The Worth of a Woman

I just got finished reading an excellent article in Haaretz by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt entitled, “The Dating Shame: Orthodox Obsession With Externals Has Reached Epidemic Proportions.” The article is written by a young married woman reflecting on her current role as “matchmaker,” now that she has achieved the holy grail of marriage. She sees herself reflected in the eyes of the many hopeful and vulnerable single women in her community who now see her as a possible conduit to their own future marriages.

She knows their pain and even, dare I say, desperation, because she was recently one of them. She knows the uncertainty, the impatience of waiting to be called by a matchmaker for even one introductory date, the starvation diets, the exorbitant amounts of money spent on clothing and salon visits, the agonizing decision over whether or not to undergo cosmetic surgery in order to attract a man. It’s a man’s market out there, which is always bad news for a woman.

Mrs. Chizhik-Goldschmidt references another thought provoking Time magazine article that discusses the current state of dating within two different fundamentalist religious groups, Mormons and Orthodox Jews.  The similarities between both are, quite frankly, anything but religious. In “What Two Religions Tell Us About the Modern Dating Crisis,” Jon Birgir explores what happens when there is a shortage of marriageable aged men in ultra-religious societies that normally emphasize modesty, kindness, and religious values as primary qualities looked for when choosing a mate.

What happens in such societies when there is a man shortage, is that the men are able to set the standards for most desirable qualities in a partner. Not surprisingly, in such circumstances, the most sought after items appear to be looks and money. The Time article subtitle reads, “Believe it or not, the rise in Mormon breast implants and $100,000 Jewish dowries can explain why you’re alone on Friday night.”

It’s not an accident that the new mesorah for yeshivish orthodox families is that most young men learn Torah full time, while their wives are expected to work, and oh yeah, bring a large dowry to the marriage both in terms of initial start-up money (wedding expenses, housing, furnishings, etc.) and a commitment from her parents to pay towards monthly living expenses for an extended time period.

The richer the girl’s family is, the best “quality” of husband they can afford to buy her. If a girl’s family is poor, by golly, she’d better be pretty. If she is neither rich, nor pretty, she’d better be smart and command a large future earning potential – who am I kidding? The only things that matter in today’s orthodox market are rich or pretty, preferably both, but if she’s rich she can most likely afford to become pretty too. The smart, reasonably attractive, poor girls don’t stand much of a chance in the yeshivish shidduch scene. Unless they have yichus. Yichus is a commodity that orthodox grooms and their families still value. An impressive family tree could potentially snag a young man who is looking to advance himself in the Torah world by hitching a ride on a Talmudical star in his wife’s family.

Mrs. Chizhik-Goldschmidt reiterates the huge irony that women in the orthodox world are disappearing from the public eye, like precious diamonds that must be concealed to hide their worth, while at the same time increasingly being objectified and judged on their physical appearance the same way women are judged in the secular world. It’s a tightrope orthodox women walk every day – balancing between modesty standards on one side and secular standards of beauty on the other – orthodox men expect us to excel at both to win them and keep them.

Next time you are tempted to complain upon seeing an unmarried or married woman tottering in heels a bit too high, makeup a bit too heavy, a wig a bit too long, or a skirt that just grazes the knee of acceptability, don’t point a finger at her. Let’s all point our fingers squarely where they belong – at ourselves – for telling our women that our value is in our physical presentation and our financial ability to make a good one. Are we any better than secular society when our own standards are such that looks and money make up the sum of a bas yisroel’s worth?


Don’t Men Get Insulted?

helplessI often wonder if men get tired of being underestimated when I see generalizations made about women being objects of lust and men being unable or unwilling to control their temptations. I recently wrote about this general attitude having gone so far, that a Hasidic rabbi has declared that he will no longer meet with women, even with their husbands present. He is urging other orthodox rabbis not to meet with women anymore either, lest they succumb to their baser urges.

On occasion, when discussing the topic of sex segregation, men will acknowledge that it is often difficult not to have sexual feelings around women. My teenage sons will shake their heads and say, “Mom, you have no idea how teenage boys think.”

