THE BLOG
11/10/2014 10:33 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

Fear of (Objects) Flying: When Feminism Divides the Jews Online

Last week, three hotly trending topics in my Facebook feed related to feminism. The first was about a video of a woman walking around Manhattan to much objectification. The second pertained to a voyeuristic rabbi who had installed cameras in a D.C. mikvah (bathhouse). The third was about another Orthodox rabbi, known for his politically conservative views, which he blogs about regularly, who resigned from the Rabbinical Council of America in light of the recent mikvah scandal. The latter is the most confusing to me; he is leaving the RCA because he does not see the situation improving. However, wouldn't one stay specifically to help improve the situation? Apparently, among the changes planned are for women to be part of the mikvah committee, and he objects to that as, well, unorthodox. Many of my Facebook friends pointed out that he has written too many posts on other subjects that have offended many. From what I gathered, liberal Jews see his resignation as "nisht gefeilach" -- not too terrible. But liberal Jews are not the only ones on my Facebook feed. There have been a lot of bitter feuds attached to posts about this rabbi, and if tone is any indication, feminism is one divisive issue among Jews from all walks of life who are (still) weighing in. What the blogger rabbi has written in his posts (more on that below) is fuel to that fire.

Regarding the video of a woman walking around New York City and being met with catcalls, my initial reaction elicited disappointment from others. I wasn't as appalled as my friends at first. Let me be clear: Sexual harassment is abominable, and women should feel safe wherever they go. The problematic way that I first viewed the video was that of someone overexposed to upper-Manhattan streets. Back in my 20s, as a blonder version of myself, I stood out in the early-morning sunlight while walking from my apartment on West 95th street to my bus stop on 188th. I did this walk for daily exercise. I worked really hard at a telecommunications company and felt at the time that early morning was my only slot for fitness, and my only obsession at the time was fitness. When I considered the issue of safety, albeit briefly and naively, I reasoned that there were police cars more often than not on most of the blocks I traversed during daylight hours. During those walks, I heard many comments that made me ill at ease, and one time, I was chased for blocks by a group of young men. (The police were not as present as I had assumed.) I think their bark was worse than their bite, fortunately, because I escaped the gang by scurrying down Subway stairs and taking the train that quickly arrived. It seemed the men had given up and turned around when I reached the stairs. I had most definitely been terrified, and I silently said a prayer of thanks. So, as I've had more time to reflect on the video and the creepiness of the men shown, and on my initial "that's not too terrible" reaction, I repeat: A woman should feel safe wherever she goes.

The subject of creepiness brings me back to the issue of the Jewish ritual bathhouses and the rabbi who installed cameras to spy on female converts taking practice dunks. (Immersing in the mikvah waters is an essential part of conversion to Judaism.) The rabbi's subsequent arrest sparked many discussions about mikvah as a topic, about whether major parts of Jewish life are treated with sensitivity and the required modesty. Social media and the blogs were buzzing about the rights of female converts in particular, and the respect they are shown by Orthodox male lay leadership. Many bloggers, both male and female, brought up the issue of how female converts are treated and how to draw the line between the challenging Orthodox conversion process ("challenging" to ensure commitment to the Jewish faith) and treating those converting with respect and dignity.

You may have seen the HBO Sex and the City episode where Charlotte York, eager to convert and marry Harry Goldenblatt, goes repeatedly to a synagogue to inquire about conversion. The first time she asks, the door closes. The same thing happens the second time. By the third time, it's apparent that she's such a nudge that she'll of course make the perfect Jew! Charlotte's persistence is evidence of her desire and commitment, so on the third try, the doors open. Conversion is a tough road, which is why the converts I've met, the ones who remained steadfast through the process, are more knowledgeable and committed than so many who were born Jewish. Ritual bathhouses are maintained beautifully on the whole, and good rabbis completely respect modesty and take every measure to ensure that that is conveyed to the convert. The voyeuristic D.C. rabbi who is in a lot of hot water is an anomaly. I have interviewed countless women about their mikvah experiences during conversion, and they have all raved about the respectful treatment.

