Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Trouble With the Curtain: A feminist's adventure in Orthodox Judaism

(I'm writing this post for the Feminist Odyssey Blog Carnival, being hosted by from to to one. Check it out!)

I was a feminist first. Or maybe I was Jewish first. I was really both at the same time, but those days they didn't clash as much as they do now. In my little world, one didn't have to choose.

Growing up, I was encouraged to be anything I wanted to be. At 2 years old, I announced that I would be an astronaut. My parents encouraged that, and sent me to space camp, an engineering-specialized high school, summer science camp, and more opportunities on my road to the stars.

My family went to a conservative synagogue. Conservative Judaism (unlike most other applications of the word) is a middle-of-the-road sect. Unlike in more traditional Orthodox synagogues, men and women sit together, a girl has a bat mitzvah where she reads aloud from the Torah just like the boys, and men and women both participate in services. Conservative Judaism is egalitarian, making it easy to be both a feminist and a Jew.

Years later, when I had just moved to Houston, I was 1000 miles from home and feeling every one of them when the Jewish High Holidays rolled around in 2008. With the area still recovering from a significant hurricane, I did not have a chance to join a conservative synagogue in time to attend for the holidays. I ended up going to an Orthodox synagogue, something the feminist in me never expected to do. As egalitarian as the Judaism of my youth was, this was the exact opposite. In an Orthodox synagogue the men and women sit separately, with women behind a curtain or divider so men cannot see them (note that it is not required for women to be unable to see the men). The rabbi who leads the service is obviously a man and stands on the men's side, visible to us only through gaps in the curtain. Jewish law requires 10 Jewish adults to pray, and they will only count men, 13 and over. One of the highest honors of a Jewish prayer service is being called to the front for an "Aliyah" (literally means: to go up) to say the blessing before the Torah is read. This too is reserved for the men.

In the synagogue of my youth I read from the Torah at my Bat Mitzvah. I have read Torah portions and had Aliyot (plural for Aliyah) plenty of times without a man by my side. I sat with my whole family, men and women, in a row at synagogue and participated as an equal. This Judaism could coexist with feminism, Orthodox Judaism could not. I was at war with myself. If I allowed myself to feel comfortable behind the curtain, I was letting feminism down; if I could not make peace with the curtain, was I letting G-d down?

The Orthodox synagogue was not all bad. I had never seen people take religion so seriously before. I had never seen people love G-d so much. I left my first service with more invitations to holiday dinner than there are nights of the holiday. I felt like I was part of a family; maybe not the family I was born to, but they give me a place to go and always welcomed me. It is a result of my experiences at the Orthodox synagogue that I remain strongly connected to my faith, and for that I will always be grateful. But there was still the curtain, still the inner war. Feminist or Jew, which do you choose if both is not an option?

It was at the urging of my orthodox-raised ex-boyfriend that I tried the orthodox synagogue, but it is because of a conversation with him that I know I will take my future children back to the Conservative Judaism I grew up with.  "Why do you think the men and women should have to sit separately?" I asked him one day. "Well, because women are distracting," he replied. "It's easier to concentrate without them around." "What about the girls in your chemistry class? Are they distracting too?" "Yes."

This reminds me of when Christian feminist bloggers write about the modesty myth and how it forces women to take responsibility for men not being able to control their urges. If women are "too distracting" to be allowed in class with men, then many of the opportunities that I enjoyed as a child would be impossible. Nobody is going to do an engineering class for 4 women, when they could stick to giving a class to 70 men. Teaching young boys that it's okay to think of women as distractions goes against everything that I believe. My future daughters are not distractions, and my future sons will learn to rise above their urges and see women as equals.

Feminist first or Jew first, I have grown up to be both. Maybe it's not possible to be a perfect feminist and a perfect Jew at the same time, but Conservative Judaism offers a middle ground for imperfect people. There my children will learn about Judaism, celebrate the same holidays, pray to the same G-d. They will also learn that women are not distractions, that you have to be responsible for your own urges, that women do not need to be kept out of sight, and that girls can do anything boys can do. No curtains necessary.


  1. Thanks for contributing to the blog carnival! I'm excited to share your post later this week in the summary post.

  2. Oh wow... I am also a woman in engineering, and it would be unthinkable for someone to say boys and girls can't be in class together because girls are "too distracting." You said "Nobody is going to do an engineering class for 4 women, when they could stick to giving a class to 70 men"- in my experience, that ratio is dead-on. And the fact that the ratio is so skewed would just make things even worse for women if it was decided that women are a threat.