That is true, but at the same time, older men, like my husband and friends closer to my own age, will say that controlling your thoughts and actions is something that isn’t automatically present upon puberty. Self-control is something that is learned and honed over time with maturity and experience in socializing with members of the opposite sex. The more exposure a man has to interacting with women in school, in the workplace, or in social groups – the less sensitive he will become to sexual triggers and the more he will be able to compartmentalize between his sexual feelings for his wife or future wife against his platonic feelings for a classmate, teacher, family friend, or coworker.

I think that if I were a man, I would feel highly insulted at being categorized as a pervert with an ever roving eye unable to control my insatiable sexual appetite – so much so that I was at constant risk of being swept away by anything in a skirt.

Someone shared an article by a blogger who decries general society’s portrayal of women being dangerous husband-stealing femme fatales and men being helpless against their sexual urges, in an article entitled, “Husbands, Nannies, and the Culture of Dangerous Women and Helpless Men.” The author writes:

When we teach boys and men that they are powerless against their sexual desires, when we teach them that they are not responsible for their actions if a woman is dressed in a way he finds arousing, when we write articles about “protecting” our husbands from all those slutty nannies out there, WE ALL ******* LOSE.

Every last one of us.

Men lose because we paint them with the brush of being weak and having no self-control. They get to live in a culture that expects them to **** up. One where they are expected to ruin their marriages, to not be capable of concentrating at work or school, all due to being in close physical proximity to a vagina.

And women lose. We lose because the burden of saving these men from themselves falls on our shoulders. If we aren’t sexy enough, we will lose our husbands to someone sexier, because they can’t help it. If we are too sexy, we are just asking to be disrespected because men can’t control themselves.

In orthodox Jewish culture, sexy is a four letter word that isn’t even appropriate for the bedroom – words like holy and sanctity of marriage and shechinah (divine presence) are more apropos. However, the concept of being ready and willing (a rebellious wife who refuses her husband is called a moredet and can be divorced without her ketubah settlement), is definitely in play. A Jewish wife is accountable for keeping her husband’s sexual needs satisfied, especially since he can’t even satisfy his own needs without violating halachah.

Therefore, both the burden of dressing and behaving modestly in public, but also satisfying the insatiable lust of our men in private, is put upon women. In short, their lack of control is our problem on the street and at home.

This attitude can’t be healthy. It just hasn’t been my experience that all men are uncontrollable sex fiends. Maybe I just haven’t met the right men, or maybe I’m not attractive enough to have that problem, but experience dictates that men can control themselves when they are taught appropriate behavior at a young age and throughout adolescence. Have I met a pervert or two in my day? Yep. But out of all the men I’ve come into contact with, including family, friends, classmates, coworkers, etc., the statistics ain’t bad! I just don’t think it’s fair to say that men can’t control themselves and shouldn’t even try – mostly it’s not fair to the men!

Don’t you guys ever get insulted?

Placing a buffer between women and rabbis – is it a good thing?

no womenThe other week I saw an article about a program launched in my community by NILI, the Chicago Institute of Women’s Learning, which is part of the Yeshiva University Torah Mitzion Kollel in Chicago. Last year, NILI started a hotline for women with questions about taharat hamishpacha, the Jewish laws of family purity. The hotline is meant to facilitate more communication between women and local rabbis in the community, both by letting women reach out anonymously if they choose, and also by having another woman speak directly to a rabbi on their behalf. Below are some excerpts from the article explaining the service:

It’s a delicate topic,” [Lynn] Kraft, a kallah teacher who runs the hotline along with three other women, says. “It’s called family purity but it really goes to the laws that govern the husband and wife but affect the entire family…….”

The questions are filtered through the kallah teachers, one of whom is on call six days a week, but are answered by rabbis in the community…….

“A lot of the laws are private,” Kraft says. “Some women find it difficult to ask these questions. Lots of questions come up. But the rabbis are male and the (questioners) are female and they’re talking about a private part of themselves……..”

The hotline, Kraft explains, “is designed to support, not to replace the relationship between users and rabbis. Rabbis in the community are always looking for ways to help women perform mitzvot…..”

“We serve as connectors,” Kraft says. The woman who takes the question goes to the designated rabbi, waits for him to answer, then relays that answer to the questioner. A number of synagogue rabbis, as well as rabbis connected with the YU Torah Mitzion Kollel offered their services. A response should be forthcoming within 12 hours through noon on Friday,” Kraft says……….

