How Orthodox Judaism Made Me A Feminist

By Rachel Pearlstein

I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family and attended an Orthodox all-girls Jewish high school in south Florida. There were many good times and many freeing things about going to an all-girls high school, like not caring what you looked like, wearing sports bras every day, and being able to shout across the hallway for a pad or tampon without any pre-pubescent teenage boys making obscene comments.

They taught us in school and in the community that men were always thinking about sex and implied that women did not think about or want sex. Since men were always thinking about sex, women were supposed to cover their bodies and be ‘attractive but not attracting’. We were taught how big a sin it is for men to masturbate and so, in order to lessen the likelihood of men ‘wasting their seed’, women needed to cover up. You know how when someone says ‘don’t look’, one of the first things you do is look? Well let me tell you that most Orthodox girls think about sex plenty (the more we were told not to, the more we thought about it), and are quite crippled from all that repression especially if they chose to stray from this lifestyle.

The entire life experience was gendered; there were only two options for being a human — male or female — and you were either one or the other. There were exact roles for what women and men should do throughout the day, from which prayers to say, to where to stand in the synagogue, to how to dress and speak in and outside the home, and how to interact with the opposite gender. In addition to being repressive to women and even men alike, this life left no room for transgender people or anyone who did not choose to fit themselves into a gender binary. We were told that women are holier than men and have an innate spirituality and so women do not need to abide by many of the commandments in the Torah (the Jewish bible). Women of many devout streams of religion are told things like this by men and other women alike to keep them in a strategic place in society. When a person is born with a vagina, gifts of spirituality from God are immediately bestowed upon her? Come on, let’s get real.

When I began to venture away from that community and ideology I saw another kind of objectification and another culture trying to take away my freedom in the new world I was entering. It is no secret that women in the Western world are overly sexualised and objectified on billboards, television, music, everyday dialogue, and through countless other means. When I attended the University of Florida there was a strong pressure to look hot all the time when going out to bars or clubs. I constantly felt the pressure to wear fewer clothes, heels (which I absolutely cannot stand), and more makeup (it’s not fun to have lots of sticky goop on your face) if I wanted to be attractive to guys.

I did not like the other side of the coin. I grew up in a patriarchal world where women’s bodies were objectified in a different kind of way and I did not want to partake in another culture of female objectification and patriarchy. In Chassidic culture, women could not interact with men nor could they dress as they please because they may arouse men. This is one side of objectification and the culture in clubs, bars, and college campuses is the other extreme. Both are designed for men and force women to be a certain way quiet and covered or completely exposed and sexualised for men.

Then I found feminism. It was a slow process. I did not know that the way of life and stream of thought I was beginning to identify with had a name. Feminism for me is a middle path; a balance I have found. It is my rejection of the objectification of women’s bodies, of my body. For me it means choice. I have learnt to reclaim what being a women means, what sexuality means, and how I want to dress, act, and move through the world. Of course I cannot completely remove myself from Western culture but I can make decisions based on feminist principles and most importantly based on the person I want to be. I can choose to dress and act how I want, whether it is socially acceptable for women in Western culture or not. I can choose to act more ‘masculine’ when I please or as ‘feminine’ as I please. I can choose tight or short clothes if I want, or loose and comfortable clothes when I want. The main point is I CAN CHOOSE: not male Rabbis, not the (mostly) men who run the music, television, and fashion industry, but me and only me. For me, feminism is not radical but an empowering, self-introspective, and balanced way of life that I found and through which I am still finding my womanhood.

For all of you out there, no matter what your stance is on these issues, I implore you to ask yourself if you are being objectified. Ask yourself if you are making choices which speak to your soul, your heart, and the deepest parts of your being. If devout religion or mainstream Western culture is giving you these things, then I encourage you to latch onto them. But decide for yourself; to me, this is feminism.

Author: Gender + the City

Intersectional Feminist digital magazine

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