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This is a guest post by Nechama L. discussing binary gender roles in Orthodox Judaism and her experience in this culture as a queer woman and survivor of child sexual abuse.

In the Orthodox Jewish world, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is (in)famous for writing about sex. The book that started it all, Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy, has earned him both fame and consternation. This week he has branched out, addressing the recent controversy over whether speakers who are not explicitly pro-Israel should be invited to speak at Hillels, centers for Jewish community and religious observance on college campuses. While he focuses on Israeli politics, he also works his views on gender, feminism, and homosexuality into his article:

When it comes to Jewish life on campus we always seem to apply the notion that progress is being made by addressing soft issues, largely of a social and politically correct manner, such as Judaism and gender, Judaism and feminism, Judaism and egalitarianism, Judaism and homosexuality, etc.

While these are important issues, they are a poor substitute for the hard-edged debates that will shape the students political, cultural and spiritual outlook.

Rabbi Boteach is right that grappling with Israel’s morality is important. For example, it would be very appropriate on Passover, a holiday celebrating Jews’ freedom from oppression, to think about our own oppression of others. We might start with the fact that Israel enforces martial law over millions of people who are not Israeli citizens.

But the issues R. Boteach dismisses as a “poor substitute for hard-edged debates,” including feminism, gender, and homosexuality, are equally central to what it means to engage with Judaism.  And in fact, discussing Palestinian rights falls squarely under intersectional feminism.  So does the way Orthodoxy treats women and people who identify as queer.  While R. Boteach is addressing feminism in a pluralistic Hillel setting, my experiences have been within Orthodoxy, so I am going to discuss feminism’s importance in that context, as a subpart of pluralistic Jewish spaces.  It is worth noting that non-Orthodox Jewish movements have already positively addressed many of these issues.

spock from star trek looking skeptical

Right…The way Judaism treats women and people who identify as queer does not shape students’ political, cultural, and spiritual outlook.

When considering what issues are important to address on college campuses, the way Orthodox Judaism treats women and non-heterosexuals, two groups with which I identify, is not a side issue. It affects my life at least as deeply as Israeli politics. It affected me when members of my family told me that I didn’t need to go to college because I didn’t need a degree to get married. It affected me when I was engaged and my relatives were pressuring me to drop out of school so that I could get married and “start my life.” I’m sorry, I missed the part where not being married meant I wasn’t living.

What affects my life each day is this asshattery,[1] which whispers in the background whenever an Orthodox woman raises her voice about gender inequality and asks to be heard. What affects my life is that I fell in love with a woman after thinking I could never love or be intimate again, and I would be excommunicated if we built a life together. What affects my life is listening at morning prayers each day while the men in the congregation declare their gratitude to G-d for not making them a woman. At that point in the service I am required to thank G-d for making me according to His will, despite the fact that I have hated my female body since I was a child because of what men have done to it since then, despite having wished that I were a boy since kindergarten because I learned the hard way that being a boy was safer than being me. And I can’t even imagine the pain of Orthodox genderqueer individuals who Jewish law requires to recite that prayer each morning.

The ironic thing is that I do think there is room in Orthodox Judaism to address and reconcile our rampant sexism and phobia of anyone who doesn’t toe the binary gender, heterosexual line. There are partnership minyans and rabbis who argue for their right to exist. There are Orthodox women ordained as clergy. There is Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz. There are men who write well-meaning articles on how to interpret that ugly morning prayer as an acknowledgement of male privilege, even though I think he is missing the point, and don’t get me started on the horrible myth he perpetuates that society does not blame male survivors of rape. There is the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, an incredible movement even though I find their non-intersectionality deeply troubling. And there is Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who took the brave step of raising the importance of satisfying sex into public Jewish discussion and thought.

Clearly there is room in Orthodoxy for growth, for developing existing structures to enable women and people who identify as queer to become full participants in communal life. But none of that will happen if we keep billing feminism and sexuality as “soft issues” and pushing them to the side in favor of “big issues.” We should be grappling with the morality of Israel’s practices, though not in the assume-we’re-inherently-right-and-only-engage-in-communication-with-others-in-a-venue-where-we-can-shove-our-views-down-their-throats way advocated by R. Boteach’s recent article. But we should also ask, when did the state of Israel become a bigger issue than my ability to be a full participant in my Jewish, professional, and personal life?

Moving feminism from the realm of “soft” issues to central ones is a next step in our collective work of redeeming the sacredness of traditional Jewish life from the prejudice and discrimination that plague it. This work begins with how we treat each other, each and every day. For people who care about the ethical future of Orthodox Judaism, feminism cannot take a back seat.

1. Yes, Orthodox Judaism has a great track record in many of the regards discussed in that article. Unfortunately, those points are interwoven with crud like the quote below, along with an implicit assertion that because traditional Jewish law recognizes women’s rights to own property and to not be raped, any other criticisms of Orthodoxy’s treatment of women are invalid.

“Women are discouraged from pursuing higher education or religious pursuits, but this seems to be primarily because women who engage in such pursuits might neglect their primary duties as wives and mothers. The rabbis are not concerned that women are not spiritual enough; rather, they are concerned that women might become too spiritually devoted.”  Back