“The goal of the hotline, she says, is “to enable the women of our community to embrace and observe the mitzvah of taharat hamishpacha with greater comfort and ease and to serve as connectors between women and community rabbis.”

The service is similar to that offered by Nishmat, an Israeli institution of higher learning for women, through their Golda Koschitzky Women’s Halachic Hotline. While the NILI hotline is staffed by kallah teachers, and the Nishmat hotline is staffed by certified taharas hamishpacha counsellors, called Yoetzet, both services appeal to those who prefer speaking about family purity issues with other women who act as conduits between a woman and a rabbi.

So how do we contrast the above services, which can surely be seen as facilitating greater participation of women in the halachic process, plus making it easier and less embarrassing for women to seek guidance regarding the observance of family purity laws, with last month’s news that a well known Breslover rabbi, Rabbi Shalom Arush, made the decision to stop meeting directly with women for halachic counsel?

Rabbi Arush made his decision in light of recent sex scandals involving other rabbis. The only access women will have to Rabbi Arush will be through their husbands, who can see him on their wife’s behalf, and he is encouraging other rabbis to follow his example.

In response to two high profile cases, one being Rabbi Ezra Sheinberg of Tzfat and another being the leader of the Shuvu Banim Hasidic sect, Rabbi Eliezer Berland, Arutz Sheva reported:

“Rabbi Arush explained that the move is to set a precedent for caution.

“The evil inclination of rabbis is even greater than that of other people,” he said, reflecting a Judaic concept that people with great potential also have greater challenges.

Therefore, he said, he will not see women in person anymore, even if they are accompanied by their husbands.”

Voz Is Neias summarized a video Rabbi Arush made to elaborate on his decision to stop meeting with women,

“In a five minute video, Rabbi Arush said, “How could a rabbi meet with women? He doesn’t get aroused? He doesn’t have desires? Is he so holy that sees a woman the same way he sees a man? The evil inclination of rabbis is even greater than that of regular people. You can’t make the Torah crooked or pervert it. A person cannot rely on himself that he won’t sin, and that’s why he has to put a guard around himself to prevent him from sinning, and put practices into place. And to the women who are turning to rabbis for support, they should know that a rabbi is a tzaddik, but he also has desires.”

Rav Arush continued, “What? Does he [the rabbi] see these women like he sees geese? Is that what he sees that he doesn’t feel anything? That he doesn’t have desires? That he’s so holy, seeing a woman doesn’t affect him? Why does he have to look at her? Is he in shidduchim that he has to see her? What’s the purpose? There is no good reason for this type of behavior.”

He explained that the intention of these rabbis is not evil, but eventually morphs into the potential for sin. “Nobody starts off doing evil. It all starts with mitzvot, but the yetzer hara drives you to evil, telling you, ‘it’s a woman who needs you to be mikarev her, to help her,’ but really, eventually, it’s not l’shem shamayim, it’s in the worst way. Just as it is forbidden for a Rebbetzin to meet with men, so is it forbidden for a rav to meet with women. Even men like Rav Chaim Kanievsky and the Baba Sali who were glued to God in a very high level that we cannot understand, did not engage in this practice.”

In my opinion, instead of attributing the recent indecent acts committed by a few rabbis to personal deviance, Rabbi Arush is instead generalizing that all men can’t control themselves and all women are sex objects that put men at moral risk. By attempting to put a stop to all direct communication between women and their rabbis, he is severely limiting women’s access to halachic guidance. Particularly in the Breslov community, where I would guess that halachic guidance is sought much more frequently on everyday issues than in other more modern communities, this puts women at a severe disadvantage.

What will Rabbi Arush’s female followers do who have no husband? What will single women do who have no father to speak for them? This type of system where women can’t speak directly for themselves can have future ramifications that will set women back tremendously, if not alienate them altogether and cause them to leave the community.

For example, in Saudi Arabia, women are expected to be under the care of a husband or male relative in order to function in society.  Their whereabouts are policed on a daily basis. There are separate entrances in public buildings for men and women, and restaurants are also usually divided into separate sex sections. Intermingling of the sexes among unrelated men and women is a criminal offense, and while charges will be brought against both parties, women often face a harsher punishment. Women are also discouraged from traveling alone or driving a car. This is to discourage too much freedom and independence, and usually a male chaperone will accompany traveling females or act as a chauffeur to get women where they need to go.

