The Girl and the Drash

Cross-posted from my new column on Patheos, where I will be writing a Parsha Column every Wednesday.

When taking days off for Jewish Holidays, more than one college professor asked me if I were Orthodox. My partner regularly wears a Kippah at work, and he is asked if he is Orthodox too. A person familiar with my writing on Judaism was so confident that I was Reform that he told others of my “affiliation.” On Facebook, I am non-denominational; I identify as unidentified. Years ago, while interviewing for a Hebrew School job, with a secular humanist congregation, the principal of the school proudly explained that they are not a “flag-waving bunch.”

The Jews traveling through the desert (after leaving Egypt, before going into Israel) were a flag-waving bunch. Bamidbar, the fourth book in the Torah, opens by putting the Jews in their places. From a census, which begins the book, we get the book’s English name, Numbers. The word Bamidbar, however, means wilderness, which is the primary setting of the narrative. It is in the wilderness that God tells Moses to conduct the census of the tribes and then to divide the tribes in their camping formation.

The children of Israel shall pitch by their fathers’ houses; every man with his own  standard, according to the ensigns; a good way off shall they pitch round about the tent of meeting (Num. 2:2).

In Bamidbar, there is no room for questions of affiliation; the physical space itself is demarcated. Each Jew in the desert camps under his tribal banner. Jobs in the tent of meeting, or the mishkan, are assigned to the tribe of Levi and further subdivided according to family. A Levite man born into the family of Gershon will camp behind the mishkan to the west and carry the coverings of the mishkan through the desert (Num. 3:21-26). A Levite born into the family of Kohath will carry the covered Ark, but if he ever sees the Ark uncovered he will die (Num. 4:17-2). Only the high priest was permitted to see the Ark and only on Yom Kippur.

A Midrash Rabbah, a collection of classical rabbinical exegesis, tells of the origins of the tribal flags. The Jews were inspired to make their flags after seeing the angels carrying flags at Sinai, when the Torah was given (Bamidbar Rabbah 2). In the Jewish tradition, angels do not have free will; they are created to fulfill a specific purpose. The angels’ flags encapsulate their predestined lives. The Jews wanted to be like angels; they ached for the clean simplicity of destiny, the allure of waving flags in the empty desert. According to Midrash, Jews were the first nation to use flags.

I understand the desire to surrender to the flags, to be like angels, forever consumed with that for which you are created. The image of flags in the desert tempts me as it tempts the authors of Bamidbar Rabbah, who understood something about the connection between waving of flags, collective identity, and free will. There is peace in knowing where to set up camp in the wilderness. It can be a blessing.

Except for the children born to the wrong flag. Imagine a child born into the Kohath family, fervently and reverently wanting to see the holiest Ark—and knowing that, because he was born Kohath and not the son of the high priest, he will never see the Ark, never mind if she was girl-child. Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, attempts to eliminate this problem by understanding the flags that represented the tribe as also accurately representing each individual in the tribe. For Rav Kook, the desire to have the flags of angels, who have no will, becomes about the individual will.

The Jewish people desired flags like those the angels bore at Sinai. They wanted every individual to be able to choose an aspect of divine service that suited his personality, just as each angel executed a specific function, as defined by his flag.

To leap from tribal flag to individual desire requires Rav Kook to assume that every person born to the tribe will desire to serve God in the same manner as the tribe—the internal and the external flags will match. He has no need to ask what will happen if the flags do not match, because it could never happen.

My flag does not match my desire for divine service. It is through the lens of mismatched flags that I fervently and reverently seek to understand Jewish tradition and to make my home within it. I’ll leave the flag waving to the angels.

