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Archive for February, 2010

Women of the Megillah

Tonight is Purim, so let’s talk about the two women in the Purim story: Vashti and Esther. (Of course there’s Zeresh, too, but she doesn’t really have that many lines.)

Vashti, the King’s first wife, loses her title as queen because she refuses to parade herself (many say naked) in front of the king and his drunken friends. And doing so rocks Shushan’s world. To quote the Megillah, Chapter 1:

Memuchan declared before the king and the ministers: “It is not against the King alone that Queen Vashti has sinned, but against all the ministers and all the nations in all the provinces of King Achashverosh. For word of the queen’s deed will reach all the women and it will belittle their husbands in their eyes. For they will say: ‘King Achashverosh commanded that Queen Vashti be brought before him, yet she did not come!'”

So, after reading this, you can probably see why there’s been a lot of talk in the feminist world about Vashti—about how she’s portrayed as a “bad queen” by Judaism but how in reality, she actually deserves a lot of respect for being a self-respecting woman and standing up for herself. (I’d have to agree.) But I, for one, have never been taught to think of her as the “bad queen”; in fact, when I was a little girl I and my friends used to dress up as both Vashti and Esther. (When you’re five, a queen is a queen.)

Even so, there are apparently a lot of stories in the Talmud about the villainous acts that Vashti commits. About how her refusal was pure arrogance, about how she allegedly descends from Nebuchadnezzar (who destroyed the temple), about how she abused Jewish female slaves, and about how she feared Judaism because it made people “unconquerable.” Now, I’m not sure what to make of these stories, because a lot of Midrash is somewhat fable. And also because I’m not sure where the origins of these stories could be (because there is zero mention of these things in the actual Megillah), but I don’t feel that I have a right to write these stories off. So I’ve mentioned them for the sake of mentioning, but because I haven’t studied them in-depth I’m going to stick with discussing the text from the Megillah.

Vashti stood up to the king. Motives aside, she did something that got her in a lot of trouble, but that she believed would be best for her and her body. And the Megillah offers a very realistic depiction of what happens when women do just that: a lot of times they get kicked out, maybe from a palace or maybe from their homes. But in a less extreme sense, sometimes when you stand up for something you get “kicked out” in that you get judged, or someone labels you as “just a feminist” and writes you off. And it happens. And while when it was created I don’t think the Megillah was calling out for this to change, I think that now, many many years later, we can read the Megillah every year and use it as a jumping-off point for discussions of the reality of women in this world. And not just women, but people as a whole who stand up for themselves and their dignity and are forced to deal with undeserved consequences.

To finish, I will touch on Esther: yes, she was beautiful, and loved for her looks. And yes, she did take quite the nudging from Mordechai to save the Jews. But she does represent another kind of feminist, the kind who uses her femininity and beauty to her advantage in order to sway the King and gain, although in a roundabout way, power. And while people can judge her for doing so, in the end, it works—and she makes the choice to get things the only way she sees possible in her time period. (Because really, if we think about when the Megillah was written, her actions make a lot more sense than if we think about them now.) And so the Megillah teaches us, somewhat surprisingly, to be like Esther, and to do what you need to do, even if it means using your beauty (but don’t take this as the only interpretation please, because a lot of people will argue that Jewish texts honor modesty above all).

But now, I don’t think we have to choose any more. There is room for both Esthers and Vashtis, women who want to use their bodies and charms to get things, and women who will do no such thing. (I am not abdicating for selling your body here, do not worry. I’m talking about doing things like wearing “royal garments” at opportune times, and letting the King feel pampered.) But there are also women in the middle, women who uphold an incredibly high standard of self-respect but who also know when a charming smile can work wonders. And all of these women can be feminists, in that they make their choices for themselves because they believe they are doing what will be the best for them.

Happy Purim!

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It’s not a very pleasant topic, but it’s one that I think needs addressing: Rabbi Elon, an extremely influential Orthodox Zionist Rabbi in Israel, being accused of sexual harassment.

The investigation is being led by Takana, an Orthodox rabbinic forum created in 2003 for the very purpose of trying to prevent sexual misconduct among rabbinic educators. Takana knew about the claims a couple years ago, but tried to get the complainants go to the police, and then struck a deal with Elon that he would stop with his face-to-face teaching and counseling, and he retired from his position at Yeshivat HaKotel. And now they say he has refused to honor their deal (they think he has been counseling a young man on sexual matters), and for that reason brought it to light right now.

There’s an interesting article in The Forward about the tensions this scandal has caused. Some members of the religious community believe that the scandal should be dealt with within the religious world and away from the watchful mind of the media (some Rabbis say he should have been summoned to religious court), while others celebrate the fact that years ago such an inappropriate thing would have been kept hidden from the community and now it is not.

And this whole thing (as well as the allegations aimed at priests and other religious figures) has certainly dealt a blow to religious figures’ authority: can you imagine living your life in awe of a figure who has inspired you to live a better life, and finding one day about the unspeakable things he or she has done? Anshel Pfeffer of Haaretz wrote about Elon’s impact on his spirituality and the charisma that he brought to life, and how that charisma made him so caught up in Elon and his words, to a point where he lost some part of his identity. And he closes by saying something that I find incredibly poignant:

As a father, the only lesson I can impart to my children from my years close to Rabbi Elon is while they have a duty to respect their teachers, never suspend your critical faculties toward figures of authority; do not become dependent on objects of admiration; and beware of charisma, as if from fire.

We should not let anyone, even people we believe to be moral and righteous, become so idealized in our minds that we lose our capacity to question them. It is a brave thing that Takana is doing, persuing such an important figure in the Jewish community, because it is one of the hardest things to do. But holding the very people we expect to need to remind us of moral standards to our moral standards is the very core of what justice is.

