Friday, February 20, 2015

Sem Girl Says

Guest Post by Mindy Schwartz

Beit Midrash of Migdal Oz
A young woman by the name of Mindy Schwartz sent me the following e-mail: 
Hello, name is Mindy Schwartz and I am currently studying for my year abroad in Migdal Oz Beit Midrash for Women in Israel. I recently wrote an article concerning the Orthodox community's respect for women's learning and its manifestation in the learning policies of our educational institutions. If you feel it worthwhile and fitting for your site I would love for you to publish it. 
I thought it would be enlightening to see what the values of a young woman attending a Modern Orthodox seminary in Israel are. The video she referenced can be seen below. 

As an aside, I just want to say that I did not think this video to be funny at all. It is insulting and an embarrassment. Maybe even a Chilul HaShem to put it on YouTube. The producers and anyone involved ought to be ashamed!

As always the views presented by guest contributors do not necessarily reflect my own. Her words follow unedited in their entirety.

The premise: Capitalize on the stupid, vapid Sem Girl stereotype

The result: A viral YouTube video, active twitter account, and much liked Facebook page featuring the ditziest of “Sem Girl” quotes, ranging from obsessions with marriage to lack of basic competency. 

I remember when I watched that first video. Two baby-faced yeshiva guys approached "random" seminary girls on Ben Yehudah and asked simple questions, preserving for eternity the infamous, cringeworthy responses.

I remember laughing.

Partly because people saying stupid things always been cheap straw for the comedic bonfire (See: Dan Quayle, Beauty Pageant Q and As, etcetera etcetera). But a part of it felt wrong. Reminiscent of the giggles you get at a funeral as you watch a grown man or woman breakdown mid eulogy and your body bubbles over in discomfort. Because something about that video felt shameful. Humiliating. Wrong.


Jewish girls are not given the same Judaic educational opportunities as their male peers. Nor do we expect our girls to achieve the same level of skills, understanding, and commitment to intense Torah learning. If Gemara is taught at all it is, in most cases, taught on a lower level; if expectations to pursue higher study are present they are more often than not thin and pliable. It is no surprise that girls rarely rise to challenge of continuous Torah study and become women involved in the serious national, or even communal Torah conversation.

I should clarify that all I present here is the opinion of a single so-called “Sem Girl.”  Yet I firmly believe this opinion holds immense truth for me, and more significantly, for a large portion of the Modern Orthodox community.

I do not ask you to agree with me; I do not wish to “enlighten” or “alter” your heart. I simply ask that you listen.

I ask, if you feel girls’ Torah learning has already reached its ideal level, why does only one Modern Orthodox girls high school in the tristate area teach mandatory Gemara five times a week? Why do seminary girls’ Gemara skills inch forward while their male counterparts’ surge? Why is it that there exists a Gemara based Yeshiva Program for Yeshiva University students, with no such corresponding program for their Stern counterparts? And even in the realm of Tanach, why is there rarely a woman scholar found on the average Tanach shiur source sheet?

I ask, if you feel that girls should learn, but should not learn Gemara, why not?  Why should the sacred texts that stand as the backbone of our cherished rabbinic Judaism be closed off to half our population? Why should a committed, learned person steer clear of such a text? We are blessed to take for for granted that in the Modern Orthodox community women’s Gemara, or more precisely Gemara-lite, learning has been accepted as mainstream. So then why should such learning not be encouraged and fortified? Why do it only half way? Can it really detract from the Torah growth of women when it continues to strengthen and sharpen the study of so many men?

I ask, if you feel girls who learn Gemara do so only to push a feminist or egalitarian "agenda," how many men learn Torah strictly for the sake of Heaven? I do not mean to denigrate men’s learning, still I point this out to demonstrate something quite intuitive: that the motivations of any large group will never be exactly the same. Even if a there are women who learn for this purpose, should we throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater? Shouldn't we instead hope the learning of these few “agenda pushers” leads to a greater Torah commitment and in others not assume hidden "agendas" unless they are stated outright?

So I ask, why? Why do we expect less from our daughters? Our sisters? Our wives? Why do they not receive the same opportunities as our sons? Our brothers? Our husbands?

And so we return to our Sem Girl, the video that launched a thousand of posts and tweets, the stereotype that launched a thousand insecurities and warped self perceptions. We are taught to look in the mirror, and recognize the stereotype -- the fluffy, blank-minded, fake "frummie" in a hard tail skirt. Or to reject her, kick the glass and run as far as we can from her, careful not to look back lest we turn into the pillar of Sem Girl, a la Ashet Lot.  Our girls are damned both ways, either as a ditz, a "rebel", or maybe even an angry man-hater.

These stereotypes are of course as ridiculous as they are crude, but more importantly they lay close to the beating heart of the way men view women in the Torah conversation, and, perhaps more significantly, the way we view ourselves.

Almost all men and boys will admit that, as the biography of the Sem Girl Says facebook page claims, “we’re sure there are lots of smart seminary girls.” But the fact that such a clarification need be made at all speaks to an underlying disrespect of women in the realm of Torah learning. This culture of disrespect breeds lowered expectations; with lowered expectations comes lesser results. Women who take Torah study to a level past those expectations are often other-ed, called man-haters, assumed to be radicals or else deemed exceptions to the rule, so that the values they emulate are incapable of traveling into the mainstream.

For us "Sem Girls" the stereotype has been damaging on a deeper level. Because as we have come to accept her, we have come to disrespect her, and so we disrespect ourselves. We claim we "aren't like that" or "literally hate that type of girl" and so give her veritably and power in our lives. Or we accept her as our own, become her, perfect her, until we've so twisted ourselves and this character that we can't seem to disentangle one from the other. We obsess over her rather than denying her existence.

Let’s uproot this Sem Girl and everything she’s ever said; in her place we will have room for real respect to grow, from our male counterparts and from ourselves. This respect for our characters, and for our learning will bring heightened expectations, and with heightened expectations, visible change. We can begin to expect the same commitment to Torah learning from our young girls as we do our young boys. We can begin to improve our educational institutions so as to cater to these expectations

So I would like to suggest a new viral sensation:

The premise: Jewish Girl is respected and expected to learn as much as Jewish Boy

The result: A more united, deep, complex Torah conversation.