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The Modesty Erotic

A New York Times article, Rabbi’s Sound Alarms over Eating Disorders, highlights the prevalence of eating disorders in the Orthodox community. Why is there an article about eating disorders in the Orthodox community and why is it one of the top ten emailed articles? It continues to make the news when modest and chaste girls have eating disorders. According to the article “Orthodox women are famously expected to dress modestly, yet matchmakers feel no qualms in asking about a prospective bride’s dress size — and her mother’s — and the preferred answer is 0 to 4, extra small.”  While the community’s desire to treat eating disorders is admirable, enforced modesty is at the root of the decease. The vigilance over the body which characterizes both modesty and eating disorders is not antithetical to the problem, it is contributory. The modest young woman is self-watching over her body. Modesty transforms her body, which is many things, into a body which one thing – a source of the erotic and an object prohibited to the male gaze. According to the orthodox interpretation of Jewish law, a man cannot pray while seeing a woman’s less than meticulously covered body. She is erva – nakedness.

The claim of what modesty can do for women (aka covering up leads to women not being objectified), has fundamentally bought into the belief that a woman’s body is constantly erotic – modesty is then presented as the cure to her objectification, while in fact modesty is the disease that insists upon the objectification. The cause and effect flows from the theology of modestly to her objectification. The theology of modesty invented the objectification by declaring her entire body erotic. Gila Menelson, the Orthodox guru of modesty, claims in her latest book that the “anecdote” to the very real problem of body-hate is modesty.  She identifies the right problem, but the wrong cure.  The “anecdote” is stopping the body vigilance – demanded both by secular media and theological modesty.

In Menelson’s book, modesty is just the new sexy.

Men appreciate a look that reflects what’s within – at least when they’re seeking a real       relationship. After a young woman I know started dressing modestly, her ex-boyfriend           told her she looked better than ever.

Proponents of modesty acknowledge the modesty erotic.

The secrecy both conveys the intrinsic worth of what is being hidden and challenges and beckons the outsider to prove himself worthy of being privy to it. This is why a concealing manner and modest dress is so attractive and arousing.

Modesty – by keeping her hidden, it keeps her erotic.  And, of course, every woman wants to be pure sex – from head to toe.  I gladly surrender the 24/7  eroticism of my ankles, my elbows, my toes, my cleavage, my thighs – for a body which is many things, for a body that is free because it is seen, but it is not self-watched.  The erotic is mine to summon – it does not reside in my bones or in my skin. The erotic is a performance I choose to enact when it suits me.  Modesty takes that basic choice away, by insisting that no such choice exists.  Modesty operates by demanding that a woman enact eroticism in every moment, and then sanctions her for its enactment by forcing her to hide her skin.

An eating disorder is one way she hides.

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A Purim Satire

On Purim there is a “custom” to get so drunk that one is no longer able to distinguish between Haman,

the arch villain, and Mordechi, the hero.   Within this is a hint at an alternative reading of the Book of

Esther as a political satire and a comedy of manners.  This is a book of palace intrigue, hapless plots to

assassinate a hapless king, and an hero who is hardly better than the arch villain.

This is Haman’s decree to kill the Jews:

“Letters were sent by courier to all the provinces of the  king,  to destroy, to slay and to exterminate all the Jews, from young to old, children and women, on one day….”

This Morechi’s decree to kill everyone:

“The [king] has given permission to the Jews of every city to organize and to defend themselves; to destroy, to slay and to exterminate every armed force of any people or province that threaten them, along with their children and women, and to plunder their possessions.”

Both letters empower the population to abandon the rule of law.  The king, confronted by special interests, signs opposing bills –  government at its most hysterically ineffective.

It is clear from the start that the king cannot maintain the rule of law – not even in his palace. The Book of Esther begins with decree written upon the disobedience of Vashti, the queen who would not come to the king “wearing the royal crown” and presumably nothing else.  The King decrees that “all wives will show respect to their husbands, great and small.”  This decree would be seriously funny, even without mentioning that it applies to both “great” husbands and “small” husbands.

An ineffective government busies itself with legislating in its subject’s bedroom.

