I arrived at Gate 6 in Terminal 3 at JFK an hour before departure to Tel Aviv. It was technically yesterday, but due to the flight and the travel I’ve only scraped together some shallow dozes, and the day has gone far past its expiration hour.
At the gate there were lots of Orthodox families, big fur hats, wigs, little boys and their daddies with matching peyes, awful sweaters, fringes, big black velvet toppings. My distaste surged. I reflected on the miserly hostility I feel at the most conservative branch of my faith family. Is it Israel I resist, or the ultra-Orthodox? Do I oppose their theology, their politics, their lifestyles, their culture, their gender policies, their food, or their fashion? If I oppose all of them, which is the most resonant of my aversions? Which are based in total ignorance and arrogance and lack of contact? Which aversions might dissipate upon further contact and contemplation? I’m flying to Israel to find out, this time as an adult.
My blood boiled on the plane at the first moment a Haredi man averted his eyes and leaned away from my passing body as though I were a diseased animal, as though I smelled bad, as though I exuded some sort of plague of death or unseemliness. To be subhuman as a woman: it is shocking to my all-American egalitarian DIY can-do selfhood. It insults my being.
Given, mine is a being forged in a certain cultural framework. I was raised with the world at my feet. This was good in some ways: I am a fearless individual and I have had varied life experiences. This is not good in some ways: I’ve spent years, over a decade, paralyzed between limitless choices, lack of structure and lack of direction, lack of a container for my overflowing self, pathetically begging and demanding affirmation from people around me, surfing the rubric of find-yourself-and-be-anything, and suffering its constant collision against the realities of my human limitations, including my human body, mind, and personality.
I’ve run wild with my impulses, starting a million things and never finishing them, finishing a million things that had nothing to do with anything, because I was told I could do anything. Anything seems to include a lot of destruction. If I had been told I could do one of five specific things, would I have grasped the preciousness of limited time and learned constructive decision making earlier in life? Would that have been more or less worthwhile?
The women raised in Orthodox Jewish families may be expected to bear 12 babies, and I can turn up my nose and say that they never had the choice or they’ve been brainwashed to think they want it. I can demonize Orthodox men for enforcing their body slavery. I can say women have to be stronger and have a more resilient internally-sourced selfhood because half of their world doesn’t make eye contact with them. I can extrapolate that men are weak because they don’t have to do this. I can rage at the women for perpetuating the cycle and being the cruelest, most gossipy, merciless enforcers of the patriarchy amongst themselves.
It seems important to consider the agent of enforcement: the patriarchy may rationalize and decree misogyny for its own benefit, but the women police themselves effectively through self- and mutual shaming, reaching themselves and each other with a cruelty more poignant than men can provide. It’s easiest to be cruel to your own kind, especially if you’ve been taught to hate and deny yourself.
But what do humans want? They want happiness. What do most people consider the source of happiness? Love; family. So maybe these ladies with all their babies are more fulfilled than I will ever be with my jet-pack career fueling me real fast to anywheresville (which is also nowheresville).
Why do I feel dehumanized when a man averts his eyes, leans away from me and swats away my handshake, and then responds with animation to the man next to me? What does that need for human witness, specifically male witness, say about my codependent selfhood? Is it really dehumanizing to be shunted with all the other females up to a hot balcony or behind a partition during a Shabbat service where I can’t see the Torah, hear the drash, or kiss my siddur and touch it to the scroll? Or is there something valuable and productive about that separation?
I think the fact that this feels so destructive says I have a healthy balanced ego that experiences isolation to be a partial experience of life. Inasmuch as I pursue full engagement in life, inasmuch as my hunger for experience is constitutive of my personality, inegalitarian gendered partitioning shrinks my world, slices my potential in twain.
My American mind and my big personality say this is a bad thing.
But there is also a part of me that knows that there is just as much to discover in my own garden as there is in another country. There is the part of me that is maturing into a different relationship with subtlety, discipline, quietude, and containment as I grow older. There’s a part of me that senses there’s something to this structured limitation, to physically enforcing the differences between men and women, to guarding interpersonal mysteries, to intentionally engaging ritual and social decorum to enhance preciousness and awareness. There’s a part of me that wants to live in a Jane Austen novel, where rules and modesty and separation and respect and careful language bear a steadying impact on human relations. (There’s also a part of me that knows that marriage is the beginning of the story, not the prize at the end of patient courting, and that the women that stay quiet in order to be chosen for being demure face a life of repressive playacting or a nasty divorce once they drop the act and let it all hang out.)
