Orthodox Feminism and 50 Shades

In a recent TOI article about Orthodox Jewish feminism (in honor of International Women’s Day), Amanda Borschel-Dan depicted the movement as being headed toward the same goals as Reform and Conservative feminism, albeit at a “different pace.” She also focused on the possibilities for “interdenominational collaboration” between Orthodox and non-Orthodox women leaders.

I suspect that Borschel-Dan is out of touch with mainstream/consensus Orthodox feminism, which arguably has much to lose from such collaboration and would benefit, rather, from a clearer demarcation of the boundaries between it and non-Orthodox Jewish feminism.

Rather than compromising its own principles and pandering to groups that don’t share its halakhic concerns, Orthodox feminism would do well to actually take stands on issues that highlight what it has to offer as a distinct movement.

One such issue is WIZO’s decision to screen 50 Shades of Grey at its recent international fundraiser.

I waited, in the days leading up to the fundraiser, for Orthodox Jewish feminism — whether through the organizations that claim to represent it, or by means of individuals who prominently self-identify as Orthodox feminists — to publicly denounce WIZO’s 50 Shades screening. I’m still waiting.

The event has already passed, but has set a precedent that is troubling from both a feminist and a Jewish point of view. As Orthodox feminism straddles both the feminist world and the world of Jewish observance, it needs to make its displeasure known — or lose its relevance.

The generic-feminist — really, the humanist — case against WIZO’s use of 50 Shades for fundraising purposes needs no elaboration. A film that “casually associates hot sex with violence” is hardly an appropriate choice for an organization that is active in the effort to combat domestic violence.

Given this dissonance, it would have been great — from either a humanist or a generic-feminist point of view — if the President of Israel and the various MKs and Israeli public figures who participated in WIZO-led activities this past November, in connection with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, had expressed their disappointment in WIZO. It would have been great for the status of Israeli women and for the overall health of Israeli society; but it would not have made a specifically Jewish point.

That is where Orthodox feminism might have stepped in with a real, and unique, contribution. It’s not too late.

The WIZO-50 Shades affair can be seen as a test case for Orthodox feminism, which needs to take stock and define its mission in a way that does justice not only to its feminist side but also to its Orthodox side. By doing so, it can become a force for the injection of positive Jewish values into Israeli and Diaspora Jewish life.

One such Jewish value, which was most egregiously challenged by WIZO’s 50 Shades screening, is that of tsniut — modesty.

Tsniut has been getting a bad rap lately. The concept — which is central to Jewish observance for both men and women — has become associated in the secular public mind with its deviant or “hyper” manifestations. Orthodox feminists have resoundingly condemned these excesses, and rightly so. But Orthodox feminists also need to resolutely and vocally distinguish between “modesty patrols“/efforts to remove women from the public sphere — and the kind of modesty that elevates and ennobles women and men alike. They also need to make it very clear that, in an era when advertising sexualizes everything, embracing modesty is actually the sane and progressive choice.

And, yes, it is indeed a matter of choice. In an exceptionally cynical TOI blog post, Rolene Marks, a member of the World WIZO Executive, characterized WIZO’s 50 Shades screening as exemplifying women’s “right to choose” – i.e., anyone who didn’t want to view the film at the fundraiser was welcome to spend their time doing … something else. I have to wonder whether WIZO events also feature non-kosher refreshments, and whether kosher-keeping participants are expected to choose between eating treif and going hungry. When glamorized smut is the only thing on the menu, are Jewish values welcome at the table?

Orthodox feminism’s silence on this issue has been thunderous – though not entirely baffling. Nobody wants to be a party pooper, or uncool; and identifying with modesty has become uncool, at least in the eyes of a certain kind of ultra-extroverted Ortho-fem activist. It’s no fun to talk about limits, and it’s certainly more PC and more invigorating to plug for “healthy sexuality.” Healthy sexuality is a basic human need/value that Orthodox feminists can and should champion — but when they do so, they should not delude themselves that they are making a specifically “Orthodox” contribution to feminist discourse. The special contribution of Orthodox feminism would be to explore and explain how modesty promotes healthy sexuality (à la Wendy Shalit).

The one thing that self-proclaimed Orthodox feminists should not be doing is using hyper-tsnuit as an excuse to indiscriminately trash the entire sphere of taharat hamishpacha (Jewish family purity) and its attendant laws and rituals; and no Orthodox feminist worthy of the name can be excused for calling yoatzot halacha – whose existence is one of Orthodox feminism’s signal achievements – “part of the problem.”

In the social media age, when everyone wants to “share” and be “liked,” taking a stand that sets you apart is not easy; defining yourself and your values in contradistinction to others and their values is not easy. But Judaism is a religion of definitions and distinctions, as our liturgy reminds us regularly, and with particular emphasis during the havdalah service that marks the transition from Shabbat to regular weekday:

Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who makes a distinction between sacred and profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the Seventh Day and the six work days. Blessed are You L-rd, who makes a distinction between sacred and profane.

We need an Orthodox feminism that is not afraid to talk about the distinction between sacred and profane.

About the Author
I am a Jerusalem-based translator and former academic librarian.
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