Judaism and Feminism… It’s Complicated

Ultra Orthodox Jews

Ultra Orthodox Jews. Image via Wikipedia.

By Juliana Jiménez

Controversy about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish treatment of women shows no signs of abating, coming to a kind of crisis. Recently, ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in Israel spat on an 8-year-old they deemed was dressed indecently, Naama Margolese, from Beit Shemesh.

In an incident like this, it is very clear who is at fault, there’s no debate, for most of us. But the underlining narrative here rings familiar. And the lessons should be that the burden of men’s lecherous thoughts about women should be on the men, not on the women. They either undress them and objectify them with plastic surgery, or they cover them up, and objectify them with a burqa or “modest dress”, even for an 8-year-old on her way to school.

The New York Times today has a column precisely on this, and it could not have been said better.

At heart, we are talking about a blame-the-victim mentality. It shifts the responsibility of managing a man’s sexual urges from himself to every woman he may or may not encounter. It is a cousin to the mentality behind the claim, “She was asking for it.”

I’m so glad this is being said, and by a man, and a rabbi at that. His perspective is even more valuable because he can speak with authority about the Talmud and its teachings, saying that in fact, never does it blame women for men’s lecherous thoughts, as anyone could have deduced from recent events and all of human history:

The Talmud tells the religious man, in effect: If you have a problem, you deal with it. It is the male gaze — the way men look at women — that needs to be desexualized, not women in public. The power to make sure men don’t see women as objects of sexual gratification lies within men’s — and only men’s — control.

Jewish tradition teaches men and women alike that they should be modest in their dress. But modesty is not defined by, or even primarily about, how much of one’s body is covered. It is about comportment and behavior. It is about recognizing that one need not be the center of attention. It is about embodying the prophet Micah’s call for modesty: learning “to walk humbly with your God.”

When it comes to sexual abuse of women, the blame-the-victim mentality is rather universal and depressing. Take this Nicholas Kristof column:

“‘The girls are being blamed,’ noted Amie Kandeh, a heroic American-educated Sierra Leonean who runs women’s programs [in Sierra Leone] for the International Rescue Committee. ‘If a girl is raped and she’s above 5, then it’s the way she was dressed. But we’ve had a girl of 2-and-a-half months who was raped. Was it the way her mom put her diaper on?’”

How do you blame a baby for getting raped? You don’t, that’s it. You don’t blame rape victims, or imply blame, or pass laws that imply it de jure. As much as laws are designed to reflect people’s attitudes, sometimes laws can have an effect on people’s opinion and people’s actions, the real ugly consequence.

In a 2005 poll for Amnesty 28% of people said that a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk, and 34% of people said a woman was partly to blame for being raped if she had previously flirted with a man. Gross.

And now to antirape campaign ads.