Veils, pluralism, and access to Orthodox Jews

Chayyei Sarah has posted something interesting on her blog in response to an article in the London Jewish Chronicle about Orthodox bloggers. The article is headed with the words "Weblog: Marcus J Freed on How the Internet is Lifting the Veil from Orthodox Jewish Women." My first reaction is very different from Chayyei Sarah's.

I am offended not by the implication that Orthodox women purposely hide themselves away behind a veil, but by the analogy between the practice of Orthodox women covering their hair and the word "veil," which connotes the Muslim khimar (or worse, burqa) for anyone these days, or at least anyone who is not planning a wedding.1 The Muslim connotation of the word "veil" is especially obvious, I imagine, for the intended audience of this piece, i.e., British Jews, who certainly see more khimars (often called hijabs) than your average New Yorker.

As a modern, feminist, American woman I feel that the khimar is unnecessarily oppressive (especially in terms of heat--can you imagine how sticky it must get inside those mostly-synthetic head coverings?), but as a modern, feminist, Orthodox Jew, I'm not always entirely comfortable with the suggestion that the practice of married Jewish women covering their heads or hair is equally oppressive.2 As one for whom intellectually honesty is important, I'm not 100% sure that even I buy the distinction between the oppressive khimar and the non-oppressive cotton beret or cute little hat (let's not discuss sheitlach here), but, at first glance, that's what would have bothered me about that subtitle.

Because I don't want to misrepresent Chayyei Sarah's reaction to the subtitle in the article, I'm going to quote parts of her blog post wholesale:
But for a Jewish newspaper to make it seem like, before blogging, Orthodox women were so cloistered, their lifestyles so mysterious, is disingenuous. Yes, some communities are "closed," in that they are unfriendly to outsiders. But in many, if not most, Orthodox communities, the only thing stopping a Jewish person from getting to know some Orthodox people is the unwillingness to pick up a phone, call a local Orthodox synagogue, and say "hey, what time are services? Can I be hosted by an Orthodox family for lunch? Because I'd like to get to know some Orthodox people." That's it. It's not like Orthodox Judaism is a secret underground society and you need a password. You can (if you are Jewish at least), just call up Aish Hatorah or NCSY or pretty much any Orthodox synagogue and believe me, they'll be more than happy to introduce you to as many Orthodox people as you want.

What blogging has done is put Orthodoxy into people's homes without them having to make much of an effort. Instead of having to make a phone call and visit Orthodox people in their homes or educational institutions, instead of having to befriend a Rebbetzin or a shomer negiah woman or a mom in the Five Towns, one can now sit at one's computer and click their way into new worlds.

That doesn't mean that Orthodoxy has a veil over it. It just means that people outside Orthodoxy are often uninterested in hearing Orthodox voices unless they can do so without any effort. The door may have looked closed before, but it was unlocked. All you had to do to see what's happening at the party is open the door. But now blogging makes the party come to you.

....My point being that, when it comes to non-Orthodox Jews, any perceived "veil" is made up just as much of laziness or circumstances as it is by isolationism.
I'm not exactly sure what in the article provoked this reaction, because the word "veil" alone didn't make me feel this way, but I empathize with the feelings expressed.

It often feels, as an Orthodox Jew, that the rest of the world thinks that I am strange and bizarre. Actually, most of the time, they don't even realize that I am Orthodox because I don't wear the "costume" and have no visible signs such as a kipa or yarmulke. I actually like this anonymity, and I recognize that the experiences of Orthodox men who wear kippot and married Orthodox women who cover their hair are very different in this regard. Most people I interact with (at the grocery store, at the bank, in a university class, even many of the people I deal with at my Jewish workplace) don't know about my religious observance, and that's fine with me. When people find out, though, they are often shocked and this is when I feel strange, bizarre, regarded as anachronistically weird (or worse). I have gotten reactions along the lines of, "You're Orthodox? But you're so normal!" and "You're Orthodox? But you're so nice!" (I kid you not.) This cannot help but make me feel that most people, knowing few or no Orthodox Jews, assume that Orthodox Jews are strange and not nice. What conclusions would you draw from such exclamations?

Which brings me to my point. Chayyei Sarah is upset that more non-Orthodox Jews don't reach out to Orthodox Jews and get to know them, that they don't get over that sense that Orthodox Jews are weird or bizarre or not-nice. (I, too, would want non-Orthodox Jews to stop regarding me as some sort of very strange anomaly to the human race.) Why, she wants to know, do they sit at home and read blogs instead of going out and meeting these creatures they find so likeable and interesting once they get to know them through their blogs?

