Orthodox Feminists Grapple With Issues of Sexuality

By Nacha Cattan

Published February 20, 2004, issue of February 20, 2004.
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Faced with lurid popular images like Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl striptease and the stark reality of sexually active adolescents, Orthodox girls would be expected to turn to rabbinic law for guidance. The problem, says Jewish educator Tova Hartman, is that in religious schools sexuality is either dealt with through an “oy vey” curriculum that lays the burden of abstinence on girls or treated simply with “hermetic silence.”

Hartman offered her critique while giving a presentation at the fifth international conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance in New York.

“Children see all the dreck Hollywood has to offer with no religious discourse on how to deal with it,” said Hartman, a Hebrew University lecturer and day-school educator in Israel, during a discussion with conference participants who gathered around her after her presentation. The only direction girls are given, she added, is to “cover up” or risk date rape.

The problem extends far beyond Jewish schools, she argued, suggesting that the contemporary halachic system is not yet prepared to deal with the confounding modern world encountered by teenagers. Hartman called on rabbis to transform the situation.

Hartman’s criticism reflected a wider tension in Orthodox feminist circles that ran through several sessions on sexuality at the feminist conference. The struggle seemed to lie between the fight to debunk traditions that discount female sexuality and a desire to mine ancient sources for guidance in formulating a religiously meaningful conception of sexuality.

In a workshop titled “Mikvah, Sexual Desire and Emotional Tango” participants waded through the pros and cons of the monthly ritual bath, which supporters say imbues sexual unions with a sense of holiness, but critics argue is demeaning to women. Preliminary findings of a study were presented at the session, showing that women reached a peak in sexual desire and interactions the week they immersed themselves in the mikvah. This seemed to support rabbinic literature that promotes the ritual as a “never-ending honeymoon.” Several audience members, however, responded to the study with heartfelt concerns about the alienation or even violation some women feel when forbidden and then permitted to have sex.

“Mikvah is almost anti-woman,” one audience member declared. “We are products of our menstrual cycle.”

And yet, a few doors down, in a sign of the unresolved nature of the Orthodox feminist debate over sexuality, an exhibit of photographs and interviews illustrating the uplifting power of the mikvah was on display.

The two-day conference, titled “Women and Men in Partnership,” attracted approximately 1,000 participants, a record 20% of whom were men.

One forum that attempted to bridge the gap between feminist thought on sexuality and the views espoused by traditional texts was entitled “The Tension Between Looking and Leering: Does the Talmud Allow Men to Appreciate Female Beauty and Sexuality?” During the session, Rabbi David Bigman, the dean of Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa in Israel, posited that Talmudic texts never formally prohibited men from enjoying women’s beauty. Yet a later taboo against such behavior serves as a source of much of Orthodoxy’s strict modesty laws that currently govern women’s dress and actions. Bigman said it was only during the medieval period that rabbis began to forbid even the slightest admiring glance.

One audience member and conference presenter, Brandeis University sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman took aim at Bigman’s argument. She argued that while many of the Talmudic sources cited by Bigman do not prohibit men from appreciating women, these ancient teachings end up objectifying women instead.

“You say we shouldn’t get upset at being in the same sentence as a donkey, but this is about women being objectified,” said Fishman, who serves as co-director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

Afterward, in a conversation with the Forward, Fishman noted that the objectification of women is a problem throughout society. She suggested that, “the underlying concept of modesty in rabbinic tradition could be a very healthy corrective to our obsession with women’s body image.”

A similar view was expressed by Blu Greenberg, the founder of the feminist alliance that organized the conference.

“I think the restraint and idea of holiness in a sexual relationship and establishing parameters of sexual relationships that tradition offers is a very valuable and healthy thing,” Greenberg said. “Some would interpret that as prudish ancient sex values, but that’s okay with me. It’s the eternal values that are healthier ones.”

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