Thanking God Who Has Made me a Woman
By Belda Lindenbaum
Each time allegations of sexual abuse surface in the Jewish community I find that neither surprise nor shock are among the emotions I experience. While they may appear aberrant, cases of sexual abuse stem from negative attitudes towards women’s bodies that have existed widely in society and culture. These attitudes are subtle, yet pervasive, insinuating themselves into language, law, custom and gender relationships. They explain why women have a deepseated sense of vulnerability about their bodies. They explain why women in some societies are given in marriage without their consent to men they neither know nor love, why rape, despite laws to the contrary, is a feature of war; why young daughters are victims of incest; why teen age girls can be kidnapped or sold for sexual trafficking; and why American parents, regardless of class and location, must worry more about their daughters coming home after dark than about their sons.
To be sure, all of this is far distant from the specifics of the allegations, yet any act of abuse is linked to a continuum of deeply ingrained attitudes towards women’s bodies to which a sick mind can connect. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of a recent case involving allegations of sexual and emotional harassment of teens by a prominent youth leader is that the men overseeing the leader are alleged to have dismissed the explicit testimony of several women, as reported in The Jewish Week. If investigation proves the allegations to be true, then in their inaction these men subtly connected themselves to the continuum of degradation of women’s bodies. We must break through this chain of vulnerability. That is where our Torah community comes in. It is time for us to take the lead, beginning with reexamination of our own sacred texts, to discover where in practice they engender unhealthy attitudes towards women’s bodies.
We can be doctors, lawyers and executives in the secular world, but in the context of our Jewish lives we are “acquired” (kinyan) in marriage and can not initiate divorce. Mekhitzot are built far higher than the halakha requires, so that men will not be distracted by the sensuality of our bodies. Our menstrual blood is frightening and unclean, and we become frightening and unclean.
Attitudes towards women’s bodies do not stand by themselves, but are linked to negative attitudes towards women’s spirits and souls and minds and emotions. Like a Schherezade, I could recount a thousand and one indignities that Orthodox Jewish women have visited upon them in their daily lives. From an early age boys are taught covertly and overtly to trivialize women and their role in Jewish society. We are told it is only a case of mathematics, men make a quorum of ten and women do not. But all too often this simple arithmetic leads to a complex exclusion from synagogue, study hall and religious ritual. Go to almost any synagogue and when a girl is named Takhanun is recited despite the simha. Attend a zeved habat, a welcoming ceremony for the birth of a girl, and it concludes with the hope that the next child will be a son. Try to deal with a recalcitrant husband and you will soon understand the reality that women simply don’t count for too much. It is a reality that together, men and women must change.
No case of sexual abuse or harassment is isolated. Each results from a deep flaw in our community. It behooves us, and especially those of us who hold the interpretive keys, to examine all laws that place women in a lesser light or disadvantaged position. These include legal rulings in which women are treated as “less equal” than men; issues of women’s voice and presence; issues of gender language. Different or distinctive gender roles are legitimate, but cases in which women’s lives or intrinsic dignity is less valued must be corrected. We are all, girls and boys, men and women, made in God’s image. As a religious community we must be leaders in protecting the daughters of Israel and all the daughters of the world from forevermore fearing violation of the sanctity of their bodies and souls.
In the morning prayers each day we call upon God who heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds. It is my hope that all who are hurt and damaged will experience the fullness of this blessing.
Belda Lindenbaum is president of the board of Drisha Institute, where she has been actively involved from its inception. She is also a vice president of JOFA and the founder of Midreshet Lindenbaum and of the Toanut Bet Din Program.