Jewfem Blog

Foucault goes shopping, or, Reflections on a “Women and Halacha” Seminar

It’s 2 o’clock on Thursday afternoon. I’m shopping for an outfit to wear to a Bat-mitzvah on Saturday night. The saleslady hands me a black linen, straight, lined miniskirt and matching blazer. Why is this called a “power suit”? I wonder. Trying it on, I feel squeezed, tight, unable to move. And I feel molded – even if this particular mold is that of the successful, wealthy, beautiful people. This is just not me, I think to myself as I wriggle out of the skirt. Power suit – sure, other people’s power over my body.

It’s 2 o’clock on Thursday afternoon. I’m shopping for an outfit to wear to a Bat-mitzvah on Saturday night. The saleslady hands me a black linen, straight, lined miniskirt and matching blazer. Why is this called a “power suit”? I wonder. Trying it on, I feel squeezed, tight, unable to move. And I feel molded – even if this particular mold is that of the successful, wealthy, beautiful people. This is just not me, I think to myself as I wriggle out of the skirt. Power suit – sure, other people’s power over my body.

This is, of course, the seminar talking. On any other Thursday, I would be at the Jewish studies institute I go to, talking about Foucault and power and women and halacha – along with a diverse and interesting group of intelligent, committed women, and smatterings of equally interesting and intelligent men. Although the seminar was cancelled today, my head is obviously there anyway, I realize as my mind whirls around with thoughts of bat-miztvah, women’s bodies, and control issues. Foucault goes shopping.

We’ve been taking a look at the status of women in Judaism through Foucault lenses. I may be the only one on the group (or perhaps the only one to admit) that I had never really read Foucault before. Sure, I had read about him, and usually skipped those chapters in books or journals that to me always looked something like “A Foucault perspective on the incidence of speech disorders in Mongolian long-tailed monkeys.” That Foucault, right. So it was with enlightened awe that I learned about the strong influence Foucault has actually had on my way of thinking, that his original writings on social constructivism form the backbone of post-modernism in ways that I had never appreciated. I come to the seminar with that wide-eyed enthusiasm ready to discuss questions about the control of knowledge in Jewish life, and the ways in which power in a society is linked with those who control the societal discourse. In the seminar, we touched on issues within Judaism relating to synagogue partitions, women’s dress, marriage and divorce, among other things that are relevant and burning in my own Jewish life.

Yet, as I contemplate the fact that I am about to appear at a family event in front of dozens of relatives – some of whom I haven’t seen on years – I am torn between my desire to look the most elegant but natural that I can, versus my overwhelming urge to somehow slip into some other body altogether, the one that would fit our community’s definition of what is good, nice, successful, and beautiful. And then I wonder how I could have come to such a point where I allow societal expectations to influence me so deeply that I want to abandon my own flesh. As if my body somehow isn’t even mine. Foucault would say that a society’s notions of beauty and dress reflect the power structures within that society. In the world at large, it is readily apparent that magazine photos of brushed up, 90-pound, rib-protruding models can significantly impact the incidence of eating disorders. Girls and women so internalize notions about how a woman ought to look that they actually starve themselves. It’s a surreal Ethiopia meets Madison Avenue – and leaves us to wonder how we got here, and who created this monster.

But how is the Jewish world – especially the halacha-abiding world – different? Proponents of what is commonly called “modest dress” for women argue that the laws elevate women, protecting them from becoming Kate Moss. But is that really true? For one thing, evidence of widespread eating disorders in the Orthodox world dispels the myth that it’s not in our backyard. Slowly but surely, the skeletons are coming out of the closets and the yeshivot to reveal young religious girls starving themselves to look thin – in more or less the same numbers as the rest of American society. Moreover, that power suit with a few more inches on the knee (or even not) could have passed for perfect Shabbat wear in almost any Orthodox synagogue out of Israel. “Modest” according to halacha, simply does not equate with elevating women and helping them feel good about their bodies.

But Foucault tells us to look even deeper into the details of the laws that govern women’s appearance. It’s all about how much to cover. Cover the knees. Cover the shoulders. The elbows. The wrists. The thighs. The back. The belly. The neck. The toes. The hair. The hair! Cover it lest a person, read man, be brought to “sin”. (Sin of course being what happens to a man when he talks to or looks at a woman. I wonder what sin is for a woman.) The law goes further. “A woman’s voice is erva” Polluted? Evil? Sinful? The voice. That a woman should be seen and not heard – nay, neither seen nor heard. This is the message in the laws. A woman’s place in society is to be invisible. We, the men, would feel much better, stronger, and powerful, if you simply weren’t here. These are the laws written by men and for men but about women, the objects to be controlled. It hurts me to admit that I feel as if Foucault has handed me a pair of glasses that allows me to see clearly for the first time things that I’ve been looking at my whole life.

