This is a guest post by Shani Ben Or, the Community Coordinator for Kol HaNeshama, Jerusalem’s flagship congregation of the Reform Movement, where she also serves as a cantor, studies Critical, Feminist Pedagogy at the Kibbutzim College, and is a fellow in the inaugural Jerusalem cohort of the Takum social justice beit midrash. Translated from the Hebrew by Aryeh Bernstein.
A few years ago, I volunteered in a youth center for teens at risk in south Tel Aviv. The constituency served by the center represented the sectors most oppressed and discriminated against by Israeli society. In many respects, this encounter was life-changing for me, but was also wound up with numerous challenges, among the most significant of which related to gender. Every week, I was greeted with comments about my appearance, my beauty, and my body. I received countless “offers”, of varying degrees of obscenity. It was clear to me that these teenage boys were testing my boundaries in a smart and sophisticated way. When push came to shove, they touched on my greatest place of vulnerability with regard to them. In every other way, the power hierarchy in this youth center was clear and priviliged me: I was a volunteer and they were the troubled youth being mentored and counseled. The power hierarchy in Israeli society was just as clear and to my privilege: I am an Ashkenazic Jew in Israel from an American background. However, in one respect, the power relationship privileged them and put them in a position of power over me: I am a woman and they are men. They tipped the scales of the power balance to assert some power over a person who in many ways has power over them, and it worked: as a woman, with my own experiences of gender oppression, I was affected by their actions. They succeeded.
These interactions presented me with numerous personal and educational dilemmas and every week I deliberated over how to respond until one day, totally by accident, I found the solution. I was sitting with a few of the boys in the lounge when one of them asked me whether I am religious. Now, I am a Reform Jew in Israel who works as a cantor, so I don’t easily fit into the usual categories of religious/secular here; I get that question a lot and I have a practiced, well-thought out response at the ready, which I quickly produced for my young friend: “I am religious, not halakhic”.
For these teens, for whom the concepts of progressive Judaism, in particular, and the very existence of a variety of streams in Judaism, in general, are completely foreign, the only thing that registered for them was the word “religious”. From that moment, their interaction with me changed dramatically. This shift was felt immediately when another boy, who was not in this conversation, entered the lounge and shot some comment my way about my being hot. The other boys immediately jumped to my defence: “Don’t speak to her like that! Did you know that she’s religious?!”
My initial reaction to this comment was deep relief, a feeling which I enjoyed through the end of my year volunteering with them. Together with that relief, though, I felt a new kind of troubling discomfort awakening in me. Clearly, I was not the kind of religious woman they were conjuring up, and yet I discovered that this word purchased me respect and dignity whose source was unclear to me, and which I was not at all sure that I was interested in claiming. Why would a “religious” woman “deserve” respect more than I, or any other woman would?
I was stuck in this troubling question until recently, during my participation in a series of fascinating text studies and discussions about Torah perspectives on gender injustice and human trafficking in the context of the Takum social justice beit midrash, in Jerusalem. In one of our sessions, we learned about the development of the ketubbah document from Biblical to Rabbinic law, as well as the varying halakhic responses to rape of a woman depending on her marital status. In the course of this class, I understood something basic about virginity: it became clear that in the worldview of the classic texts, a woman is assessed in large part according to her virginity, which is considered a prized commodity of great value. This seems peculiar in the world I inhabit but it seems that this attitude has been preserved to some extent, perhaps from a simplistic view, in other parts of society, including Orthodox Judaism.
This simple insight helped me understand the riddle that had troubled me since my days at the youth center: a religious woman represents a woman whose sexuality is still “pure” and untainted, and therefore, deserving of honor and respect. Understanding this caused me to cast grave doubt on the value of this honor, a kind of doubt that does not in any way make my life, as a progressive/Reform Jewish religious woman with a secular appearance, any easier.