Sunday, May 22, 2011

Erasing Women

By now you’ve probably seen both versions of the picture. The original photo, from the White House Situation Room, shows President Obama, his Secretary of State, the director of counter-terrorism for the National Security Council and other high officials watching intently as the raid to nab Osama bin Laden unfolds. Then there is the doctored version, in which the Secretary of State and the director of counter-terrorism are neatly airbrushed out of the picture, replaced by shadows. Why? Because it appeared in Di Tzeitung, a Brooklyn newspaper published by Orthodox Jews, who have a long history of erasing women from the category of full personhood.

The newspaper quickly asserted a constitutional right to commit whatever fraud it chooses, on the grounds that it is doing so in the name of religion, where truth is of no value. “Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women,” the paper brashly announced. Then it went on the offensive: “The allegations that religious Jews denigrate women or do not respect women in public office is a malicious slander and libel.”

Always a sucker for a dare, I’ll take that bait. I hereby allege that “religious Jews denigrate women,” and have always done so. If Di Tzeitung wants to call that malicious slander and libel, I invite readers to examine the facts.

Not all Jews think alike, of course, any more than all Christians, Muslims, or Mormons do. There are plenty of religious Jews who don’t denigrate women. But there are plenty who do, and those who do are far closer to the mainstream of 3,000 years of Jewish tradition than those who don’t.

Exhibit number one is the counterfeit picture itself. I’m fond of a little immodesty from time to time, and this isn’t it. Ms. Clinton is fully clothed in a conservative suit, and Ms. Tomason is barely visible at all. Di Tzeitung is saying that it is impossible for a depiction of a woman to be anything but immodest – even though it is possible for a picture of a man to be perfectly ok. This treats women differently from men, diminishing their rights to be depicted in any form, and thereby denigrates them.

Shabby Jewish treatment of women goes all the way back to the Torah; it is Eve, after all, who gets blamed for Adam’s lust. Deuteronomy shows God treating wives like tradable chattels; when a man dies without a son, his brother automatically inherits the widow as a wife without bothering to ascertain her views. (This law is still enforced by the Israeli government today.) Jewish law forbade women from acting as judges, or even offering evidence in court, while barring daughters from receiving any inheritance from a man who had sons. As 1st century Jewish historian Josephus put it: “The woman, says the law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive.” Islam, which split off from Judaism in the 7th century, was downright feminist by comparison: women’s testimony counted half as much as a man’s in court, and daughters could inherit half as much as sons.

After the destruction of Jerusalem in the 2nd century, Judaism entered the Talmudic age, in which the position of women grew even worse, starting with the command of the rabbis at Yavneh for men to thank God during morning prayer for not making them slaves, women, or Gentiles. The Talmud teaches in various spots that “Women are light-minded,” that they are “gluttonous, eavesdroppers, lazy and jealous,” “querulous and garrulous,” and “addicted to witchcraft.”

Jewish polygamy was permitted and officially practiced nearly to the dawn of the Enlightenment. Jewish law also had an elaborate set of rules governing concubinage, which was a great deal for men who could afford it. Virginity was required for brides; if the groom discovered otherwise on his wedding night, “Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.” After marriage, the Talmud is most specific in defining the frequency and preferred techniques of sexual intercourse. If a wife did not live up to her husband’s expectations, a list of her failings would be read aloud in the synagogue, and she could be divorced unless she corrected her mistakes.

Even in modern times, Jewish law treats women as less than fully human. Israel does not recognize civil marriage; God experts are granted complete control over marriage and divorce. In a 1969 case, a husband was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for committing six indecent assaults and three rapes. For some reason, this exhausted the patience of his wife, who sued for divorce. However, since the man refused, the couple remained married; the wife had no recourse under the religious law mandated in Israel. A former Israeli Minister of Religion explained that: “We have a legal system which has always sustained the people. It may contain within it some thorn that occasionally pricks the individual. We are not concerned with this or that individual, but with the totality of the people.”

Jewish law remains obsessed with the phenomenon of menstruation. The Talmud prescribes that:

A menstruant must not cut her fingernails, lest a husband or child accidentally step on or touch the clippings and, as a result, develop boils and die; a priest whose mother, wife, or any other female member of the household is menstruating, may not bless the people, lest his blessing become a curse; a sage who partakes of food prepared by a menstruant will forget his learning; a menstruant’s spit, breath, and speech cause impurity in others.

In Orthodox congregations even today, during menstrual periods, husband and wife may not touch each other, even by means of an intermediate object, nor pass objects between them. They may not share a bed nor sit together on a seat. The husband may not eat directly from his wife’s leftovers (though she may eat his); he may not see parts of his wife’s body that are usually covered, smell her perfume, gaze upon her clothing (whether or not it is being worn), listen to her singing, or discuss sexually exciting subjects with her. At the end of seven days, the wife must visit a ritual bath after nightfall, where she must remove all foreign objects from her body, comb her hair, blow her nose, and wash herself thoroughly, before spreading her legs for inspection to make sure she’s acceptable again.* We’re not talking about the dark ages here: we’re talking about 21st century Israel and Brooklyn, USA.

Judaism is not the only religion that denigrates women – they all do, to a greater or lesser extent. The great conundrum is that in all parts of the world, throughout history, women still tend to be more religious than men, any way you choose to measure it. So why do women put up with this kind of garbage? Beats me. Maybe somebody ought to write a book about it …


Gary Berg-Cross said...

One can point to old religious texts that place women is a sub-ordinate role. Jewish texts offer a view into these ancient customs. Such writings and some of the later doctrines rationalize old cultural norms. These serve to formally freeze women into an old way of life. The cultures use the idea of "tradition" as an instrument to sub-due change. Next time you here someone humming a diddy about "tradition" and the role of the wise father, think of authoritarian ideas packaged into a false front. There is even a perverse irony that these cultures perpetuate these restrictions by organizing key behaviors to conserve the old ways. They prescribe how women are to pass along cultural expectations through child rearing role.

rwahrens said...

And the fact that women DO pass them along gives new meaning to the Stockholm Syndrome. I wonder how long until the Psychological community pays attention to that and includes it in the definition?

Anonymous said...

I don't have a particular desire to defend modern day Orthodox Judaism, which has a talent for making me mad enough to spit nails, however...

I actually will quibble a bit with your characterization of ancient Judaism. Sure, it treated women like crap, but so did everybody else. But Judaism did make some attempts to make women's lives better, even if it ended up failing miserably.

For example, the ketubah, the marriage contract, gave women specific legal rights in case her husband decided to abandon her. She could take the bastard to court and get a certain percentage of his worldly goods.

And those sexual requirements? Were incumbent on men, not women. Jewish men were required to offer sex a certain number of times per month, but the woman was not required to accept.

Of course, in our modern world, the ways of Orthodoxy are obnoxious and outdated and ridiculous. But as a Jewish atheist, I do find things in my people's past to celebrate. And I do find that some of the traditions are worth passing on, even if the god bits aren't.