Nuance

A word not often used about any statement I make, and with good reason. As it is, I feel the desire to qualify my approbation for something wandering around Facebook that I reposted. It deserves…well, something more thought-out than my one line response because it speaks (or is being interpreted as speaking) to a larger issue. Two larger issues, actually, wrapped up in one large bundle of mess: Women and Cultural Criticism (not the discipline, the act of criticizing another’s culture).

Here’s the article: http://www.xojane.com/relationships/hasidic-women-sex. Whether it makes you smile or cringe depends primarily on your personal experiences with being Jewish.

Okay; so lets get the preliminary information that everyone should have in the back of their heads out of the way, okay? (I will try to either not offend any of my readers or to offend you all equally).

  • There is no monolithic Judaism. Judaism as an entity agrees on very little. Orthodox Judaism agrees on very little. Hell, even Ultra-Orthodox Judaism disagrees over any number of things. The statement “Judaism believes” is accurately translated as “my interpretation of Judaism believes” and this is just as true if you are a Charedi Rabbi decrying the Internet or a Modern Orthodox Rabbi decrying the treatment of girls in Beit Shemesh. (This is, obviously, not the full spectrum of possible Jewish positions, but it’s the two that came to mind quickest). Irrespective of what you personally believe Judaism is and what you know, in your heart, to be right, you have to allow for a multiplicity of views within the word Judaism because there will be people out there who will use the word in a way you feel is untenable and, unless you want to allow them to do the same to you, you cannot deny them the right to use it.
  • Because there is no monolithic Judaism, it is in fact possible for the religion to be progressive AND misogynistic at the same time in the same field. Take Mikveh for example (which the article does). The idea of a woman becoming impure (and who are we kidding, the connotations of “bad!” were there) and requiring ritual immersion is misogynistic, but some of the current practice and rhetoric around the idea (at least as far as I have encountered it) has turned it into something both meaningful on an individual level and powerful. You are not a bad Jew for finding ritual immersion to be demeaning to you as a woman nor are you a bad feminist for finding it empowering. You can even manage both at the same time.*
  • Because there is no monolithic Judaism and because individual responses to Judaism are predicated not on the legal and philosophical structure of the religion, but on the individual’s experiences of it, any account of what it means to be a Jewish woman is true of–and only of–the woman writing it. As practiced, Judaism can be extraordinary misogynistic, respectful of women, oppressive, empowering, demeaning or fulfilling and is all those things over the course of a single day. Chaya, the article’s author, clearly practices Judaism in a way that makes her feel empowered and, in her encounters with others, does not feel as though their Judaism is infringing on her self. This is not true of…oh, let’s pull a name out of a hat, Deborah Feldman, for whom Judaism (remember, not the monolithic entity, but her version of it) was oppressive and destructive to her self. The fact that their Judaisms were likely very similar only serves to illustrate my point.
  • Because of the three earlier points, any counter-statement that begins with “Well, Judaism doesn’t believe” is a waste of breath. That’s a statement that could/should be phrased “I really wish certain interpretations of Judaism didn’t say…”
  • Which brings me to my final point–any response, either to someone like Feldman or someone like Chaya that denies the reality of their personal experiences should be avoided. You might not like what they say, you might find it damaging to your views of your own faith or you might see it as covering a whole mess of nasty things under a sweetness and light blanket, but you cannot deny another person the reality of her experiences.

The author will now pause to take a deep breath.

Now, here was my response to the article:
I really really really hope that most women see themselves this way AND feel both happy and comfortable expressing it.

 I left out the word Charedi in that sentence–before the word women–because it was facebook and I was in a rush and I didn’t have time to deliberate over whether or not it belongs. But here’s the thing. I really hope most of the women who fit in to the group this author is from have the kind of life she describes. I hope none of them felt pressured in any way to marry the men they married. I hope all of them have fantastic sex lives, whatever that entails. I hope they all find mikveh to be a beautiful experience. I hope they all like themselves. I really really really HOPE they feel as though they have a choice and that they can express what they feel and think.

Because that’s where all this messiness comes from in the first place. Do you do what you do because it is meaningful to you or because you cannot escape it? That’s the difference between the hijab being a lovely expression of a way of life and a form of imprisonment. It’s the difference between dressing “modestly” and feeling like men respect you and covering up and feeling awful about it. (I should note, of course, that the way men treat women  has a huge impact on whether something is great or sucks, but that’s a-whole-nother kettle of fish.)

And, of course, how do you take people at their word? If you grew up believing that your brand of Judaism is right and that it’s truly meaningful to you, can I take your word for it? Aren’t you just indoctrinated into what society has taught you? Then again, aren’t I?

So what, in the end, can we get out of this article?

  1. Do try and respect other people’s experiences especially when they’re different than your own.
  2. Beware of privilege. And I realize that’s a bit of an evil word right now, but bear in mind that being happy with your religion is a privilege and that those who are should think about it in much the same way other forms of privilege are thought about.
  3. Telling other people they are oppressed is a bad idea even/especially if they are. Helping to create a world where people feel comfortable making choices and where personal agendas don’t unduly infringe on someone else is a better option. (Note – telling someone that you’re freeing them from their personal agenda by imposing yours on them is not the way to go).
  4. There will be people out there who disagree with you. That’s okay.** They may find something you find liberating to be appalling and vice versa. If we live in a world where neither religion nor fashion nor the workplace nor the community imposes those views on us until we can and do choose to allow them to, then the fact that someone does differently than you do is no cause for comment, much less screed.
  5. I really wish we lived in the aforementioned world.

This is what Judaism thinks. At least, it’s what Judaism thinks as expressed by the chick sitting in the library wearing skinny jeans and a headscarf.

~~~

*I point blank will not address issues of obligation. Every single reader has a better idea than I do of what they feel is incumbent on themselves and what/how they choose to be Jewish and that is far more important than what I believe (to anyone except myself). I’m talking about emotional responses.

** I’m using the word you deliberately here. Disagreeing with me is different.

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About

I'm a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. My interests lie in the field known very broadly as the Digital Humanities and I focus on reading digital books (what happens to books as they become not merely digitized, but digital) and reading books digitally (how can we use computers to learn new things about literature). In what spare time I have, I read speculative fiction, transform long strings of yarn into apparel and decor and play with my friends' dogs while eagerly awaiting the day when we move to an apartment complex that will allow us to have one.

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