Thursday, 18 October 2012

there is a time for silence, and a time to speak out

it is not a good time to be a jewish woman.

it should be. but it isn’t.

in israel, Anat Hoffman and others are intimidated and arrested at the Kotel. they were singing, saying the shema, and wearing tallitot. Disturbing the peace. They were raising their voices and making their presence felt. Which doesn’t go down too well with the black-hatted bully-boys who are claiming ownership over the public spaces in Israel. 

And here in the UK, in the inside closed world of haredim, it appears that one woman (or possibly more) have been taken advantage of and coerced into improper sexual activities. their leaders have successfully nurtured a culture of mistrust of the outsiders, so they won’t report it, and the cover-ups and gossip thrives. and while we all speculate who the rabbis are. who knew what and why they aren’t saying. or why they are saying some things and not others, and the power games between the various factions continue. Amongst all of that are women who are being intimidated into silence.  

And at the other end of the spectrum on our TV’s Jewish women are being portrayed as tired stereotypes that we wince, cringe, and tweet our disgust. Jewish women depicted as caricatures, and we want to reach for the remote.

turn them off. turn off these jewish women who are loud, brash and inappropriate. they might say something that will make us uncomfortable. remind us of the flaws in the community. Our idealised Jerusalem, Golders Green or Hampstead. 

This is not about the character of Anat Hoffman and whether or not what she did was a deliberate provocative political act or a genuine expression of spirituality. But there is a principle of m’toch lo’lishma ba lishma - if you start to do something for the wrong reason you will eventually do it for the right reason, so don’t examine inner intentions, just do it. That principle is never applied to women and their spirituality. Women have to be perfect before they can protest and be taken seriously. It's not relevant why Anat Hoffman said shema. The fact is that she raised her voice and prayed. Loudly. And if that is something a woman at the Kotel can be arrested for, then there is something very very wrong.

This is not about how consenting or not was the woman involved in the case in GG. This is about women being vulnerable to leadership and authority, not being safe and being used by men in their power plays. If what is said to have happened didn’t actually happen, but is someone causing trouble, why create a sex scandal? Because you can get away with portraying women as silent victims of a sexual predator. This is a consequence of making a virtue out of women’s silence. Women will not be able to come forward and speak when they need to. Either to clear an innocent man’s name, or to verify, expose abuse, and prevent further damage. 

And this is certainly not about any of the individual women who are participating in the Jewish Mum of the Year catastrophe. This is about the context Jewish women are placed in. There is only one way to be a Jewish woman, the particular role of a particular type of Jewish Mother. They are framed in a setting of tired stereotypes to be smothering, brash and dominating. They may be loud but we don’t want to hear them, their voices have no real power. 

This is about women’s voices. The ones who pray loudly. The ones who don’t want to speak but have something to say. The ones who speak in a way that make us uncomfortable. Even them. Jewish women, all Jewish women need unlimited platforms for expression, not relegated to one-dimensional caricatures. This is about Jewish women finding their voices, speaking up, protesting our dismay and anger at how women are being treated.

Because this is about learning to hear a woman say “Shema! - Listen!” 

Sunday, 7 October 2012

to be counted

so, I've been drawing daf yomi. learning a page of talmud a day and then responding with a drawing. I started in august at the beginning of this daf yomi cycle and so far I've kept up. I done the learning each day, and apart from the 2-day yomtovs, I've done my drawings (I play catch-up motzei-yomtov with 2 drawings).

some days the drawings are better than others. some days, the drawings are a bit obvious, forced, just routine, not really saying or adding to the learning. but then there are the other days when the process of drawing reveals something, and my thoughts of the page click together while thinking with pencil in hand, and then it is all worth it. but one thing is certain, I have definitely learnt this material. I look back on the drawings and can recall the page, the discussion and topics.

I am not yet sure really why I am doing this, why engage with this material at all, it is so problematic in so many ways. and it can be a slog getting round to it. I started the project with a drawing of myself in the pose of saying shema as mesechet brachot begins with discussing from when can one say the night-time shema. but I drew it with my eye open, direct stare, confrontational almost. and I thought that it was fitting. this text, the talmud, is so influential in the development of jewish life and thought. and I want to know what is in it, learn it, but also take it on in my own space of my sketchbook.

it's not been easy. due to recent events, my attachment and commitment to judaism and torah has been extremely challenged and I am still questioning. my dear friend J described me as a queer jew. who has realised that they are now external to the text, and cannot find themselves in the literature. he said that two choices faced me, either walk away, or build a bridge... so I suppose this is me, drawing daf yomi, building a bridge but with eyes wide open to the text.

and I finished mesechet brachot. which was an achievement as over the 63 days, I had the disruption of travelling, chagim and lots of stressful situations and on-going health problems. but I did it. and I am continuing with mesechet shabbat, excited for what will be over the next few months.

but I finished mesechet brachot. and this is where I hit a bit of a wall that made me rethink my commitment to more than just this project. I try to go to a weekly daf yomi shuir, edited highlights of the previous 7 days dapim. taught by the brilliant R. Michael Pollack at LSJS, there is an interesting mix of regulars - both men and women. last wednesday we had a little siyum to mark finishing mesechet brachot. it was during succot, so a few people were away. we didn't have 10 jewish men and so the full text of the hadran and kaddish was not said. what irked me, and niggled and hasn't gone away, is that me, and the other women, just didn't count as part of the quorum. irrelevant. and to add to insult. my husband was at the siyum (it was at our house) and he wasn't doing daf yomi and yet he would have counted towards the quorum. we were a group of people who had embarked on a project of learning, who come together. and when such a group reaches a significant size, it is deemed worthy to come together and also praise God. but the women around the table, whose minds and thoughts have contributed to the conversation and have taken on this commitment are now invisible.... (putting aside that I'm not too sure about prayer and praising God right now).....

I'm trying to work out why it matters. why women who are not counted as part of a minyan in ritual prayer continues to irk and feel insulting. my take always used to be, communal prayer is a men's club, I've accepted that, but give me full and equal access to learning and knowledge. but as I have learnt in mesechet brachot - prayer and learning are linked. the communal project of minds and voices coming together to learn, discuss, challenge and refine thinking, are also the minds and voices that come together towards a comprehension of God. women are part of the conversation and yet in prayer they are invisible members, uncounted as part of the group. and it's not ok. not any more.

tomorrow night will be simchat torah. at my local synagogue they will not be giving a sefer torah to the women to dance with and celebrate. they will not be calling up women to stand before the torah and have that direct experience of facing the text. not in the main synagogue, not in the 'alternative' minyan, nor would they have agreed to a women-only torah reading in a separate space within the synagogue - should anyone have the naive optimism to ask if such a thing could happen. I could go to another denomination, or change countries, but this doesn't really solve anything. it's not ok for me, and it is unsettling for many others as well.  walking away just reinforces the status quo, nothing changes for anyone. it's just not ok to continually challenge women's intentions. it's not ok to not to acknowledge a male privilege position and not acknowledge this silencing of the voices of half the community. if women are indeed part of the community or not....

this year, as I am engaging with the Torah in a more intense and personal way than I have done before, a line from meschet brachot comes back to me (63b) - a person who learns by themselves will grow foolish. we need other people to engage with, to listen to. But also to talk to, and be listened to and acknowledged. or else they will drive themselves crazy.

and I am another crazy woman in the attic known as the ladies' section....