Two warring factions, my head and heart, have tussled for decades over the inequality and hurt on the women’s side of the mechitzah. Always, if sometimes reluctantly, my heart wins, and I cling to the curtain folds of observant Judaism.
But events in Israel these last few months — segregated buses, ultra-Orthodox extremists jeering at little girls on their way to school, the soundproofing of the public sphere against women’s voices — have led to a tipping point. There is no more slack for me to cut.
I’m demoralized, and it’s gotten to the point where my husband has asked me, nicely, to refrain from any more tales of woe at the breakfast table. When I showed this easygoing son of Holocaust survivors the recent images of Haredi protesters dressed in concentration camp garb, a darkness rarely seen crossed his face.
In my despair, I’m not about to eat a cheeseburger; however, I am rapidly losing my appetite for identifying with Orthodoxy.
I do not move in ultra-Orthodox circles, but am a lifelong traveller in what is known as Modern Orthodox, a label that itself is under renovation. Since the 1970s, mainstream Orthodoxy has been eschewing ‘modernity’ and embracing increasingly stringent practices.
This swing to the right came on the heels of social upheaval that swept secular society. That particular bus was driven by the women’s movement, which unleashed educational opportunities, removed certain job barriers and upended the mother ship of domesticity. That was the good stuff. But as the times descended into a cultural and sexual free-for- all, Orthodoxy, perceiving an assault on traditional values, began drawing more restrictive boundaries.
As the middle ground shifted out from under us, those like me who ‘stayed in place’ are increasingly considered too liberal for fellow Orthodox Jews. It’s been a struggle, and a lonely one. But I’ve managed to enjoy the best of both the secular and religious worlds, and I’ve managed to think for myself and critically. In our house, matters of Jewish law have always been resolved this way: when in doubt, leave it out, throw it out or wait it out.
Briefly, in the mid-1980s, we joined an egalitarian minyan, but suspected from the start, when we asked for gender-separate seating, that it was not a good fit. No further proof was needed when, after repeated opportunities to be called to the Torah, I stayed firmly rooted in my seat. Some things just don’t let go.
In the intervening years, I’ve tried to meet Orthodoxy half-way, making a fragile, if cold, peace with what I don’t like and what doesn’t seem to be changing. But events of late in Israel have sullied my feelings. Deserting the fold is not an option, but the spirit of well-being (and at times, joy) that suffused my life as an observant Jew are gone.
How ironic this should happen now, when I see and feel the hand of God so clearly, as never before, caring for my husband and me when we’ve needed it most. Too bad other hands are pushing me away.