Ironically, if you are a woman without a man in your life, you’re screwed.

This is the society that Rabbi Arush’s decision will encourage. It makes women even more dependent on men than ever before. Not only are women in the Breslov community required to seek the aitza (counsel) of a rav for many of the daily decision in their lives, but now they can only do so through another man. If a woman is married, she has easier access to a conduit through her spouse, but if she does not have a husband, she will have to seek the assistance of her male next of kin to speak on her behalf.

The difference between the two described scenarios is that in the case of the female-staffed family purity hotlines, the women of the community are given another alternative to speaking directly with a rabbi. If they choose to speak directly to a rabbi themselves, they are welcome to do so. For those that feel more comfortable speaking about private issues with a woman, they now have that option.

Rabbi Arush’s proposal takes the choice out of a woman’s hands. Not only is she excluded from speaking directly with a rabbi, she must now include a second person in her personal business to relay her situation, and that person must also be a man.

This is a perfect example of every action (women taking a larger role in the halachic process) having an equal and opposite reaction (women being cut out of the process altogether) within the umbrella of orthodox Judaism.

Period Shaming

Yeah, it’s a thing. In fact, it’s fast becoming the latest feminist issue among women to hit the news.

Whenever a hot topic women’s issue comes up, people forward me the latest news. A few months ago, someone forwarded me this article about a women who posted Instagram photos of herself napping in period stained sheets and pajamas, which Instagram removed.

instagram periodIn an interview with the BBC, the woman in the photos, Rupi Kaur, from Toronto, challenged their opposition:

“When I see the picture it looks completely beautiful to my eyes.

“I wasn’t being provocative. The point of the photo was to de-mystify all the taboos that are around menstruation.”

Instagram ultimately backed down, agreed she hadn’t broken their guidelines, and apologized.

Today someone sent me an article about Harvard Business School graduate, Kiran Gandhi, who ran the London marathon while menstruating without the aid of feminine hygiene products.

Gandhi said she wants to end the embarrassment over menstruation, as well as to bring awareness that there are underprivileged women who can’t afford costly pads and tampons. Additionally, she wants acknowledgement that every month women suffer with pain and cramping, yet must carry on as if it doesn’t exist.

Ghandi took photos after the race that proudly displayed her period stained running pants, saying:kiran-ghandi

“If there’s one way to transcend oppression, it’s to run a marathon in whatever way you want,” she wrote. “Where the stigma of a woman’s period is irrelevant, and we can re-write the rules as we choose.”

Transcending oppression by making the stigma of a woman’s period irrelevant.

Every woman who suffers with cramps and period related discomfort, knows that it can be hard to have to function normally during that time of the month, while pretending that there isn’t a crimson tide surging through your nether regions.

That being said, women have proven that we can power through our monthly trials and tribulations without having our biological functions hinder our performance at school, on the job, at home, or in our relationships. Women are experts at dealing with the cards we’ve been dealt and making the best of things.

However, when it comes to stigma, I believe that the Jewish laws of niddah have a negative effect on a woman’s attitude toward her period, as well as having a negative effect on men’s attitudes towards menstruation.

When I was a teenager in a public high school, girls were matter of fact about having their period, at least around each other. It wasn’t a topic of conversation with the boys, but in the girl’s locker room, it wasn’t unusual to hear complaints about cramps and bloating, or how uncomfortable it was to have to go to swim class during your period.

Aside from the usual discomforts and inconveniences, having your period was no more stigmatized than having to use the bathroom. It wasn’t something to be discussed at length or in mixed company, but it was a normal part of life. Quite frankly, any girl past the age of thirteen who didn’t have her period probably felt abnormal and stigmatized.

However that attitude towards menstruation came to an abrupt halt shortly before marriage. Whereas menstruation prior to marriage is simply a personal part of life that a woman handles with the same attitude as she handles all of her other hygiene needs, after marriage, her period becomes something with penalties and negative connotations. Namely, death and separation.

After a woman is married, she must separate from her husband when she even suspects she might be getting her period. After she sees actual blood, she must separate from her husband in earnest for a two week time period, and not be allowed to physically reunite with him until she dips in a ritual bath. All direct and even indirect physical contact is prohibited. During the two week period of niddah, they may not do things such as sit close together on the same couch cushion, sleep in the same bed, eat from the same plate, nor pass each other objects.

