Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Shelo Asani Isha

Recently while going to the supermarket a woman in a burka caught my eye. She wasn’t in the typical burka but the real McCoy; the kind where you are covered from head to toe in black with just eye slits. She sort of looked like a mummy. What was interesting however was the burka had style to it. Down the sleeves was a strip of glittery material and there was a slit on the side revealing what appeared to be pink slacks. Even though I couldn’t see her face or get a read on her figure I was beginning to obsess over her. And then I saw a sheitled frummie walking down an isle in her frumpy ankle length skirt and gym shoes and realized that the Muslims got it right. In both cases there is the diminution of the status of women, but the Muslims are more up-front about it. And as a result of this compulsive need to demean women these two faith communities are the less for it.

The morning bracha “shelo asani isha” said by every God fearing religious Jew has troubled me for decades. At some point on the road of my spiritual and intellectual journey I realized the misogynistic message implied in that bracha, but I still treated it as something benign, there, ever present but harmless. Sort of like yoga. When practicing yoga, one may, in the midst of an exercise be bothered by an itch or some other discomfort. We are trained to think about it for a moment, consider it and then dismiss it from our consciousness. It takes practice, but it works. So too, with my difficulty with this bracha. As in yoga, I would consider the implications and meaning for a moment while chanting the words and then dismiss it.

I’ve dismissed these words as harmless for decades. I often times found it entertaining and humorous when various keruv groups would rationalize the disparity between the bracha and western civilization’s perception of women. Western civilization has made great strides over the past century to ensure women’s full equality whether it is in politics, the work place or the corporate world. While there may still be some inequities, they are quickly disappearing. So how does a keruv rep. explain the disparity between men and women in Orthodox Judaism? They audaciously offer us a reversal of the paradigm, inverting the triangle and balancing it on its “shpitz” by insisting that women aren’t inferior – on the contrary, it is the men who are the inferior b’riya (creation). Because she is superior she isn’t obligated in certain mitzvot as men are who are in need of more control (via mitzvoth) because of their inherent flaws. Where men lack discipline women are on a higher spiritual level. This is buttressed by a letter to the editor in the Forward (August 8, 2008) where the writer comments on the separation of men and women on specific bus lines running through certain religious areas in Israel because “the community believes that the practice prevents men from occupying their minds with inappropriate ideas, thus reserving their brain power for holy subjects”. (The obsessive attention to sexual innuendo within the haredi community is a subject within itself).

One would never realize this based on the reading of Mishle (Proverbs) 31 (see my essay Her Price is Beyond Pearls). In this hymn the woman is depicted as a work horse, the meal ticket, the quintessential “sugar daddy”, so that her husband can sit in the beit midrash and “learn”. She’s glorified for this. She is praised for sacrificing her spiritual and intellectual development for her husband. The recognition she receives for her arduous work is her husband chanting this hymn to her on Friday evening after a tough week in the beit midrash.

Women in Orthodox Judaism are inferior in status to men. That is a fact. No amount of spinning will change that. No truly orthodox shul has as its president a woman. No genuinely orthodox shul employs a woman rabbi, nor would her semicha be recognized. There are no women mohels or shochtim (ritual slaughterers). If they aspire to any of these leadership positions they exist in the shadows.

This message isn’t comfortable when trying to present to the non frum world a rosy and progressive picture of yiddishkeit that comports to western values. So in order to present a more acceptable image they will provide rationalizations as was mentioned above. But why does the fifth commandment read “kabed et avecha v’et imecha” Why not reverse the order and have the mother precede the father? I am aware of the myriad interpretations, but that doesn’t change the text. The text stands as it is! Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzchak, V’Elokei Yaakov. What happened to the matriarchs? They were conveniently deleted. Yet they had a profound connection and understanding of God-each one in her own right! They too are in the shadows.

I’ve recognized these inconsistencies and inequities for a long time but saw it as benign and innocuous – until now.

Recently leaders of the haredi rabbinate in Israel led by Rabbi Shafranovitch expressed the necessity of removing women entirely from the sight of men when travelling on Israeli bus lines running through specific Israeli areas. They have now been relegated to sitting on the back of the bus. Bus lines that insist on this arrangement are referred to as Mehadrin (the highest standard of kosher).

So there you have it. To insult Jewish women by having them demeaned is Mehadrin. I’m sure that the Mehadrin committee of the Haredi community led by the nefarious Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Shafranovitch has another zinger in the wings: mummifying our women in burkas.