I met Florence my freshman year of college when I was styling a photo shoot for a mutual friend at Blue Stockings—a bookstore with topics ranging from queer studies and feminism, to sexuality. Seeing that I was passionate about poetry and feminism, she pulled out an anthology written by Helene Aylon, a Reformed Jewish visual artist known for deeming women’s halachot to be unfair. An excerpt from her poem, The Bath, speaks negatively of a Jewish women’s ritual to dip in the mikve.
“…. She who began the immersion into the bath
With terms like “unclean”
The term that was used in Leviticus
For a leper or a corpse”
Unlike this woman and many others before her like The Rabbi’s Daughter and The Women of the Wall, I don’t believe G-d’s halachot are unfair. To me, the Ritual Bath represents women’s purity—not uncleanliness. However, with our Jew fros bobbing in tandem, Florence and I agreed that the double standards and gender inequality in our modern orthodox community we both grew up in indeed derive from Jewish principles.
Both the Gemara and the Torah make reference to the law that prohibits women and men to have premarital sex. And yet, if a woman commits this sin the judgments passed from our community are far worse than if it were a man. I think this also sheds light on the criticism women face for having sexual desires while men are labeled animals— the latter implying the justifications men have to sin and the former implying that women need to behave.
“….to change a two faced standard
That allows a man to wed
A virgin told to have manners
The years he was off to bed”
In Devarim, the Sotah, a women suspected of cheating on her husband, has to go to the Beit Hamikdash and undergo an embarrassing ordeal to be proven innocent or guilty. The man just has to live with his guilt. This is is no way inferring that the women in our community are treated worse than men for cheating. To me this story portrays the way our women, like the sotah, have a higher expectation to live up to. They have to live up to a higher standard and if they aren’t, they’ll be ridiculed.
Although our coffee mugs were almost empty and the closed sign lit up in bright neon lights, the conversation didn’t have to stop there. We recruited a small group of women and through weekly sessions have been compiling pieces of writing from community women that want their voices to be heard. The anthology we hope to publish, called Kol Isha, will hopefully stir up conversation and awareness. From there we could only hope for individuals to make a change in their judgments and actions.