A little tempest in a teapot has apparently hit the ranks of the Conservative movement about the cover of the latest issue of Kolot (The Conservative Movement’s now-integrated magazine, including more or less all the different arms of the movement that used to have separate magazines).
The Jewish week showcased an internal spat between Kolot and some selected women rabbis who objected to the most recent cover which features a picture of two female arms holding hands whilst wearing tefillin.
Rabbi Francine Roston of South Orange, N.J., said she wrote a letter with 60 colleagues signing on, and then she sent it to the magazine last Friday.
“As Conservative rabbis we seek to normalize both the wearing of tefillin and the reality of women rabbis,” the letter said. “Disembodying the women on the cover and sexualizing the wearing of tefillin feeds into the fears and anxieties that many in our movement have about observant women and women rabbis.”
Different individuals who signed the letter claimed that the image sexualizes tefillin, reporting that some of their congregants thought that the picture was about welcoming gays, and were surprised to discover that it was about women rabbis and the challenges they face. One rabbi who signed the letter explained, that “at a time when women’s faces and bodies are being eradicated from the walls of Jerusalem bus stops, that this photo could not simply show a full woman in tefillin. The holding of hands distracted from the article on women’s leadership, and whether we might hope that one day women holding hands is not suggestive or sexual, tefillin already bring forth intense conversations about their sexual homoerotic nature, and to use this frame of a photograph in an article meant to level the playing field for all Jewish leaders regardless of gender did not do it for me. I think it diminishes the conversation about leadership and introduces a different conversation in its stead.”
I found myself being both startled and surprised by the idea that two women holding hands would automatically be assumed to be in a sexual relationship. It seems to me that there are a number of underlying issues here – and some of them are not very nice.
I grant the discomfort with erasing women’s faces in the context of the current Israeli situation where women are being erased not simply in the religious sphere exists (which despite all the yammering about how we should “respect the religious” strikes me as a lot of mansplaining; I don’t in fact, believe that there is anything religious about the eradication of women in any respect – indeed historically this has not been a religious issue in Jewish communities – nor do I believe that we should respect attitudes which are not Jewish in origin but merely reinforcers of social power dynamics, but that’s another post for another time), but I don’t think that this cover actually does evoke the current erasure of women that is such a problem in Israel.This has not been an issue in the Conservative community in the USA (not in this way, anyhow) and I doubt that anyone really believes that this is an instance of such a thing.
No, rather I think that the fact that people automatically assume that this cover referred to an article about homosexuality in the movement is simply because that’s been a hot topic over the past few years (and about time, too). Nevertheless, to say that women holding hands is unseemly and sexualizes women and/or tefillin is in fact itself a little unseemly. What underlies this attitude is a deep discomfort with homosexuality, especially lesbians. No one would object to a picture of a man and woman holding hands on the cover, even wearing tefillin (If there had been such a picture, people would have assumed it was an article about rabbinic couples or something of that nature). No one would consider it sexualizing tefillin – even though in truth, it would be more sexualized than two women holding hands. Why? Because we think that a heterosexual couple holding hands is sweet. It would take committing an explicit act on the cover to consider it “sexualized,” because we’re used to thinking of one as normal and the other as not.
This letter was misguided, and honestly, even if the cover did evoke discomfort in some people, I am glad that it did. It’s time and enough time to start uncovering what’s causing that discomfort and face it head on. If it evokes discussion of the intimacy of women’s friendships (in a non-sexual way) all to the good; if it provokes discussion of whether tefillin are homoerotic, fine by me; and if it forces conversations about our attitudes towards lesbians, towards displays of affection, sexual or not, sexual and not, that’s the best of all.