There are many reasons given for this mandated monthly time of complete abstinence, but one reason that’s largely given is that menstruation is a like a monthly death. Every month, the unfertilized egg that sloughs away from the uterus represents the loss of potential life. Death carries with it an impurity, and we carry that impurity in our unfertilized wombs each month we don’t get pregnant.

Apparently, men can be tainted by this impurity as well, and are forbidden to come into physical contact with a niddah until she has stopped bleeding and purified herself in a mikvah. In fact, the main biblical prohibition for why unmarried men and women can’t have physical contact before marriage (shomer negiah) doesn’t have to do with morality (although that is a side benefit), but is because unmarried women do not use the mikvah, and therefore, have the status of a niddah upon menarche until their first purifying mikvah dip before their wedding.

In a way, equating periods with death is also drawn out in the physical separation that is required during mourning. When someone loses a parent and becomes an avel, one of the first mourning requirements is that they separate from their spouse. Physical contact between husband and wife is forbidden during the week of shiva. Sexual contact is associated with joy and happiness, and is incongruous to one who is in the deepest throes of grief.

How much more painful is the psychological message to an infertile woman, that she carries around a funeral in her womb every month she does not conceive?

Even for those of us with children, the knowledge that our natural body functions control the intimacy in our marriages can be difficult, since such mechanisms are beyond our control. During a time of the month where our emotions might be more readily dictated by hormonal fluctuations, prompting a need for more cuddles and physical reassurances of love, we stand alone. We represent the lost opportunity for new life.

Of course, it’s hard to say how many pregnancies are inspired or encouraged by wanting a break from being a niddah, but between nine months of pregnancy and many more months of breast feeding, most women consider the break from periods and taharas hamishpacha a welcome benefit of having a baby.

There is a shame and sadness to having your period as a married Jewish woman who keeps the laws of taharas hamishpacha that women who don’t keep these laws don’t have.

When getting your period means that your spouse treats you differently and you must treat him differently, and that difference means the withholding of physical affection and contact, it is stigmatizing. When being told that having your period represents death and an associated spiritual impurity, that is stigmatizing. When having your period becomes something that other people potentially know about besides you and your spouse (mikvah lady, other women at the mikvah on the night you go, niddah counselor or rabbi, or possibly friends and family members on Shabbos/yom tov /nighttime simchas/visits where bed situations have to be accommodated (separate beds for that time of the month), it is stigmatizing.

When I read about these activists who are trying to make periods an open and normal topic of conversation, I do applaud their efforts. However, as far advocating that women give up their usage of feminine hygiene products, to me that makes about as much sense as saying that people shouldn’t feel compelled to use toilets or toilet paper. I’m not sure about any of you, but I don’t really want to live in a society where people defecate in their clothing because it’s a natural part of life that should be shared and celebrated.

Menstruation is a natural part of life – and in my (non-religious) upbringing, it was always presented as being a harbinger of life, not death. Getting your period means having the ability to create life when the time is right, whatever that means for her.  For older women, continued menstruation is an indicator of continued youth and vitality – and the cessation of menstruation is looked upon as the death of fertility. Additionally, just a viable egg means that there is the potential to create life, it doesn’t mean that potential is desirable. There are plenty of women who breathe a sigh of relief when their cycle begins, just as there are plenty of women who shed tears.

Framing menstruation as a symbolic monthly death is a way to encourage women to get pregnant. Designing marital penalties around the woman getting her period is another way to deter couples from using birth control and having unreproductive sex. Getting pregnant means being rewarded with exemption from the laws of niddah for the duration of pregnancy and much of nursing. In this way, stigmatizing menstruation aids in increasing the Jewish population by encouraging pregnancies and punishing those women who have fewer children with more niddah time.

Cutting out the middleman – phone app lets women pasken on their own niddah stains

I was just forwarded a link to an app (Hat tip Mom in Israel) that walks women through determining if their discharge renders them a niddah without needing to ask an authority.

Move over rabbis and yoetzet halachot!  Sisters are doing it for themselves! 

 Ain’t technogy grand?  Who needs religious authorities when we have Siri and phone apps?

I do like the concept of women having more autonomy over their own bodies and shailahs.  However, I can imagine that not everyone will be excited about the move away from human counsel and into the age of computerized paskening.