When Orthodoxy is Liberating

It’s Friday night, and we’re talking Beyonce.

Somewhere between Mr. Rogers and the NY magazine article on “theybies”, she sneaks in, ubiquitous as she is, her name sprinkled in the middle of a sentence as we reach for our plastic soup spoons.

“Has she given birth yet?” I ask, scooping a carrot from the steaming broth. “I last saw her pregnant and haven’t spotted her since.”

We discuss her idolized body, a modern distinction for black visibility, and a marked departure from the waifdom of typical, contemporary, white models.

“The glorification of Beyonce through her body, is it objectifying or empowering for the black community?” we wonder. “It is a positive objectification or a negative one? Is positive objectification a thing?”

For more than a decade now, I’ve ruminated over similar debates.

Years before I hear of the word tznius, I understand the power of the body to affect the mind and soul. While working out daily in high school, I heard a voice within me whisper convincingly, “You are beautiful, you are strong, you are invincible. You can do anything.”

I walked around, muscles flexing, believing it to be true. Nevertheless, between each step, the ground beneath me still shook. I could do anything, my body forgot to mention, except fill that little hole within me that whispered, “I’m afraid, I’m unsettled, I’m confused.”

When I enter seminary the summer before my junior year of college, I suck ideas of tznius rapidly into my bloodstream, its potential power quickly internalized.

I watch women around me light up like fireflies, their faces illuminated by the patterns of their blouses, contrasting with the quiet space of concealed skin. I feel the affirming, comforting messages that modest clothes send to my spine.

Security, rather than dominance, replaces my definition of power.

“You are safe,” my clothing explains to my quieted nervous system. “You are home. You are strong because you are safe. You are powerful because you are home.”

The fierceness of my limbs intertwines with the lamblike vulnerability of my heart, and I metamorphosed into the synthesized creature I never knew I had been pining for.

But my magical moments of Orthodox synthesis of body and soul, power and worth, didn’t solve everything.

As an Orthodox woman facing the rising voices of people questioning the patriarchy, matriarchy, and sworn allegiances to He and She, I mull over in my own private quarters what within my culture and tradition is indeed systematic oppression of the female kind and what is a healthy separation/revelation/creation of gender roles.

Discussions on gender and power push me to question what God really expects from us, and what rules and customs my religious heart is comfortable in altering. I wonder what changes would feel too far, too unOrthodox. Most days, the questions tumble into a confused, resultant mess of I’m not sure, do I have to decide?

My husband recently spoke up about problems of misogyny in the religious world. Many women in particular related and were grateful for the article.

I myself feel mixed.

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When I hear the words “Orthodox” and “misogyny” blended together, a protest erupts from my body, “Who you calling oppressed?”

My body wants to tell the tale of what it used to feel like, back in the day, when my flesh was my main projector of self worth.

It wants to speak about how the rules of modesty- not beaten into me from the age of four, but acquired through experience and personal observation- were like discovering a precious, family heirloom that helped me feel whole and more connected to myself and my people.

My body wants to sing about the strength I found there, wrapped up in the four cubits of Jewish law, radiating power from the inside.

My mind however, wants to add in nuance from another angle.

One of the reasons why Orthodox misogyny might not seem like a hot button topic for me is that I don’t personally feel silenced, ignored, or oppressed within the Orthodox world, and never have felt that way. I feel heard, seen, respected, and empowered. I feel like the world is open to me, with endless opportunities.

My experiences, of course, are not universal, for many reasons. For one thing, there are so many different Orthodox communities out there, and in others women may feel more choked by its regulations, or may desire different roles, rules, or opportunities than I do.

In addition, there are so many things I just don’t see. After Rishe Groner’s interview with Elad on Hevriacast, I started seeing things within the religious world that hadn’t previously been obvious or disruptive to me.

During last year’s Lag B’omer parade in Crown Heights, for instance, I noticed for the first time that the only school kids on floats were boys. I never noticed or felt bothered by that before. “Why couldn’t girls be on the floats as well?” I started to wonder.

Rishe also commented on the classic dynamics she witnessed of women and men at Shabbos tables, when men sing and the women, due to kol isha, don’t get into the singing, even through rapt listening or table drumming. Instead, the typical response at most Shabbos tables, Rishe complains, is mundane side conversations to avoid awkwardness. A spiritual woman, Rishe didn’t want her Shabbos experience to be like that. She wants to be able to be absorbed into the singing and celebration. She wants greater depth. After seeing things through Rishe’s eyes, I couldn’t unsee them. I myself started to feel a bit unsettled.

Back to Beyonce.

“Has the glorification of her body empowered the black female community and women in general more than objectified them?” we wonder.

“Can we access our body as a place of redemption?”

Like all good questions, these hang suspended in the romantic Friday night air, unanswered for the time being. The discussion will continue, through many other voices, another day.

My husband and I add red horseradish to tomato-covered, oven-baked gefilte fish, and move on.



Photo credit to R.Nial Bradshaw, with limited cropping