Sunday, July 18, 2010

Woman trouble.

My father, who having spent four years preaching under the watch of
Gestapo agents could claim some expertise on the subject, always said,
“anti-Semitism is not a problem of Jews, but of anti-Semites.”  With that in mind, orthodox religions have
a big woman problem.   That
they do, was driven home this past week by three separate news events — the
Catholic Church’s new dictum
ostensibly dealing with its sex abuse scandal, the French Parliament decision
to ban Muslim facial covering in public and the arrest of a Jewish feminist
activist at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. 

Breathtaking is the only word that comes to mind in learning that the
Vatican opted to link the crimes of predator priests and the ordination of
women in one document.  It is
breathtaking not only in its content — and the church quickly denied it was
suggesting equivalency — but in Rome’s continuing to be utterly tone deaf to
both criticism and to the realities and mores of the modern world.  One read on this is of an institution,
headed by an absolute monarch, which simply doesn’t give a damn what others
think or say about it.   The
Vatican arrogantly proclaims it solely possesses the supreme truth, effectively taking the law unto
itself while dissing everyone else, not the least civil authority.

Vatican dicta are not delivered without painstaking thought and
intention.  So, regardless of how
their spokesmen may deny any equivalency, there is no way to spin its painting the
attempted ordination of women as one of the church’s most grave crimes, along
with heresy, schism and pedophilia.  Don’t expect Rome to rescind even one
punctuation mark of that writing. 
The crafters and the Pope in whose name the document was issued said
what they meant and meant what they said. 

This is not to single out the Roman Church for having a Medieval
approach to women, far from it. 
Abigail Pogrebin writes
in the July 19-26 issue of New York Magazine of Rabbi Avi Weiss of the orthodox
Riverdale Hebrew Institute who had the temerity to ordain a woman, though
even he didn’t dare give Sara Hurwitz the title rabbi.   The harsh reaction of his orthodox
colleagues and their followers may be summed up in what was reportedly said by one
of orthodox Judaism’s most revered legal scholars, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, who
put the ordination of women in the category of…a [legal] tenet that literally suggests one should opt for death
before violating the law.
religions, two different theologies: reading from precisely the same sexist

Then there is the news from France where, if legislators have their
, Muslim women will no longer be able to walk the streets of Paris with
their faces masked by a veil.  The
vote in the 557 member lower house was 335 yes, one against and 221
abstentions.  The outcome, reflecting
the views of the larger society including the vast majority of French Muslims, was
portrayed as a blow for women’s rights and dignity.  Of course the issue at hand is more complicated and vote has
a darker side.  Banning the veil
may also be seen as a challenge to religious freedom.  As abhorrent as many of us feel the treatment of women may
be by orthodox Muslims, we have to be concerned about the unintended
consequences of such legislation, which is exactly why it may not pass French
or European Union constitutional muster. 
As to the still darker side, just as there was a mixing in the Vatican
dictum of two totally unrelated issues, here too there is an element, perhaps unspoken, of the racism that is rearing its ugly head all over Europe in the face
of rising Muslim populations.   Nothing seems simple, much less straight forward, in
the twenty-first century.

So it is with the saga of Anat Hoffman, Director of the Israel
Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement in Israel.  I learned of Hoffman in an email from
my friend Rabbi John Friedman alerting all concerned to legislation (the Rotem
) pending in Israel that would cede absolute control in determining who
is a Jew to the ultra-orthodox thus undermining the status of non-orthodox and non-religious Jews
and their clergy.  That is a
separate and most disturbing issue to be left for another time.  As it happens, Hoffman is also chair of
a group called Women of the Wall that
seeks equal access and free religious practice at the Western Wall, considered
by religious Jews as the holiest of all sites.  Concurrently with (but seemingly unrelated to) her
lobbying efforts against the Rotem legislation, Hoffman was arrested by
Israeli police for carrying a Torah scroll and leading a group of singing women
in a zone near the wall forbidden to
them.  Women in a man’s place, surely one of those capital
crimes.  Orthodox Jews, Muslims and
Christians alike have a huge woman problem.

Perhaps the bottom line is not so much that the orthodox have an intrinsically,
albeit not universal, low opinion of women, but that they see feminism as
deeply threatening.  Pogrebin quotes Yeshiva dean Rabbi
Shai Held, There’s a tremendous amount of
anxiety among religious traditionalists that when you take one step toward
egalitarianism, the floodgates are open and everything that seemed self-evident
will no longer be.  Men go to work,
and women raise children.  If you
undermine that, you have lost your whole universe.
  Said in 2010, wow!  While Catholics employ nuns as supporting players, they too
see the elevation of women into a God-decreed man’s
as deeply threatening, just as orthodox Muslims fear that uncovering
the face (needless to say ordination) is a slippery slope leading to disaster.

The ordination issue may transcend a fear of religious dilution and
potential disintegration.  It
strikes as the heart of control and power.  The men who dominate all orthodox religious groups (and much
of everything else), understand that once leadership is open the majority in
the population their days of hegemony are numbered.  You know, once you put an Ms. in the State Department she
and her kind will never let go.  So
all of this is not merely a matter of ideological doctrine (the word of God)
but of the most basic and blatant politics.  It’s a power struggle in which men have consistently
overestimated themselves.  Time is
not on the side of the orthodox, nor of misbegotten faith.


  1. I had to share this one with my people... thanks JP!

  2. Stories seldom told,Flowing by the skyline,My love songs that never rhyme.I Stand alone and alone,lingering by my secret rainbow