Global, Politics, Religion, Sex & Gender


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.

15 thoughts on “OMG They're HOLDING HANDS!

  1. Yes, It’s a huge problem – and one that is difficult to talk about – especially for women who want to get jobs – it’s not like they can come out and mention places they worked where there were serious gender issues that needed to be addressed or talk about things that came up that were deeply difficult or just plain wrong. So even in discussions, their voices are self-censored. Not, of course, that that would apply to anyone I know.

  2. The bigger issue I see is that people still view the only acceptable pulpit rabbi as someone who is willing to work 80-100 hours per week. This is bad for men and women who want to be active parents, but this role obviously still falls on women more. It’s also bad for rabbis’ spouses, because the default assumption is that they’ll pick up the family-life slack.
    Other industries/companies have realized that it’s better to have a great person who works 40-50 hours per week than a good person doing 80h. They’ve looked at jobs that have always been done one way and considered if there are other ways.
    The issue isn’t that certain people prefer a good home life over being a head rabbi. It’s that head rabbi positions are unnecessarily structured in ways that make a good home life difficult.

  3. I get that they wanted two tefillin hands to be holding, but wouldn’t the picture look more natural if one of the people was left-handed?

  4. I saw and used this cover in a post I wrote, and a sexual context never even crossed my mind. People are so creative when they want to be. It’s an American thing, to take sexuality to the extreme and assume that any two people who hold hands must have a romantic relationship. We have this jihad mindset to root out the deviant, delighting in fine-tuning our gaydar at any opportunity. Men must prove their heterosexuality by never touching another man, ever, and by bedding as many women as possible, as publicly as possible.
    Sexuality in this country is at a razor’s edge of puritanical vigilance and boundless, smut-inspired permissiveness. We’re ready to hang the next gays we can find and try it ourselves when no one is looking.
    If you think two women holdings hands is a sexual image, you have a screw loose. If you think two men holding hands is a sexual image, you have a screw loose. People can hold hands without any inclination to bone each other. It’s ok, really. Holding hands is a symbol of affection, not sexuality.

  5. i am always struck when outside of america how foreign it is in the old usa to see boys holding hands— i always notice it and then wonder why i notice it… something along victors point rings very true….
    but boys hold hands all over the world– girls too— but in america that immediately gets thrust into the homo/ hetero— finding thedeviant and making sure we’re not them… its even something i notice among guys in the army in israel- friendship that can touch… maybe people are drawing on the old “left handed” associations of our past?
    looking forward to the INSIDE of the cover now..

  6. Even if it’s just implying affection and not literally a sexual relationship, the picture actively puts the focus on the *relationship* between the two tefillin wearers rather than just being about the tefillin wearers themselves, which is what the article apparently was about.
    Holding hands is *not* inherently sexualized – but when that’s the sole content of a photograph, it seems obvious that the focus is on the relationship that leads to the hand-holding, not about two people who just happen to be holding hands (otherwise why focus on the hand-holding image?).
    As pointed out, if it were a heterosexual couple holding hands in tefillin, you might think the article is about rabbinic couples – which is precisely the point. You assume that holding hands suggests an article about a relationship between the hand-holders, which was not the case here (and which is why people ended up leaping to homosexuality).
    If they had a picture focused on two people hugging in a beit midrash (whatever gender combination) and it turned out to be just an article about what it’s like learning in a yeshiva, you might wonder why they chose a picture of people *hugging* in the beit midrash in particular and not just learning together or something.

