Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Frumkeit and 2nd Class Citizenry

Image from Shona's Site
I am a feminist.  That’s right. You read that correctly. And yet, I have been accused of being misogynistic and have been the recipient of some truly harsh criticism by some of the more strident Jewish feminists. Feminists that consider the valuable ideal of feminism above the higher ideal of Torah based Jewish tradition. To them, when I say I am a feminist, I get laughed at.

But I am a feminist in the classic definition of the term. I believe that women and men should be treated equally in areas that do not violate Halacha or our traditional values. Equal pay for equal work is a long held belief of mine. As is treating men and women equally in social settings. Respecting people based on their character rather than on their gender is something in which I firmly believe.

What may not be so well known about me is that I have some of the same questions ardent feminists do. Certain aspects of Judaism  seem to favor men over women. For example, I have a long standing question about a Bracha I make every single morning thanking God for not making me a woman.

Why?! I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer to that. But I make the Bracha every day because that - along with the other Brahcos we say each morning - is what Chazal established for us. I do not believe they were misogynistic. But I still don't know why that Bracha was established and it still bothers me.

Which brings me to an article written by Sruli Besser in Mishpacha Magazine. He opines about being relegated to a second class citizen – having to miss his daughter’s high school graduation ceremony and being allowed only to attend a reception afterward – separated by a Mechitza. His point was that for the first time he knew what it must feel like to be a woman behind the Mechitza. And he didn’t like it. He concluded by placing women on a pedestal saying that they are far better at taking second place than he – and his fellow males are.

I never thought much of the tactic of putting women on a pedestal  to show how great Judaism treats its women. Because I don't think women want to be placed on one. They want to be treated the same as men. Not better. Not worse.

In response to that Alexandra Fleksher has written a piece on Cross Currents that appreciated Sruli’s candor - praising him for opening up the conversation about how women really feel about their place in Judaism. But then she was upset his response to criticism of it. Here is how he put it: 
Been a fun day on my timeline…I feel bad for those who are enraged, and worse for those for whom mainstream Orthodoxy isn’t working, who want me to vent at the system, to fulminate about the injustices… ‘Haters are gonna hate and those looking to get offended will never disappoint.’ …the column is a lighter look at the foibles and realities of our beautiful, glorious, functional, stable, happy frum world. That’s my view. If you want a dark underside and hidden agenda to rock the chareidi boat and a secret ally in your battle to save us from ourselves, I’m not your guy…The column wasn’t a dog-whistle to Orthodox feminists... 
That was an unfortunate response. Because as Alexandra points out, the women that responded were not exactly members of JOFA: 
Mr. Besser didn’t realize that there exists a whole segment of passionate, dedicated, and happy Orthodox women, many of whom are rebbetzins, teachers and kiruv workers, who do feel like second-class citizens when it comes to certain accepted social practices of late in our circles. They associate with the yeshivish/chareidi world or the right-of-center world.  
She then excerpted a few  justifiable responses to that comment. All of which I agree with.
The fact is that the actual situation that generated Sruli’s column and Alexandra’s reaction is based on stringencies that did not exist in America (nor in many places in pre-war Europe).  It could have been avoided. One thing Sruli mentioned was that his father, Rav Shlomo Besser happily attended his own daughter’s graduation without the slightest of reservations. There was never a Tznius issue about such things in the past. (Sruli’s grandfather was Harav Yechezkel 'Haskel' Besser – an Agudah leader for many years) 

But in our day there is an actual Frumkeit completion in right wing circles. I had the same experience Sruli did with my granddaughter at her 8th grade graduation. The school she attended is Beis Ya’akov – founded by the Veitziner Rebbe – a Satmar Posek of international renown. It eventually became the mainstream right wing Beis Yaakov of the Yeshivaa world. Fathers had always been allowed to attend their daughter’s graduation until just a few years ago.

I wondered why the change and I was told by one of the  parents there that some of the school’s parent body had moved here from Lakewood. And they felt that the school needed to ‘up’ it’s  modesty standards  to those of Lakewood where forbidding men to attend their daughter’s graduation had long ago been established. The  policymakers of the school agreed. As if to say that Sruli’s illusttrious father’s was not quite Frum  enough by the much higher standards of our day.

This is what happened to mixed seating weddings in the 70s. Which used to be the norm and is now all but forgotten in the more right wing circles. And even in some - not so right wing ones We are now experiencing the fallout of continuing along this path. A path that in my view is destructive. 

And there is nothing anyone can do about it.

Which is sad. Much of the second class citizenry that women experience today can be traced back to the chase for Frumkeit. We need to stop doing that. That a Mechitza is Halachicly required in a Shul does not mean we should be extending it to every single part of our lives. We live in a society where men and women interact frequently with each other in all manner of societal endeavor. That is our norm. 

Which is why hundreds of years ago the Levush famously Paskined that we no longer consider mixed seating a wedding to be immodest. We can therefore consider such settings worthy of residing in God’s abode. While Erva (nakedness) is fixed in Halacha, modesty beyond that is subject to the time and place in which we live. That was made clear by the Psak of the Levush. 

There is absolutely no reason to relegate anyone to 2nd class status because of excessive modesty concerns. Relegating  women to 2nd class citizenry as an act of  modesty to show how Frum we are is not being Frum at all.