I answered in a comment there. What I said was:
With all due respect, I think that most non-Orthodox Jews are sure that Orthodox Jews are going to judge them for their lifestyle choices. And I think that in many circles, they'd be right. Why would you want to call up an institution and be introduced to people who are going to question your moral, ethical, and religious choices? Reading blogs allows you to get to know people without feeling rejected or condescended to from the get-go. I'm not saying that there aren't a lot of Orthodox Jews who respect the choices made by non-Orthodox Jews, it's just that calling up your average Orthodox shul in most large American and probably Israeli cities won't get you access to those people. Orthodoxy has a veil over it to the extent that most or at least many Orthodox people feel that their approach to Judaism is the *only* correct one, and, deep down, may believe that those who are not shomrei Shabbat/kashrut the way *they* are, are sinners or at least "tinokot shehnishbah"3 (how condescending is that?) whereas most other versions of Jewish practice allow for multiple truths and pluralistic approaches.

I want to elaborate, though. BZ has written a lot about pluralism from his perspective. In his taxonomy of Jewish pluralism post, he explains three stages of Jewish pluralism as he sees them. Go there and read the whole post, but the short version is this (here I go, quoting again--BZ, please correct me if I've misrepresented your opinion):

Stage 1: "Frummest common denominator." In this stage, Orthodox practice is the standard for the whole community, and is believed to be the most inclusive. E.g. if some people can only have a man leading birkat hamazon, and other people can have a man or a woman, then the answer is to have a man lead birkat hamazon....

Stage 2: "Let's make everyone comfortable." I wrote the following to an email list a few months ago (and the discussion on that list was specifically about prayer, but this can be applied to other areas)....

Stage 3: The dialogue focuses not on forbidden/permitted/required, and not on comfort, but on identity. I can visit someone else's community and participate in something that I wouldn't have chosen for myself, and it's not the end of the world for me, but at the same time I'm quite conscious that it is not my community. Therefore, the questions for the pluralistic community are: How can we (as a community) respect the identities of everyone in our community? How can we (as individuals) respect the identities of everyone in our community? How can we form a community that all of us identify with as our community? How can we (as individuals) make sure that our communities reflect our identities?
The problem with pluralism is that if you believe in an objective truth, a truth which you believe is the only truth (as is the case with most Orthodox Jews), then it's going to be really hard or impossible to get past Stage 1. Even if you believe in multiple truths, in each person finding their own truth, which is more or less where I currently stand, it's going to be hard to get past Stage 1 if you are personally Orthoprax in a serious, consistent way.

I respect BZ and all of his beliefs (at least the ones that I am aware of), believe that he respects my beliefs (though this post may change that!), and understand where he's coming from, but even from my lefty-Orthodox religious-cultural perspective, there are times when Stage 1 pluralism feels just right to me. Stage 2 pluralism or "making everyone comfortable," as exemplified by the "two table system," is difficult if some of the people you are trying to make comfortable are Orthodox. I consider myself crouched on the far, far left edge of Orthodoxy, and even I am not really comfortable with the two table system for a variety of reasons. (Sorry, BZ.) If you are trying to be so pluralistic that you include Orthodox Jews, then you are probably stuck in Stage 1 and therefore not truly pluralistic at all. If you say "To hell with those Orthodox people" and forge ahead in your pluralistic pursuits without them, I don't blame you one bit. Trust me, most of those Orthodox people could care less about your pluralism or lack thereof.

Most Orthodox Jews are not willing to sacrifice one iota of their religious beliefs in the name of pluralism or Jewish unity, which is why Stage 1 pluralism is so common. I hate to say this because it's such a terrible slur on my Orthodox brethren (in the non-gendered sense), but I don't think it's much of a secret: Most Orthodox Jews think that anyone who is not Orthodox is wrong because they are not following the Torah as Orthodox Jews understand it. Most Orthodox Jews think that the Torah comes from God, in some direct way, and that not following [their understand of] the Torah is equivalent to not following God. The best they can do from a pluralistic perspective, then, is say that non-Orthodox Jews are in the category of tinok shenishbah,3 which essentially means "a baby who was captured and raised among bad people and therefore doesn't know any better when he sins." This is, at the very least, extremely patronizing, but that probably doesn't even begin to cover what this is.4

And that is the veil, if there is any, that prevents non-Orthodox Jews and Orthodox Jews from sitting down and getting to know one another as human beings outside of the blogosphere.

