Feminism Fridays: Women's Roles In Traditional Judaism
Before I get into this post, let me begin by apologizing for missing a few Feminism Fridays. It's been a hectic few weeks as I packed up and moved to Jerusalem. I'm all settled now, though, so you'll be seeing regular Friday posts from me again.
That being said, my move to Jerusalem reintroduced me to what it's like to live near a large community of traditional, or ultra-Orthodox, Jews. Jews are one of the most complicated groups of people on this planet. Not only are there secular and religious Jews, but there are also a multitude of different groups within the larger secular and religious communities. We often argue among each other more aggressively than we argue with those who are not Jewish at all. Today, my argument is with the ultra-Orthodox community.
Last Friday my group went to the Kotel, or the Western Wall. I've been before, so I know the drill, but every time I go there it still irks me that I have to compromise my own comfort and lifestyle for the Orthodox Jews there. The Kotel is an Orthodox site, and as such, everyone who visits there is required to adhere to Orthodox customs. That means that women must cover their shoulder and their knees, and they're separated from the men. Men, on the other hand, can wear whatever they want to the Kotel, even a Spiderman costume. Men also have a larger prayer section and can enter the temple at the Wall. Women have to crowd into the small section allotted to them and, because it's on the men's side, cannot enter the temple. In Orthodox synagogues, women are separated from the men. They cannot lead services or read from the Torah. At home, their main job is to be a wife and mother.
Although some of these things are changing in more traditional Judaism, they are, for the most part, staying the same. Traditional Judaism views women in a sort of separate but equal role. They cannot do everything men can do, but they are no less important to Jewish life. My issue here is less that women are treated as inferior and more that women don't have as much of a choice in how they contribute to Jewish life. Feminism is not the idea that women are superior to men but that we are equal to them and have a choice in how we live our lives. That lack of a choice is where I take issue with traditional Judaism.
Being a Reform Jew, these gender roles normally don't affect me, especially in the United States. Here in Israel, though, particularly in Jerusalem, interacting with people who adhere to traditional gender roles is a common occurrence. What bothers me is that I feel I am looked down upon by traditional Jews for not following their customs. If the women of traditional Judaism want to live their lives by old rules, that's fine by me. Everyone is entitled to their own choice. Just don't glare at me for wearing a tank top on the train. It's unnerving and annoying to be looked at like a pariah by people who are supposed to be part of my community, the Jewish community.
Like I said before, change is coming. There is now a spot around the other side of the Kotel where men and women can pray together and can wear whatever they want (which, to be honest, feels like a more spiritual place to me than a place where I am segregated and told how to dress). Change is coming slowly, though, and we will not find answers any time soon. So for now I will cover myself and separate myself from the men. I can only hope that one day traditional Jews will recognize me as also being a religious Jew, even if I do choose to pray in shorts.