Today, the tradition of satire on Purim continues in the “purim Shpiel,” and yet it is often forgotten that the Book of Esther itself is a “purim Shpiel.”

So when you silently listen to every word of the megliah, take a moment, read and laugh a little.

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In search for inclusive egaliterian Jewish books for my daughter’s first Passover

Books enter the lives of children from infancy, often first in the form of “board books.” Their hard, shiny pages are impossible to rip and make a delicious chew toy in the early years.  Recently, my daughter received a few Passover board books.  In the Passover books, the father prayed and the mother baked; all the couples consisted of a man and a woman; all the people were able bodied.  Infancy and early toddlerhood is when children gain a sense of the normative.  In presenting tradition gender roles and tradition families structures, these books are not mirroring the narrative of normatively I aspire to teach Z.

Jokingly, my partner and I discussed if these books were “appropriate” for Z, despite their content.  Searching the internet, I found a contest soliciting submissions for inclusive Jewish children’s books; because, as my search revealed, such books are practically non-existent.  I am not speaking of books with explicitly feminist or queer content (these exist for older children), but simple Shabbat books and Passover books where the world depicted is one that reflects my reality and my values – where mothers say Kiddush over the wine and LGBTQ characters simply exist.

Do books like these exist for young children in general? In the Jewish world?

What explains this lack?  Is there a discomfort with introducing these concepts to very young children,   almost as if our values are “too complicated” for children to grasp – too gray, too pluralist?  Let our children think that gender roles are binary, that people are straight, and when they are ready we will tell them otherwise.

The eventual telling is not good enough.  I want for Z to have the opportunity to absorb my values through osmosis as she learns about the world.  This is an apple, this is a ball and this is a family. This is the normative world.  Teaching that other good people disagree on what is normative (and what is good) – this is the nuance and it can wait until she is ready.

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Dolls: a comparison

The Mattel’s new “little mommy” doll was showcased at this year’s toy fair.  The doll talks (nothing new), but it also has sensors and responds to being touched and makes a variety of demands. The doll’s little girl voice gives me the chills.  It is oozing with girl-child-neediness.  It’s a voice of daemon possessed toddlers on tv land.

The “Mamamor” doll is a hand sewn beauty, with wool hair and an embroidered face. Mamamor does many things – she can be pregnant, she can give birth and breastfeed her baby.  Mamamor has recently developed a line of “VBAC” dolls particularly close to my heart. The doll can give birth both through a c-section or vaginally.   A few years down the road, I can imagine sitting down with Z, and talking to her about how she was born using the “vbac” dolls. I love their earth mama charm, with messy yarn hair, resembling dreadlocks, fabric headbands  and long flowing skirts.

As Gizmodo, so aptly put, this latest installment in the Little Mommy collection is a “terrifying version of android baby dystopia”. When are we going to have “little parent” dolls? And when we do, I hope they aren’t plastic and whiny. It seems to me, that a large aspect of doll play is the tactile and visual pleasure of it. In fact, as a child I preferred stuffed animals to dolls, because they were so much more cuddly. The doll dictates both proper parenting and proper “kid-being,” but making specific demands of the child and neurotically repeating “Mommy I love you.”  As if we parent because our children reward us with their love. Surely our daughters are smarter than talking dolls?  Yet this product is just another installment in a long line of Little Mommy dolls, with generally positive reviews on Amazon. Why oh why creepy talking dolls?

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A Week in Marriage

The New York Times’ “Modern Love” column features an essay where Lisa del Rosso explores the ways a divorce saved her relationship.

The divorce for him has meant that he no longer takes me for granted.

But we have both changed profoundly, I think; there are no more expectations, because    the words “wife” and “husband” no longer intrinsically carry any. We are kinder, more          accepting, more forgiving. We are no longer married but choose to be together still. He is the person I want to come home to, tell my stories to, share my life with.