Corrections to this-more-strident-than-usual post are most welcome.

Next up (time-permitting): "Orthodox men who stand at the back of the shul talking right in front of the women's section...and what should be done to them."

1. Wikipedia defines veils foremost as "articles of clothing, worn almost exclusively by women, which cover some part of the head or face."

2. I have provided these links for your edification and enjoyment. Or you may make fun of them. Some of them are decent and others are truly appalling explanations for these particular Jewish laws, or horrific exhortations to women to keep these laws. Click at your own risk.

3. I'm sorry, but I could not find a decent link to post about this halachic category, so I had to link to Maimonides Hilchot Mamrim 3:3, which is only available in Hebrew. This is where this category is first codified to include those who appear to willingly reject halacha. I could translate it, but I think I won't, because it's really not very nice (understatement of the year). Maybe that's why it's not posted clearly on the Internet anywhere in English. Here is the Hebrew:

ג אבל בני אותן הטועים ובני בניהם, שהדיחו אותם אבותם ונולדו במינות, וגידלו אותן עליו--הרי הן כתינוק שנשבה לבין הגויים וגידלוהו הגויים על דתם, שהוא אנוס; ואף על פי ששמע אחר כך שהיה יהודי, וראה היהודיים ודתם--הרי הוא כאנוס, שהרי גידלוהו על טעותם. כך אלו האוחזים בדרכי אבותיהם שתעו. לפיכך ראוי להחזירן בתשובה, ולמשוך אותם בדרכי שלום, עד שיחזרו לאיתן התורה; ולא ימהר אדם להורגן

4. For an excellent discussion of pluralism and Orthodoxy, see Jonathan Sacks' One People?: Tradition, Modernity, and Jewish Unity. I read it when I was 16 and have not read it since. I just realized that this means that I read it ten years ago, so its quite possible that I am totally forgetting what it says, but I don't think so. It was one of the first serious Jewish books (or any non-fiction, for that matter) that I discovered and read on my own and it had a tremendous impact on me. My thoughts about Orthodoxy and pluralism were also very affected by my experiences as a Bronfman Youth Fellow in 1996.


BZ said...

Good post, and thanks for the links!

As a non-Orthodox Jew, I feel like getting myself invited to Aish, etc., would be ona'at devarim, because I'd be letting them try to sell me on something that I know I'm not buying. (This didn't stop me from spending a shabbat at the Ascent Institute for the free entertainment, but I don't make a habit of it.)

I think that the two-table system can be in Stage 3, not just 2. And I'm not such a fan of Stage 2 either . In Stage 3, the objective is for no one to have to compromise, rather than some people (Stage 1) or everyone (Stage 2).

David said...

Thoughtful post.

I'm pretty cool with a slightly modified version of stage 1, and I can give an example of what I mean:

As an Othodox-type, I'm not egalitarian in my leanings. However, I have some female friends who regularly lead services at an egalitarian service, so I made one of them a tape so that she could better learn the nusah. To me, it's more important that the nusah be done correctly than who does it (and I'm particularly makpid about grammar, because unintentional mistakes by the not-quite-fluent can often be pretty Theologically unpleasant).

While I think that Orthopraxy is correct, that doesn't mean that one who prefers heteropraxy is anything other than mistaken - it doesn't make them bad, or less of a Jew, or anything like that.

The problem of the other stages from a practical perspective is apparent when looking at kashrut: if I go to a Conservative event, should I drink non-kosher wine? If I go to a Reform event, should I eat a ham&cheese sandwich? Both of those examples are completely in line with the Theology and practice within the communities, so that leads to a "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" approach. That's a lovely sentiment, but not a very historically Jewish one: throughout history, Jews have been willing to be different from other people because of their beliefs. "Do as the Greeks do" was the approach against which the events leading to Hannukah were fought.

StepIma said...

I haven't read your blog before - I found you via your comment on Chayyei Sarah's post... and I really enjoyed your perspective. I'm debating whether to add a similar-but-different comment on her post as well.

I think your post is insightful, but it's an extremely Jewish perspective. I have the same issues as (Chayyei)Sarah does with the article; namely, that the word "veil" is a very negative, exclusively female one - despite your egalitarian treatment, the writer really was trying to say "ooh lookie, now we get to see ortho women in their natural habitat!"