The mechitza, too, that infamous synagogue partition about which much has been written lately – it makes women invisible. It feels like halachic discourse is less about how much women ought to participate in Jewish life and more about how desperately men need to hide women from their view. It isn’t about making prayer more meaningful for everyone in the community. It’s about creating some type of sterile, female-free world on one side of a partition line, in which spiritual activity in central and exclusive. On the other side – or room, or balcony – group prayer is a non-event. Women are completely outside, as the halacha seems to prefer. The definition of “religiousness” in many places is a reflection of the extent to which women are oppressed. Case in point: a religious MK was recently castigated because his wig-wearing wife was seen sitting in a photograph where her knees were showing. He was told that he wasn’t really religious. He.

Not everyone at my seminar would agree. Halacha is not a single work but variegated. Halacha changes according to context and writer. That is, why blame all of halacha when it is only some of its ebbs and flows that appear to be clouded. Alternatively, there was a suggestion by a younger member of the group that halacha is connected to notions of Divine, God’s will, what is unchangeable. The reply to this, from no less than Prof. Tamar Ross, the elder stateswoman of the group and respected professor, who happens to be very religious, was “The Torah is not from God – it’s a pagan book”

“The Torah? Pagan?!” I replied, incredulous. “How can you be so adherent and devout if the Torah is a pagan book?”

“Oh, well, it was Divinely inspired.”

“But what does that mean?”

Indeed, that is my question. How do we reconcile these two conflicting notions, the one that halacha is context-dependent, an instrument of power, and the other that there is Divine inspiration in it? Am I to accept the oppression of women as divinely inspired? I shall not. But this tension between the desire to keep and the desire to reject, between finding something beautiful amidst a system that feels so tainted, between Jewish practice as a nice tradition and Judaism as patriarchal and oppressive – this is the essence of my struggle. I used to believe with all my heart that Judaism is a beautiful religion, that as Rabbi Akiva says, every letter has a divine spark And the more I see the injustice and lack of compassion in the practice, the more I see those old beliefs fade. I want to believe that our Judaism is humane, and that the “image of God” that is said to line our souls is that bit of human compassion. So I search for a resolution, a way to accept the tradition while undoing its fallacies. I don’t know what the resolution looks like, but it is ultimately what I’m looking for at this seminar, and what keeps me coming back.

This is not an entirely abstract discussion. In fact, I would venture to say that it is not abstract at all. My feminist education in “the personal is political” is a constant reminder that as academic and technical as the discussion can get, it is not theoretical. The agunot who suffer daily, for years on end, because of the power structures in the halachic discourse and in the Orthodox practice, remind me that these discussions are all too real. Indeed, every time I hear a story about an abused woman kept chained in an unwanted marriage because of three men’s interpretation of halacha, I find my entire religious and spiritual identity called into question. And even though reading from the Torah is nothing compared to being an agunah, the issues are completely intertwined. Because it is the same system that causes women and only women to suffer in these ways.

I find myself drawn to the struggles of the agunot as if they were my own, because it is this very system by which I have lived my whole life that is causing so much suffering. The suffering women feel as a result of their own silence within Jewish practice is one and the same with the pain of the agunot. We are all agunot. We are all marginal, we are all manipulated, we are all secondary members of our society, and I wonder how many others are as pained as I am. I am drawn to the agunot as a salmon is drawn upstream, because in a way their stories give me permission to scream.

So I’m going to this Bat-Mitzvah, and I don’t yet know how I will appear or how I want to appear. I’m still searching.

I call the bat-mitzvah girl to ask her how she’s doing. She says she’s very excited – she just got an extra decoration for a dress. And how’s the speech going? “It’s okay,” she said demurely, “But you should see” – she added with renewed interest -- “I have this great piece for my hair.” I think back to my own bat-mitzvah. The party, the friends, my speech. My hair. My dress. I pause to consider the connection between that event and my current disillusionment with my religious life – my thirty years of dwelling in the Orthodox world. At least I made a speech. I had a voice. And yet, I wonder if, had I read from the Torah, had I been counted in a minyan – had I been made to feel that I was a complete member of the community with equal voice and equal space – whether I would be more at peace with my spirituality. I dream about my own seven-year-old daughter, of what I want her to have that I don’t have. Worlds. Worlds. I wonder if, as Dr. Tova Halbertal discusses, I will succeed in transmitting all my ambivalence and still have her come out in tact. The personal is political, indeed.

I don’t know what to say to the girl. “I’m sure you’ll look very nice,” is my bland response. And my soul remains restless.

Thoughts on leadership