In my class filled with orthodox boys, where I am the lone female, we spoke about the role of women in Jewish ritual. One of my classmates spoke up. (A young guy, raised in a conservative shul now modern orthodox with a kippah on his head and long Tzittzit hanging from under his t-shirt, almost long enough to brush the floor or, at the very least, his knees) "You know what bothers me most? When women read from the Torah on the bima."
"What?" I screamed in my head. Did he really just say that? You don't think women should read Torah on the bima?" I finally said out loud. I felt shocked and sick to my stomach even though I knew better. This boy is orthodox; to him, women and men have separate jobs in life. However, at that moment, I didn't know better. I felt like I'd been slapped in the face and spit on. "I'm a woman." I want to yell. "I'm a graduate student in Jewish studies, but I can't touch the Torah?" I want to yell louder and shake him: hard. Instead, I take a breath.
"Why?" I asked.
"Tradition." he answered.
"Tradition?" I thought to myself. Female genital mutilation is tradition in some cultures that doesn't make it right. " Is that it?" I asked him
"And niddah. Niddah is..." he starts to explain.
"Yes," I interrupt in annoyance, "I'm quite aware of niddah." Niddah is the time of ritual uncleanness for women. At least five days from the start of their period till seven days after a period ends. That means at least half the month a women is considered ritually unclean and cannot be touched by her husband. (orthodox women cannot be touched by any man who isn't her husband.)
I wonder, if his mother knows these feelings he has. He grew up a conservative Jew. His mother is in a klezmer band. He speaks highly of her, and yet, he cannot stand to watch a woman read Torah on the Bima. I can't help but wonder if that hurts her. I can't help but wonder if he knows how cruel his perspective is. He is, after all, placing women into two categories: sexual beings or ritually unclean objects. Women are not worthy of the scroll, not worthy of the aging paper, or the words carved slowly in ink by an ancient scribe. We are not worthy of the silver yad, or the echo of the rise and fall of the trope gliding in and out of the ears of the congregation. We are unworthy and dirty: dirty from blood or dirty from the mind of a roomful of men who have never learned how to understand human sexuality. Men who may very well be fucking their secretaries, or cheating on their taxes, or masturbating before they take the long walk to shul and then step on the bima, but their impurities can be rinsed away by the simple washing of hands. He does not seem to consider their impurities.
I left class before I could say any of this. The conversation moved on, but I couldn't stop thinking about his comments. They haunted me-- filling me with the kind of rage I usually reserve for jealousy. Don't you think that a woman would know if she was ritually impure? Wouldn't her husband know? So, why assume? Is she not to be trusted while every man in the congregation is trusted?
Is this how these orthodox boys in my class see their future wives or and daughters? An object of constant impurity? She can never touch the sacred scroll because her sex inhibits her holiness? A woman who will most likely bare them many many children? A woman who will give up her body and her time in order to raise these children? Her body is unholy? No matter her intellectual capacity; she is nothing compared to him.
But, women have a role, they may argue. They are mothers and wives. They can pray together. Is that not enough? Tradition is enough. They isn't a good enough argument for me. It shouldn't be a good enough argument for them.