No rush on this…but I’m curious if you can point me to one of your blogs (or someone else’s) to address this issue:
I’m at the airport today with co-workers, all of whom are very well-educated professionals. Three of us are Jewish, three not (only one male). Somehow the topic of Orthodox Judaism, kosher, etc. comes up and I overhear the other two Jewish people talking. Then the woman says, “Well, I could never be Orthodox because they treat women as second-class citizens.”
Then the guy starts talking about how his mother teaches secular subjects in an Orthodox day school and how before she was allowed to teach, they reviewed her text books and “ripped out most of the pages on Native Americans” because the students weren’t allowed to learn about their lifestyles and/or see pictures of women with their arms uncovered, etc. Both were chuckling about how outrageous these things are.
Well, I’m sitting there trying to figure out whether to say something, and if so, what would I say. I had just met the woman at a meeting the day before, and didn’t want to come off in the wrong way (and my boss was there too).
So, I said, “Well, I study with an Orthodox rabbi and his wife and over the years I’ve learned that Orthodox Judaism really doesn’t feel that way about women. While I know people may have that misconception, it is really not true.” The other woman said, well, maybe I just don’t know enough and we left it at that.
Anyway, long story, but I’m curious – do you have a blog or something that “refreshes” my memory about what I might say in these conversations? Almost like an elevator pitch. While I feel confident in my belief that this view is not accurate, I would love to have a better handle on some good answers. Over the years of learning, I know I’ve heard different answers, in different contexts, but when faced with the situation today, I suddenly felt almost at a loss for words. Or, maybe I shouldn’t say anything?
There are really two questions, as you articulated. One, what are the answers I should have at the edge of my brain and tip of my tongue that, while not the entire answer, is easily exportable to others who don’t have the access that I have to what Orthodox living looks like? Two, when and under what circumstances should I export them? And if I don’t choose to, what else should I do or say in that moment?
The Torah tells us that it’s important to have those answers at our fingertips – mostly for ourselves. When someone mocks a group of people or an idea, and we only have a vague feeling or notion that it’s off, it’s really unsettling. It should be a generalized goal of life to know truth and live by it. Later, we have to decide how much and when to share those ideas with others – especially when negativity is the context.
So let’s first approach The Truth about the things that were said.
Whenever I or my kids are insulted by someone, the first thing we try to do is ask: is it true? Meaning, no one – cultural or religious groups, professionals, irrespective of age – is immune to mistakes. Sometimes the best change comes via unpleasant criticism. What a great opportunity to use it to introspect and see if it’s true, and if so, what we can do about it. In this way our greatest mockers become our best coaches (which is a good form of revenge, incidentally).
1. So, are Orthodox Jews anti-women?
2. And are we insular with regards to learning about other cultures and religions?
3. Are we overly consumed with modesty in Victorian ways?
1. Some individual Orthodox Jews are anti-women, but for that matter, so are some non-Orthodox Jews and some Christians and some Chinese people and some Muslims. A better question is are MOST Orthodox Jews anti-women, or is the RULEBOOK of Orthodox Judaism (the Torah) anti-women?
And I honestly think the answer is NO. Most Orthodox men that I know treat their wives and other women well. The Torah does teach different paths of spiritual fulfillment for men and women, which definitely highlights different public roles, especially in synagogues, but as I’ve written elsewhere, the great mistake is to judge Orthodox Judaism by what goes on in the synagogue, because what goes on in the synagogue is a fraction of what Orthodox Jewish life looks like.
In the home, schools, and family, women play a huge role, and perhaps even a huger role than men. In the Torah as well, we see many instances where husbands are told to listen to their wives in some of the most pivotal decisions to affect the Jewish people, and where the women kept the faith where the men wavered, insuring the continuation as a people.
I’ve noticed a double-standard. Orthodox women are allowed to make fun of men in speeches, but Orthodox men are NEVER allowed to make fun of women in speeches. Hmmm.
2. Insular? Yup. We believe that idolatry, adultery and murder are really, really, bad, so we avoid them in all their forms. If I’m at an IMAX and there’s a scene of an ancient culture worshipping their idols, do you know what I do? I close my eyes. That’s insular. I don’t want to view something I believe is an affront to my God. I want my children learning about Native Americans, but I don’t need them learning about the details of their religion where they conflict with Judaism. All of us are insular, just about different things.
Within the Orthodox world, you’ll see a big spectrum on this too. I doubt the school in question was Modern Orthodox, for example. More insular forms of Orthodoxy will be more likely to censor more strongly – which is good or bad, depending on your orientation. Most people think the religious guy one notch more religious is a fanatic, whereas the guy one notch less is a flake. Welcome to the human condition.
3. Well, that’s a toughie. Who’s to decide what “overly,” what’s “extreme,” and what’s “Victorian”? In the 1950s national TV looked wildly different than it does today. In Namibia, for example, some people barely wear clothing at all. When I see homecoming dresses on Facebook, I blush. And when it comes to the education of our kids in their most formative years, most Orthodox people opt for a more sheltered culture in terms of how much skin they want their kids to see. Public schools deal with where to draw the line, and so do we all. We draw the line in different places, and we all judge each other on our misdrawn lines.
How many times have I held myself back from commenting on the homecoming dress issue (ok, I just killed my streak)? Many, because I know that no one is interested in me judging their kids for being immodest. Just like I don’t want anyone judging me or my kids for being immodest. There are all kinds of reasons why people will draw their lines in various places (literally) – Jewish law being only one of them. But Orthodox Jews, and especially their men and kids, are also really sensitive to what they see – not just to what they look like. Is it possible to see this neutrally? Instead of negatively?
And, the Pitch:
1. “I’ve been fortunate to hang out with a lot of Orthodox people, and, as individuals, I don’t see that they’re any more chauvinistic than anyone else. They do believe that men and women are different, but mostly only in synagogue – at home, school, and play, it’s a really level playing field.”
2. “I’ve been fortunate to hang out with a lot of Orthodox people, and I think the reason they’re kind of insular is because their main goal is to give their kids strong Jewish values, above anything else. So they really try to filter out the noise in attempting this. I guess we all do that in different ways, huh?”
3. “I’ve been fortunate to hang out with a lot of Orthodox people, and I think that they are really into modesty. I mean, we all struggle with where to draw the line in raising our kids, don’t you think? In that we all agree. We should probably try to respect each other’s struggle – we’re kind of all the same boat there. It’s a tough battle.”
Should you say any or all of the above things? Sometimes just knowing them is enough. The barometer is, are they interested and open to what you think about Orthodox people? Will they feel enlightened or annoyed? Expanded or resentful? That’s your call to make. But knowing it for yourself is a really good feeling. Sometimes, that’s all we need. And if the moment does not call for education, feel free to fall back on my favorite parenting word:
Personally, I think you did a fabulous job.
What would you say?