But back to my point about your post. As another "O" who blends -- my favorite story was the day I went in to ask for time off work for yom tov and having my new boss say into his phone, "I can't talk now - the Irish Catholic girl just came in and asked for time off for Shavuos," :) -- whenever my non-Jewish friends have questions or lack of understanding about our religious differences, they ask. Whenever my Reform and Conservative Jewish friends do, they judge. The immediate assumption that being Orthodox makes me judgemental (your comment of "You're Orthodox? But you're so nice!", for example), or "are going to question your moral, ethical, and religious choices." Most Orthodox people, particularly in America, come in contact with far more secular Jews than they do with Orthodox Jews. And again, as Sarah says, even though some communities may be cloistered, that doesn't mean the people are.

In my personal experience, which is (I think) reasonably wide-ranging, the people with chips on their shoulders are those who are loosely affiliated with Judaism, and those who feel marginalized by Orthodox traditions and want to prove a point by highlighting their marginalization.

I am not trying to say that bias doesn't exist. There are closed-off and judgmental and rude Orthodox communities, who don't make room for people of less-observant and differently-observant (not less-religious) denominations. Who would call them less religious. But I am saying that even those people, by and large (of course there are always exceptions), are not hiding women's thoughts about religion or religious practice under veils. If anything, there's a real sense that strict Orthodox Jewish women's practices - from not counting in minyanim to hair covering to especially taharas hamishpacha (family "purity" laws) - are under attack by other branches of Judaism as being anti-feminist and pagan and otherwise wrongheaded if not stupid (and boy, I've heard that one far more than I'd like). Which has caused plenty of books and articles to be written on the subject, and lectures given, by the same Orthodox women who are supposed to be so heavily veiled.

So on the subject of "can't we all just get along," I dunno. The two-tables thing sucks, but there's so much refusal on the part of the far ends of the spectrum that there may always be a two-tables approach... sigh. But with one exception. Most of the issues that create the most tension, such as who leads birkat hamazon, who counts in a minyan, and those men who talk at the back of the women's section (I can't wait to read that post, since it's a particular sore spot for me) immediately go away when the only people at the table -- are women. :)

BZ said...

To clarify the two-tables thing:
Bameh devarim amurim? This is only for potluck meals.

For a communal meal where all the food could be coming from a single source (e.g. a communal or institutional kitchen or a caterer), there's no reason for two tables. In that case, it's entirely reasonable to go with a stricter communal standard of kashrut so that everyone can eat.

However, in a potluck meal where everyone is bringing something, applying this stricter standard would mean that some people in the community cannot contribute and are thus marginalized. This is not "the far ends of the spectrum". The people in question are not radicals. They just want to be part of the community.

ALG said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone!

StepIma, welcome! You're right--I missed the fact that the author was specifically speaking about female Orthodox bloggers. I still think that Chayyei Sarah was mostly writing about bloggers' perceptions of Orthodox people in general, not just women, although the article that sparked her post was all about women.

As far as being an Orthodox woman goes, I do sort of agree with you that people often view Orthodox women as even more bizarre or oppressed than Orthodox men. They wonder why any woman would willingly choose that lifestyle. I don't really blame them, though--I wonder too, sometime. I think it's much harder, theologically and actually, to be an Orthodox woman in today's world than to be an Orthodox man.

I would consider devoting another post specifically to the issues that non-Orthodox Jews seem to have with Orthodox women in particular, but I promised y'all a post about men who talk in front of the women's section, and I don't want to disappoint.

I agree with you that my post is "an extremely Jewish perspective" in as much as I only discussed the interactions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, and not between Orthodox Jews and non-Jews. I have a lot more experience in the interactions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews than between Orthodox Jews and non-Jews, mostly because I work in the Jewish world and all of my closest friends are Jewish, although few are Orthodox.

ALG said...

BZ, I left you a comment on your blog, but your blog ate it, and then I left another and the same thing happened. I think I mis-typed the word verification.

Anyway, my comment (which I may yet try to post a third time) was basically asking if you really think it's possible for no one to have to compromise if, for example, you're including Orthodox people and people to whom the traditional practice of kashrut and Shabbat is anathema. I would define those as two pretty far ends of the spectrum. (I'm not saying that anyone in your pluralistic communities feels that the traditional practice of kashrut and Shabbat is anathema, I'm just giving a hypothetical.) Eh, maybe I'll copy this comment and post it on your blog even though it's not really what I wrote the first (or second) time.

BZ said...

Possible? Not necessarily. That is, to make it work, the amount of contact would have to be limited.