—–

The Pope recently spoke to the Roman Rota, a group whose job it is to review annulment requests, reminding them that they should not hand out annulments to just anybody, but have an obligation to follow church law. According to Pope Benedict XVI, “No one can make a claim to the right to a nuptial ceremony.” Priests have an obligation on both ends – to decide who deserves to marry and who deserves an “annulment.”

To me, it’s a system one notch scarier than the traditional Jewish marriage. At least there the husband can end the marriage, here the control is with the Roman Rota. Then again, at least the Roman Rota has a system to their madness and they won’t disappear or blackmail you for that magic piece of paper, to replace you first magic piece of paper.

—-

Big love, an HBO show about the plural marriage of a man and his three sister wives began its last season. In this season, for the first time the family is living their lifestyle openly. In the first episode, the kids are picked on, the wives are fired and the husband’s career as a state senator is in jeopardy.  Living outside the closet is turning out to be harder than expected for those in the wrong kind of marriage.  The husband openly wonders, if Barb, his first wife is still on board with the patriarchy – particularly now that she is drinking wine (not allowed for Mormons). Barb tells him that she is uncertain.

—-

In the meantime, the real life polygamous family from TLS’ Sister Wives,  moved from Utah to Nevada, to “explore new job opportunities” or to run away from the authorities who were investigating them for the audacity of flaunting their lifestyle on TLS.  I reviewed the show earlier this year.

A hysterical blogger at Stuff Christian Culture Likes, blogged about marrying young – young being age 22.  I married at 21 to a 19 year old. Funny isn’t it?  While we are legally married, we have almost entirely abandoned the language of marriage, hoping that if we call it by a different name it in fact won’t be a rose, but an egalitarian flower.

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A good week for the sotah

One of my favorite blogger published a story I wrote about my birth and my daughter’s birth.  You can find it here.

And, I am guest blogging on feministing.com !

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Why no one is calling child protective services on Amy Chua

Amy Chua, a Yale Law School Professor, recently wrote a now infamous parenting article in the Wall Street Journal which makes my blood boils every time I read it.  Chua tells us, without batting a proverbial eyelash, that she has called her daughter garbage and worse, that her daughters are punished for getting anything less than the best grades and that her daughters are forbidden to engage in an age appropriate social life made up of play-dates and sleepover parties.

What if Chua was not a Yale law School Professor – What if she was a poor mother on public assistance? Or what if she was a religious fundamentalist following the idea of “spare the rod and spoil the child?”  Poor mothers are court ordered to parenting classes for much less than this. Then, would the New York Times parenting blogger, Lisa Belkin,  waste ink wondering if it’s ever appropriate to humiliate, isolate and degrade your children, only to come to conclusion that parents should do “what feels best for us, rather then what is ‘best.’”  What makes Chua different is that she is not poor nor is she strangely religious. Instead, she is a professionally successful academic. And of course, there is also Chua’s claim all that humiliation, isolation and degradation will turn your child into the academic and musical wunderkind. (I will not even get into her strange obsession with classical music – why is it superior to being in the school play, I wonder?).

What if it’s true, that Chua’s method leads to the promised land. As many of the 3000 commentors on the article have said in regards to their own lives – academic and professional superiority is good and all, but it’s not a yellow brick road to fulfillment.  “My Kid is a Medium-Ranking Student,” a popular parenting book in China, emphasizes this point, a book with such a title must appeal to many parents because the reality is that the majority of our children are going to be medium-ranking students. Even if we live in an alternative universe, where somehow everyone could be number one, and thus the goals Chua identifies were actually achievable in any meaningful way; these goals represent an impoverished vision of what we are, a vision that leaves out spiritual achievement to begin with. We cannot live on A+s alone.

There is no soul in that, no magic. As a teenager, my best friend and I often joked about an image that represented the opposite of what often felt like our compulsively stressful and grade mongering life.  On particularly stressful days, one would say to the other – I want to dance in a field of daises and then we would laugh at the strangeness and the perfection of that image.  I want to dance in a field of daises.

