues and folk songs that typically depict women as untrustworthy or deceitful. Those songs, of course, did not invent the image. There are folk-tales and fairy-tales that form the backbone of most of the cultures of which we are familiar that portray women as entrappers of men and embodiments of evil.
Jewish tradition had Lilith. We had witches. Rabbinic literature contains warnings to men about the duplicity of women (as well as their light-headedness) and negative attitudes persist.
“Just like a woman” was often a way of demeaning someone.
As a proud Jewish woman, I struggle with the negative references and take strength from praises of women, which also abound in our tradition, along with the marvellous role-models in the Tanakh.
As a woman who chooses to stay within Orthodoxy and to accept the limitations on my participation in communal worship, I am in an ongoing struggle to build and strengthen my relationship with the Divine without any of the physical “props” that men use. While some of my sisters have changed their behaviour and taken on some of these rituals, I do not wear tzitzit as a daily reminder of the Exodus or bind tefillin onto my arm and forehead; in Synagogue worship, I do not go up to the “bimah” or read from the Torah (except in women’s prayer groups).
That is why I was amused to read the grieving of men in social media who felt that while they are under coronavirus restrictions and cannot touch the Torah, their religious life is completely undermined.
I wanted to say to them, “Now, you are just like a woman. So, man up!”
In one of the Facebook groups to which I belong, women pointed out that some synagogues in the UK and the US have threatened worshipers that if they do not wear masks, they will not be given aliyot – just like women! Their “punishment” is that they will be treated like women!
Of course, they are not like women. The “social distancing” from Torah is temporary. For women in the traditional Orthodox world, it is the reality in which we negotiate our relationship with our law and tradition.
Women do not rely on the physical in order to relate to the spiritual. Women have long discovered the beauty and power of prayer at home. Women know how to build a meaningful religious life without relying on a minyan.
So, perhaps some of the lessons of the coronavirus for “religious” men are to appreciate a home-centred Jewish life and to reassess your dependence on having “honours” in the synagogue and to start to build a relationship with the Divine that is not based on physical symbols – just like a woman.