It’s a thrill to see an image of yourself on the cover on New Republic. Well, it wasn’t literally me on the front cover, but it was an image of Orthodox Jewish women with a headline about Orthodox Jewish women, so it might as well have been. For Orthodox women, to see a story like this kind of feels like someone walked into your home and wrote a story about your life. Like I said, a little thrill.
Of course, last week’s story by Allison Kaplan Sommer and Dahlia Lithwick wasn’t a typical story about Orthodox women, not the Faye Kellerman type of soft, gentle, glowing obedience to a set of rules that glorify traditional gender roles and female body cover. This wasn’t Aish or Chabad or even Oprah sharing an idealized puff-piece about “The Jewish Woman” and how peace in the world rests on her divine, passive femininity. This was a very different narrative. It was about women who are definitely not content and satisfied with social demands placed squarely upon them. It was about Orthodox women fighting for change. Maybe that’s why I liked it so much.
The story of encroaching demands on women’s bodies – cover up more, be more silent, stay off the street, go to the back of the bus, don’t let anyone see your face or hear your voice — began decades ago but has been increasingly escalating. Today, demands placed on women are at times accompanied by violence, whether it’s chairs being thrown at the Western Wall or rocks being thrown in Beit Shemesh at women walking on a street where women are banned, or wearing a skirt that shows too much of her calf. This is a story about radical ideas and radical forces taking over religious Judaism while the secular world has remained largely indifferent.
This religious radicalism rests on an ancient misogyny, the idea that if women’s bodies and lives are controlled by the men in the world, all will be good in the universe. I think of it as the Ahashverosh model. We read this idea in the Book of Esther. When King Ahashverosh wanted to show off his power, he summoned his wife Vashti to “appear”, because we all know that having a gorgeous wife makes you powerful (heck, maybe I should get one, too). And when Vashti refused (you go girl!), well, the king was worried that all hell would break loose. So not only did he dethrone her and reportedly have her killed, but most importantly, he wrote to his entire kingdom about it. He told his aides: “When the king’s letter shall be published throughout all his kingdom, all the wives will give to their husbands honor, both to great and small…. that every man should bear rule in his own house, and speak according to the language of his people.” Meaning, as long as each man is ruler over his household – read, over his wife – there will be peace in all 127 lands. It’s the unfortunately resilient idea that political order relies on men keeping women in their place.