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This is my first cross-post at the Jewish Women’s Archive’s blog “Jewesses with Attitude.” Once a week, either Dina or I will feature a post there and then link to it here.

I consider myself fortunate to take Gender Studies as my English literature class during my final semester of high school. Our first reading was a thesis Night to his Day: The Social Construction of Gender by Judith Lorber. As can probably be inferred by the clever title, the piece is about the feminine being defined in terms of the masculine rather than in its own separate language and the subsequent skewing of the gender binary.

Seeing as I am constantly looking for new assaults to/praises for Jewish feminism to blog about, I was thrilled when Lorber referenced circumcision in the context of Judaism. She wrote, Many cultures go beyond clothing, gestures, and demeanor in gendering children. They inscribe gender directly into bodies.Jewish fathers circumcise their infant sons to show their covenant with God. Needless to say, I eagerly annotated these sentences with post on circumcision!!!

A brit milah (bris) is exactly what Lorber defines it as: covenant of circumcision. It is a supposed covenant with God, marking the baby boy as not only holy, but as a possible messiah. The baby boy is blessed through sacred ritual (that may or may not be medically important), but what about a baby girl?

Read more!

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And I’m not just talking about the biblical Eve that inspired this blog.

I have just returned from seeing Eve Ensler speak and perform at the 92nd St Y on behalf of her latest project, V-Girls – I am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Lives of Girls Around the World. The project is comprised of monologues about young girls from Jerusalem to Westchester, discussing what is real for them, and unabashedly giving their emotions, their instincts, their voices, the credit they deserve.

In theory, this shouldn’t be such a radical movement. In theory, we see teenage girls walking down the street all the time. We think we know what’s in their heads. We, as a society, assume that they walk around from mall to mall giving into the apathetic stereotype we label them with. We assume, but we do not ask. We do not give girls permission to cry, to laugh, to scream, to orgasm, to be.

Eve Ensler asked hundreds of girls to do the unthinkable: to shed tears, to bowl over laughing, to shriek with all that pent up energy and not muffle it with a pillow, to discover their clitorises, to embrace who they are. These are girls who feel the suffering of refusing to stand behind a checkpoint, girls who feel jealous of their brothers’ tzitzit, wondering why they are not given the same rituals to practice, girls who sing their emotions for those who can’t at Shira Hadasha services, girls who lead revolutions in their homes, their synagogues, their schools, their communities.

How are you an emotional creature?

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I’m not exactly sure what to say, but this is definitely worth a watch : Zaretsky and Zaretsky, the pair for Israeli ice dancing in the 2010 Olympics.

Some thoughts: since when is that kind of outfit a representation of Israel today? And since when do Israelis still listen to Hava Nagilah?

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The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a new study today on religion among “millennials,” the generation of people who are currently 18-29. I was pointed to this study from an article at Jewcy, arguing that even though according to the study Millennials are less affiliated with religion than their older counterparts, the generation is about reinterpreting religion and making it their own. Much of this is probably true, probably not even just in relation to the Millennials generation but also in relation to younger generations in the past, as young people tend to be more open to change and redefinitions. (And if you read the appendix of the study, the statistics about religiosity for this age group in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s are pretty similar)

It’s a pretty interesting study. I wonder how much of it reflects Jews as a whole: praying less, less of a belief in an omnipotent God, and a somewhat stronger belief that “own religion is one true faith that leads to eternal life.” (That last one is a bit of surprise to me.) What it does say about Judaism is that 2% of the general population identifies itself as Jewish, and 2% of the Millennial generation also identifies itself as Jewish, an equivalence that does not happen in many other religions like Catholicism and Protestantism. However, whether or not Jews have lost faith in God or prayer is not mentioned.

I believe for Jews, at least, that the aforementioned decrease in religious ties may be more nuanced than for some other religions. According to an article about the 2008 American Jewish Identification Survey,

the proportion of American Jews who identify themselves as religious has dropped by more than 20 percent over the past two decades, while the cultural Jewish population has nearly doubled.

For Jews, with all of our denominations and divisions, there seems to be another one to add to the mix: Just Jewish. And I believe it. I know a lot of Jewish people who don’t feel particularly religious or connected to Judaism as a religion, but who vehemently feel tied to Judaism as an ethnicity. And even when people intermarry, (there’s a new study about intermarriage too, more about that at a later date) I know a lot of Jews who don’t feel that their Judaism must be taken away.

I see this study as good news and bad news. I’m glad that even though many people may be feeling less religiously tied to Judaism, they continue to feel that Judaism is a factor in defining themselves. But I, at least, think Judaism that has a lot to offer as a religion, things that are still relevant for today’s generation. So I guess that’s where the new movements like Renewal come in, as well as outreach from more traditional movements—trying to find a way to help people discover all that Judaism has to offer in a way that relates to their lives.

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My friend Tobah just told me she is taking what sounds like a pretty awesome/bad-ass/cool course on “Contemporary Radical Jewish Thought (Queer theory, Feminist issues, place of Halacha, if it’s radical it’s there).” As a project, they’re putting together a Passover seder for the Wesleyan Havurah. In doing so, the class is looking for feminist interpretations of the Four Children section of the Haggadah and – because so many haggadot continue to refer to them as the Four Sons – I’d say these interpretations are necessary for Jewish feminism and egalitarianism in general.

If anyone knows of any interesting ideas, has some of their own, or can provide resources the students can tap into, please let me know in comments or email any ideas to fromtherib@gmail.com.

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