What I want for Z is much greater than Chua can imagine. Chua concludes that her style of parenting “lets [children] see what they’re capable of” and imparts “inner confidence that no-one can ever take away.” She is liar.  I hope that my daughter will be capable of much more than intellectual success– achievements in a single arena is a low ceiling.  I am also sure that the “inner-confidence” of gaining outside approval through recognized achievement and superiority is something that can be taken away, and generally will be taken away from pretty much everyone at least at some point.

That is likely a lesson that Chau is learning right now.

Late addition: Chua seems to be on the retreat.

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the theology of “Skins” – a review of Anwar’s episode

Convinced by the excellent reviews, I dove into the hit British show Skins, conveniently available on Netflix on demand (MTV’s version, set in Baltimore airs on January 17th).  Skins is all mayhem, drugs and sex, mixed in with moments of intense vulnerability, affection and  general madness.  The show refuses to punish the bad and reward the good; this is highly unusual for a show about teenagers. The God of Skins does not judge and when one of its characters judges, the character’s judgment is suspect and disconnected from the Skins’ universe.

In the first episode we see a Muslim teenager praying – both Muslim teenagers and praying teenagers are not often found in successful teen shows.  His name is Anwar – he prays five times a day.  He also drinks alcohol, eats pork and has sex with women. Each character gets an episode told from their perspective. In Anwar’s episode, he is rooming with his gay friend, Maxxie, on a surreal field trip to “post-industrial Russia.”  When he sees a sketch of a nude man in Maxxie’s  sketchbook and decides to let his friend know that Islam opposes homosexuality.  Maxxie in turn calls Anwar out on his own un-Islamic behavior.

Anwar says – “but I pray five times a day.”

Maxxie responds – “Oh yeah, what do you pray for, pork and women?”  In the show, ritual observance by itself has no value and may itself be sinful, a belief associated with the Christian faith, presumably the religion of the other characters.

Later in the episode after a very drunk Maxxie risks his life to save Anwar,  he tells Anwar that he does not have to believe as he does… Anwar responds,

“I am a Muslim boy.”

This answer does not actually tell the audience what Anwar believes and considering his involvement in the mayhem, drugs and sex since the beginning of the show – his homophobia reads almost like it’s another ritual act, like his five-times-a-day prayers.    Anwar is clinging to the “Muslim boy,” but the audience knows that he is now a Londoner whose best friend is gay.

Even while Anwar does not yet know it, we know that his friendship with Maxxie will survive and his ritualized homophobia will not.

What will his Islam look like on the other side?  A complex, hypocritical, evolving religious character – I am in love.

 

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Dancing at Jewish Orthodox Weddings

I dance at Jewish Orthodox weddings. I  put on my flats, I  kick up my heels,  I shake my hips. I dance from the first dance to the last.  I dance with joy – in the women’s section of the dance floor. I dance, celebrating patriarchal marriage, the silent veiled bride in long-sleeved white gown.

I dance because this is the first kind of dancing I ever did: on Saturday nights at NCSY (an orthodox youth group) I danced my heart out.  Ividoo at-hashem-besimcha-Ividoo-at-hashem-besimach. Worship God with joy Worship God with joy, sings the band. I dance because in the first shul I ever went to I sat in the women’s section and I was one joyful seven-year-old. On the women’s dance floor I met organized religion.

I dance because at my Bat Mitvah, at a Chabad house in New Jersey, I did not read from the torah, I did not have an aliyah for another decade, instead I danced.  At my own wedding, I was the veiled and the silent one in a three-quarter sleeve dress and I danced on the women’s side of the dance floor and I was happy, worrying about the rain and not the patriarchy.

There is joy for women followers of patriarchal religions, so much joy that it wears down theirs dancing shoes and so I dance at their weddings a little ashamed and a little uncertain, finding a bit of comfort in the homoeroticism of it all.

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