Sunday, June 21, 2009

Are Jewish Women Second Class Citizens?

I have been informed of an article in this week’s Hebrew version of Mishpacha Magazine. There is an interview with Rav Mordechai Neugershall who published a book aimed at Charedim which discusses Hashkafa.

Therein Rav Neugershall tells the story of how a BBC sponsored multi-faith discussion led to a question about how Orthodox Judaism treats women. The question stemmed from a Yated Ne’eman photo of the newly elected government in Israel - where women were cropped out. His answer was that in Judaism the more valuable something is, the more it remains hidden.

The example he gave was the Kodesh Kodoshim - The Holy of Holies - of the Beis HaMikdash where the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ stood. A woman is like the Shechina - God’s presence - in the Beis HaMikdash and is therefore kept hidden. Just like the Holy of Holies is 'hidden' - visited only by the Kohen Gadol once a year on Yom Kippur.

I'm sorry this explanation smacks of apologetics. This is a typical response I often hear by some when trying to answer various challenges of feminism about the perceived second class status of women.

You will often hear things like: ‘No no no! Women aren’t second class citizens at all. Men are the second class citizens!’ ‘Women are smarter than men because they have Binah Yiseirah - extra wisdom!’ But that does little to answer other statements about women in the Gemarah that seem to indicate a second class status - at least by implication.

Take the phrase Nashim - Daatan Kalos. This implies that women generally do not think deeply. This is of course not true. But I have never heard a satisfactory explanation of that statement.

A woman can never testify as a witness in court where two witnesses are Halachicly required. This implies that women are not trustworthy - which is of course untrue. The Gemarah never says this. It says the opposite in fact. When only one witness is required they are believed same as a man. But the perception of untrustworthiness in ‘two witness’ situations remains.

There is a Bracha every man makes in the morning thanking God for not making him a woman. Many have explained that the reason for this Brahcha is because men are thankful for having more Mitzvos than women. Women in fact don’t need Mitzvos because they are a more perfect creation by God. He therefore requires less of them.

But doesn’t that mean we are thanking God for making us lesser human beings - who have to work harder to reach the status of a woman? What is so great about that? Why thank God for that? Shouldn’t women instead be thanking God for not making them a man?

I realize of course that the Torah is not prejudiced against women. The Torah simply recognizes differences between men and women that are both physical and spiritual. Men and women therefore each have their own tasks to fulfill. Even though there are answers given along these lines I have not found them fully satisfying thus far.

So when a Rabbi like Mordechai Neugershall sets himself up as a sort of expert on this subject by writing a book and gives the kind of answer he gave about publishing pictures of women, it does nothing for me. It just reinforces my questions.

There is another point to be made here.

In my view the answer he gave about why women’s photos are not published - has nothing to do with the real reason: Excessive focus on Tznius. There is no Halachic reason not to permit a photo of a modestly dressed woman in a religious publication. It is a Chumra only among some. And yet it is increasingly becoming the norm to exclude photos of women.

The problem in Charedi circles is that since no segment wants to be seen as 'the Sheygitz' - once a Chumra is adopted by one segment, the other segment feels the need to adopt it too.

The argument often given by a publication like Mishpacha for doing this is that they do not want to exclude readers who find photos of women objectionable. That may be true. But it all adds up to a world where Chumros dominate. And then that becomes the norm. Those who refuse top go along with the new norm will be looked down upon. They will be admonished and even expelled from the group as L’hachisniks – contrarians! And those outside of the Charedi world are further marginalized if the don't conform to this standard. Instead of Achdus we have more wedges being created.

When is a rabbinic leader in the Charedi world going to stand up and say - Enough! When will there be a leader with the courage to say that just because one segment of Jewry has a Chumra - that does not mean that we all have to adopt it?