An acquaintance of mine who writes for a secular women’s magazine here in Israel
called to ask if I would be willing to be interviewed about the hot topic of the
“I want to hear about how you feel about being relegated to the back
of the bus, about being made invisible, about having rabbis take control of your
life. I want to hear your real voice.”
“Would it be okay if my ‘real
voice’ says something else?” I asked her via e-mail.
I wonder if she was
aware of the irony of her response when she wrote me back, “We don’t want
slogans. We want the truth!”
So what is the truth? I know I am supposed to feel
like a repressed, suppressed, oppressed and perhaps depressed victim of a
patriarchal leadership, relegated to the back of the bus by bushy-bearded,
black-coated, wildeyed fanatics. But what if I don’t? As a card-carrying haredi
woman, living in the heart of haredi land, who spends a good part of her week
teaching Jewish thought to hundreds of secular Israeli university students, I
often feel slightly schizophrenic – as if I have a foot in two
And like anyone else who moves between different cultures, I have
discovered that what you see from here, you can’t see from there. Wearing one’s
own glasses to view another’s value system never works.
So I wasn’t
surprised by her assumption that this was the way I would view things – from her
perspective, it made perfect sense. But I wonder if it would have been okay with
her if my “real voice” saw not the haredi woman, but femininity in general, as
being “pushed to the back of the bus”?
Men and women often differ in how they
view the male/female dynamic. Women seem to prefer that the physical
relationship mirror and express a deeper emotional or spiritual bond. We also
like commitment, preferably sooner rather than later. Women, perhaps
annoyingly to some, seem to hear the uncommitted guy saying, despite professions
of love: I want to leave the back door open in case someone else comes along who
makes me happier than you.
Men, on the other hand, are more likely to be
able to enjoy a purely physical connection without any emotional relationship at
all (or as one of my students said, forget about a relationship – how about just
knowing my name!)
This may be borne out in the postulation in Jewish mysticism
that the physical world parallels the spiritual one. Male organs are external;
women’s are internal. The woman literally incorporates the experience into
herself; the man has the ability to externalize the experience entirely, and can
leave his “self” out of the picture.
So what does a woman do with these
inconvenient desires for exclusivity, commitment and an in-depth relationship,
in a world where this is viewed at best as quaint and naïve and at worst as a
sign of sexual repression? The answer is that she buries them deep inside her
and steps out to negotiate in a man’s world. The last thing she needs is to be
viewed as “hung up.”
In a world that grants legitimacy only to a male
perspective, a woman quickly realizes that she had better stop her incessant
demands, and (to paraphrase Henry Higgins) just be more like a man.
fact, it is the woman who is cool with the “new monogamy,” who also has her
“male trophies” dangling at the end of her leash and who has no interest in
settling down, who is often idealized as the truly liberated, modern woman.
Finally – here is someone who has been released from the shackles of a society
that has been squelching her all these years by telling her that all a woman
wants is love and intimacy.
Hurray! Finally she can tell the truth – what
she really wanted all along was a hook up!
I will never forget how incensed one
of my students was when another woman in the class proudly told us how she never
gets involved emotionally in these relationships.
“So what do you want us
to do?” this student said. “Stand up and applaud? Why aren’t there any men
around here boasting that they are just like women and can’t handle a
relationship without having a deep, personal relationship first?!”
many ways of being controlled, and having your basic desires suppressed is one
of them. The ancient curse, “And he will rule over you,” seems to describe
modern reality – it’s a man’s world, and she better get with the
But a curse is not a good thing. The goal is to return to a
world of unity and love. Hopefully we are on a slow and steady progression to a
time of perfection, where the curses will no longer apply.
SO WHO is
supposed to keep us on track? Whose is the voice that speaks of internality, of
depth, of love and of intimacy? It may be the woman, but who is listening?
Interestingly Judaism is. In a fascinating dynamic, Halacha (Jewish law) seems
to identify the female perspective on relationships as the ideal, and sets up a
program to bring men closer to that perspective. The Halacha of guarding one’s
eyes teaches him about exclusivity. The ketuba teaches him to take
responsibility and be committed. The on-again/off-again cycle of taharat
(ritual purity) helps a couple to develop an emotional bond, as well
as providing a framework to keep the magic and excitement in the marriage. What
she may naturally know, he acquires through discipline.
female perspective to influence society has huge ramifications. Kate
Bolick discusses this in an article in Atlantic
where men heavily outnumber women,” she writes, “women are valued and treated
with deference and respect and use their high dyadic power to create loving,
committed bonds with their partners and raise families. Rates of illegitimacy
and divorce are low.”
While Bolick hooks women’s influence to
demographics, there are other ways to make sure that society grows in the
direction of internality and love toward which the female voice has
One way is by courageously facing what happens to
us all when we trivialize the ramifications of loss of sexual propriety. The
stakes are very high – for us, for our relationships and for society at large.
Staying true to that feminine voice isn’t easy in a world that negates it, or
worse, ridicules it as unattainable. But Halacha helps, and sometimes social
structures do, too.
Giving expression to this vision requires commitment
and discipline. Men who subscribe to this will be limited in where they
can go, what they can do (and to whom they can listen). Notably, haredi men,
with their long coats and jackets, tend to dress even more modestly than haredi
women do, perhaps strengthening the thesis toward the feminine perspective of
Is having women sit in the back of the bus the best
safeguard for this vision? That is certainly debatable. But it is a
conscious debate being carried on within a society that subscribes to a
particular value system – and in which people are not interested in being
squished together with the opposite gender on a bus ride.
definitely not okay to harangue a woman who chooses to sit in the front of the
bus, but this is not about subjugated women waiting for a Rosa Parks to liberate
them from a chauvinistic, patriarchal leadership. This is about men and women on
the same team – struggling to maintain a connection with their higher selves.