The rabbi who decided to step down from the RCA explained his decision oddly through his blog. In a recent entry, he implied that women complain about being inspected when it is actually more embarrassing for men who expose themselves for the purpose of circumcision. Wait, what? A religious leader was arrested for voyeurism, and this rabbi is responding by saying that men have it worse? What about steering the conversation toward the importance of Yoetzot Halacha, women who are trained to help Orthodox women with Jewish feminine issues of sensitive natures? Why not discuss how the Yoetzot will be adequately prepared for the conversion process in light of this day and age and, If that's not enough, in light of recent publicized scandal? A recent article in The Jewish Week explains that he is not happy that these knowledgeable women will be joining the committee. The paper goes on to say that that is why he is stepping down. He later compared The Jewish Week to a Nazi publication and made waves for that before removing the post from his blog. Furthermore, why not hone in on respecting the modesty of men in addition to women now that circumcision was mentioned? I'm confident that the new committee he wants no part of will address all these issues and more.

Respected Modern Orthodox leaders have always striven for improvements while keeping in accordance with Halacha. (Writer Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll explores "Mikvah and Modesty" in an excellent article for Times of Israel that provides great food for thought on the subject.)

Rabbi Avi Weiss in Riverdale, New York, is a big advocate of women in leadership positions -- women who are trained and sensitive towards other women's issues -- stepping in (instead of a male Orthodox rabbi) to make women more comfortable. His humility (specifically, knowing his limits -- he is male! -- in this arena and accepting them) and his sensitivity towards the plight of others (which I have personally witnessed) should be emulated by his peers, the very same ones who don't agree with his politics or his stance on Modern Orthodoxy. Learn from this man's humility, lay leaders. He knows when to hang back, when to defer to others and how to go forward without pompousness, converts to Judaism have confirmed. I've met many who converted under his leadership, and they admire and respect him greatly. They also happen to be the most observant, sincere and committed Jews. In the meantime, social media has exploded with conversations pertaining to the previously mentioned controversial blogging rabbi. He has many defenders for his own political views, specifically how he feels about President Obama, and he has garnered a loyal following that consists of the politically conservative. Those who defend him like the way that he writes and thinks, and, on the flip side, those who don't are scratching their heads about the fact that he has a following (and is in charge of a synagogue and leading a congregation). I am not as ardent a feminist as my peers, yet I want things to change for women. My blood boils when women get blamed for men's mistakes and weaknesses. My blood further boils when I hear that a rabbi is essentially dismissing women as complainers and (in an earlier post of the blogger rabbi's) questioning why victims of abuse feel the need to speak up years later.

I know women who are harsher on women than they are on men, clearly adhering to an unfortunate, but very real, indoctrinated double standard. I personally am conflicted because I don't want to be too angry and feel too many injustices, yet I want to be angry enough to help achieve a resolution. I really want to see more humble people in charge ("Where have all the cowboy rabbis gone?" I remarked in one of the heated Facebook posts), rabbis who know when they should step back and give a woman privacy, rabbis who know when other knowledgeable women must step in and assist.

While I currently straddle some divides in these social media conversations about feminism, it is quite possible that I will get off that fence and firmly plant myself on the staunchly feminist side. I am ashamed that I didn't cringe enough at the video, and that I was not more disturbed by it. This illustrates a desensitization that has occurred within me over time, with overexposure to the (admittedly) unacceptable elements. I have to fine-tune the lens on my telescope so that when I pan wide, I can zoom in on the details that demand the most attention.

After all, a rabbi made allusions to the complaints of women, met with negative reactions to his posts (and past posts that blamed victims for exposing their abusers -- that "victims as complainers" theme again!), and now he is stepping down from a governing rabbinic organization because he foresees too much interference with the traditional conversion process. He writes that "the GPS has changed." (I later found out that this is an acronym for the "Geirut Procedural System." "Geirut" is the Hebrew word for converts.) Yes, Rabbi, the (metaphorical) GPS has changed its route and will continue to change. This is so that abuse victims, unsuspecting converts and women are treated respectfully within Modern Orthodoxy.

But here's what, Rabbi: Women historically possess a certain sensitivity and trustworthiness to men. This goes back to ancient biblical times, when Moses chose to give women the Torah first, confident that they would hand it down to future generations by cherishing it and imparting its teachings. Those same Jewish women would trust Moses and God about entering into the Land of Israel from Egypt, while the men expressed doubt and a lack of faith, refusing to enter. As a result, only women merited entering Israel 40 years later.

So, in response to the implication that females complain too much: First, illegal behavior (voyeurism in this case, which is against the law) must be reported to authorities, and second, I am going to point you in the direction of the Artscroll daily prayer book, pages 389-91, the Eishet Chayil (translated as "Woman of Valor") prayer. We may all be divided on the feminist issues of today, but historically, our predecessors showed a greater respect and appreciation for women, knowing that when women spoke, their words were not to be made light of or dismissed. From all of these discussions and a much-shared video, I too have internalized the importance of not making light of a woman's plight.