After we landed in Tel Aviv and drove North to the Sea of Galilee, wild from exhaustion and dreamwalking on Israeli soil, we visited the tomb of Maimonides. The men went to the front, toward the ner tamid and the gilded monuments. The women went behind a partition. I stood in the women’s darkened section and put my hand on the portion of the tomb exposed for female contact.
No matter what, we humans come into the world and are inculcated with a panoply of cultural inheritances, the habitus of Bourdieu: language, gender roles, expectations, spiritual meanderings about purpose. Some of these cultural inheritances, like language and handtools and commerce, are unavoidable and value-neutral (somewhat; I’m avoiding all of the tangents of deconstructionism right now in order to make a point).
Some of these cultural inheritances, like basic ethics or human rights, might be universal. When they generate harmful effects, either within a system or in a system’s imposition on another setting, then they should be curbed or evolved. I’m thinking about what having so many babies does to a woman’s body and mind (the demand is, on so many levels, insufferable), or how she might experience the isolation of Taharat Ha-Mishpachah (family purity laws) and niddah (separation during menstruation), or the humiliations of certain “modesty” enforcements.
I’m worried about the constant negation of the woman who is lacking eye-contact and healthy human witness out in the world. I’m angered by the Orthodoxy’s inflexible preservation of a mostly imaginary past, a past that we are very happy and lucky to have evolved beyond into the present, a present that even the Orthodox participate in every time they use running water, vaccinate their children, visit a biomedical healer, drink pasteurized milk, condemn American slavery, do not sacrifice animals to a god, or adjudicate rabbinical responsa to expired, historically contextualized mitzvot.
The social conventions of slavery and patriarchally-justified and enforced oppression of marginalized peoples (women and disadvantaged social classes) ought to be evolved beyond and discarded. As far as I’m concerned, dehumanizing a woman or social minority is on the same level as shitting in your drinking water: it’s an archaic, primitive act of misplacing a wasteful and creaturely impulse in a realm that, when cleansed and liberated and empowered, can actually contribute to a richer, fuller, safer, healthier, more enjoyable life for all of us.
But here is what I realized at the tomb of Maimonides: Humans need structure. Humans, left to their own devices, will only make awful, selfish, impulsive messes of their world. They will suffer and cause more suffering in order to avoid it. They will think mostly with their bodies and they will pursue the instant gratifications of pain avoidance and pleasure enhancement. They will privilege their creatureliness over their imaginatively self-transcendent capacities.
They need structure. They need structure in order to keep the madness in check, in order to create enough order so that we are not always problem-solving or attending to crises, so that growth is possible. They need ethical commitments, and that includes how to eat and how to interact and how to date and how to speak.
Of course, overbelief in structure and ignorance of the spirit of growth at its root is also bad: that’s what we call dogma, Victorianism, legalism, mechanism, materialism.
But a careful and thorough structure creates a container for experience, proffers an architecture of time, and disciplines the grunts and blusters of creatureliness so that we can attend to the whispers and tugs of transcendence.
With my hand on the tomb of Rambam, I saw his 13 Principles as a container; I saw the ocean of Jewish knowledge as a discussion about the container that keeps it alive, filled with ruach and subtlety. I saw that if there had been an attractive man on my side of the partition I might not have put my hand on the tomb out of distraction or vanity. I saw that if my world is smaller than it is, it doesn’t have to be less rich and interesting. I saw that the “I can have it all” of entrepreneurial egalitarianism can actually create a destructive, indulgent paralysis of action.
I am not advocating for gender separation and certainly not for the invisibility of women, especially when they have no say in the matter. I am advocating for a reconsideration of what we consider freedom and what we consider limitation. I am thinking of how many times I languished lost in my supposed freedom, and how productive and clear I have managed to be in contexts of discipline (chosen or enforced). I thought about the years when I lived by some indeterminate code of "following my heart" and how much trouble that got me into, and how much more purposive and lighthearted I am when I adhere to certain ethical codes.
Israel may be a little (a lot) different, 14 years after my first disastrous visit. But the body supposedly regenerates itself every 7 years, so I’m three people later now. No doubt I’m the one who has changed. Instead of forcing sentiment at the tomb of a man I thought I was supposed to feel something for (I shed many dutiful crocodile tears at many Israeli graves 14 years ago), I thought about the structures of a principled existence and what that might bring to me, what it might look like, and what it might bring to the world.
I thought about how to balance desire and duty. What do I want? What is being asked of me?
I thought about when the two merge, when you desire your duty and your duty is rewarding and enjoyable. That kind of integrity is the sweet spot. When you truly want to do what is being asked of you.
These new thoughts are more fitting tribute to the good doctor Maimonides, I think. (But I swear to G-d I'll never wear a wig.)