Open Zion

05.25.12

Chaya Doesn't Speak for Me

I have never met Chaya, but I wish I had—she sure knows how to get people talking about women in Orthodox Judaism.

Chaya wrote a viral blogpost on XOJane arguing that Chassidic women have it good. That they are “strong,” “invincible” and “make delicious kugel.”  But to me, an Orthodox Jew living on the other side of Brooklyn, the post makes Chaya sound like a cranky Hasbarista for Orthodoxy:

Incidentally, Orthodox Jewish women have one of the lowest rates of cervical and other reproductive cancers because of…wait for it…these customs [of niddah].

This is some kind of black-and-white washing, and it is just false. The rates of cervical cancer among all Jewish women have been consistent across time. Over the last fifty years, when observation of the laws of niddah, or menstrual purity, has dropped precipitously in the overall Jewish population, non-Orthodox women have also enjoyed these low rates of cancer.  Low rates of cervical cancer are about genetics—they have nothing to do with menstruation. 

A few other things: First, though I have only been to the mikva (ritual bath) once, since I am unmarried, but it was not like a spa. It was more like a damp version of Big Brother.  Or maybe Big Sister.  Second, I like bearded men too, but what if there’s a Chassidic woman who doesn’t find filled-in facial follicles sexy? 

Third, if you’re going to claim that "Judaism is the original sex-positive culture” and that “Jews bypassed the whole Christian idea that all sex, even in marriage, is a sin,” I might recommend reading some Milton, one of the many Christians who didn’t buy that sex was original sin. Arguing otherwise is just triumphalism. 

Also, Chaya might want to look up "sex-positive." Last I checked, means that all forms of sex between consenting adults are good. If you try to prove Orthodoxy's sex-positive by citing the prohibition on having sex with your clothes on (yes, she does this), then you are using the term in new and creative ways. And how exactly is a denomination "sex-positive" when it proclaims, "Jewish law is unequivocal in opposing same sex relationships“?

But Chaya puts the toughest bit right up front: 

The last time I checked (which was right now), I am free to do whatever I want to do. Nobody is making me do anything. If I want to leave the community I live in, whether to go grocery shopping or to put on a pair of pants and go to a disco and snort coke, I can. Nobody is going to stop me.

Are you telling me that women born into most Jewish Orthodoxies (which Chaya apparently wasn’t) experience no social pressure to marry young?  To have her babies immediately?  To have many babies during the most productive years of her life? What if I didn’t want to do crazy things like go to a disco and snort coke—what if I just didn’t want to have babies? What if, instead I wanted to learn Talmud or become a rabbi?

Well I’ll tell you: If women in most Chassidic sects were to do any of these things they’d be brutally socially ostracized. Once they do have children it’s hard to argue that they’re free to leave, to go—again, sans disco and coke—to a life where they can be fulfilled by something other than their children? I don’t mean to knock women who are fulfilled by the birthing and raising of children (indeed, I may join their ranks soon enough). But this is what I don’t think Chaya understands: It is not the absence of chains that delivers freedom; it is the presence of choice.