  7. This is precisely the mentality I am speaking of. Why would you think that a photograph of two people hugging speaks to the sexual relationship, and not simply to their bond of affection?
    Why can’t adults hug without leading to your mental arousal? When you see two kids hug, do you think of their sexual relationship? Why is it different for adults? Is the only adult relationship you’re familiar with one that’s predicated on the bedroom? It’s not healthy. You need to work on yourself and understand why you’re having these strange thoughts. What is it about two people touching that leads you down the path of sensuality?
    I think we should all try an exercise. If you’re a man, hug a man, a man you are not related to. Really, do it. It’s ok, I give you permission. It won’t make you gay. Don’t do it without a reason, of course. Wait until someone shares good news about a promotion or a positive life event, and then just hug them to celebrate, because you care about them and you want to share in their happiness.
    Notice how you feel when you hug them, and if there’s any discomfort, think about why you’re feeling discomfort. Are you afraid that people will think you’re gay? Would you be feeling this discomfort if you were hugging a woman, instead? What is it about expressing your emotions this way with another man that feels uncomfortable, and why?
    I would invite women to do the same, but they already do. Women hug all the time, for the silliest of reasons. This sexuality obsession is purely a male-derived perversion, and we, as Jewish men, should do something about it, starting with ourselves.
    As a sidenote:
    if it were a heterosexual couple holding hands in tefillin, you might think the article is about rabbinic couples
    Why would a picture of a man and woman wrapping tefillin and holding hands be about a Rabbinic couple? Why Rabbinic? Because only Rabbis wear tefillin? WTF? You people are so twisted inside. You have all these weird boundaries and conformities. You judge people with such scrutiny and severity. It boggles my mind.

  8. I was one of the people who thought it was sexual, not because they were holding hands, but because of the stance. Standing in that position and holding hands, at least for me, is always sexual or romantic. Body language is important. I thought the article would be about observant, egalitarian, queer Jews. Basically, I agree with Benjamin E.

  9. I also agree with Shoshie and Benjamin E. Yesterday I held up the cover to a group of 15 people who had never seen it nor read the article and 100% of them thought that the article inside would be about lesbian relationships. I think Shoshie hit the nail on the head — it’s not about two women holding hands, it’s HOW they’re holding hands. And I also agree, mostly, with the letter sent to USCJ in response to the image.
    I was mainly struck by the picture inside the magazine of all of the women (some of whom I know) because they all looked pissed off.
    Victor, I think that the thing with rabbinic couples is not because people are twisted or think only rabbis where tefillin, but more because these women will all be ordained as rabbis in a few months…

  10. This reminds me of a story. As many of you know, I’m affiliated with Chabad. So, there’s a story of a bocher standing on a street corner in New York, offering to wrap tefillin for any Jews who pass by. He’s wrapping and wrapping, same old deal.
    Suddenly a misnagid runs up to him and starts yelling, “How dare you! How could you do such a thing?! This is a shonda, a real chillul Hashem!”
    The bocher is startled, “What’s wrong?! What did I do?! What are you talking about?”
    “What did you do?!” screams the misnagid. “Here you are, wrapping holy Tefillin on Jews in front of THAT!” He points above and behind the bocher’s head. Shaken by the assault, the bocher spins around, and what does he see? There is a prominent Victoria’s Secret lingerie billboard maybe 30 feet away from him.
    The bocher turns around and says, “You know what, you’re right. I should wrap tefillin on Jews somewhere else. But let me tell you something. I was standing here all day, wrapping tefillin on Jews almost six hours now, and I never even saw that billboard. You just turned the corner, and it seems like the first thing you saw.”

  11. Shoshie writes:
    I was one of the people who thought it was sexual, not because they were holding hands, but because of the stance. Standing in that position and holding hands, at least for me, is always sexual or romantic.
    Which, again, could have been fixed if one of them was left-handed!

  12. BZ writes:
    Which, again, could have been fixed if one of them was left-handed!
    He means:
    Which, again, could have been fixed if one of them were left-handed!
    (We get the idea, though.)

  13. as a fervent egalitarian jew, i found the cover problematic as well. while we must fight for gender egalitarianism in all fronts, we cannot conflate the different aspects of that struggle. fighting to ensure women’s right to observe the mitzvot like any other human being is essential, but that is a different fight than making sure that queer jews have sanctioned space in the jewish world. there is a deep inyan (notion) in halakhah about the space of prayer being one in which the only established connection is between the pray-er and G?d. it does de-sanctify tefillin when they are used as a prop towards a different end.

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