'Women don't dance here'
As I sit to write this column, my ears are still ringing with the tumultuous wedding noise of a close and beloved family member who got married tonight. Alongside the happiness, I found myself dealing with a challenging religious world.
The ceremony under the wedding canopy went smoothly. The first course of the meal was served. With its, conclusion the freshly wed couple emerged from their private chamber to revelrous shouts of joy. At this stage the band switched from playing quiet background music to Hasidic dance music. My daughter, who immediately understood the change in atmosphere, stood in the middle of the hall, close to the band, and broke out in an excited dance.
This is where I came into the picture, as someone who knows only too well Jewish law as it is understood by the nationalist haredim. I said to her, "The women don't dance here. This is where the men dance. Do you see that area there?" I asked as I pointed to the "cage" that had been built in the hall's corner. "That is where the women dance".
She of course asked, "Why can't we dance here?" and I found myself torn. The answer that I almost automatically slipped out of my mouth was: "Because they are religious." But I immediately remembered my male and female Orthodox friends who are engaged in struggles against the "cages." I also remembered that I insist on defining myself as religious and I want to hope that my religious faith does not have even the slightest element that damaged human dignity.
Ultimately I told her, "Because they are a type of religious people. In their religion women dance 'there.'" Then I ran to the "cage" with my young daughter, whose legs were already burning with excitement to dance.
A separation that suppresses half of society
Not unintentionally, and not out of a desire to vulgarly chastise, I label the area delineated for women's dancing a "cage." This was actually a "cage." This mechitzah was intentionally not situated down the middle of the dance floor in order to prevent the band members and men passing by on the side from seeing women dancing.
The "women's cage" was closed from both of its openings by walls of the auditorium. On the two remaining sides it was closed by wooden mechitzot. Even the narrow space from which to enter was sealed with a hanging cloth covering.
When I was a child and teenager in the Religious Zionism movement, the Chardal or Nationalist Haredim movement did not yet exist and there were no weddings with mechitzot. Women sang with the men and danced in separate, but close circles.
Dancing in separate circles was an innovation from my generation. In my parent's generation the dancing was mixed and no one can honestly contend otherwise. But today, in this age of ultra-Orthodox religious nationalism, it is forbidden for any man to see any women dance, and the ban is strictly enforced.
I wanted someone to ask for their forgivenessThe "cage" filled with a group of joyous women. Despite the happiness, I felt suffocated and very quickly informed my daughter that I had to leave. I stood at the wide open dance floor and stared at the men dancing in their circles which had spread over most of the hall's dance floor.
I asked myself if the interior architecture of the wedding auditorium causes any of the dancing men to feel uncomfortable. The interior design of the hall was vulgar and obvious. It was impossible to mistake the large and bulky mechitzot that surrounded only the women. It was impossible to be mistaken regarding the design decision which with an inherent intentionality had the men located in the "public space" while the women were marginalized. It was impossible not to see that there was an equal number of male and female guests at the wedding. Nevertheless, the amount of dance floor allocated to women was only around a third of that allocated to men.
Routine is the quiet killer of the rightI asked myself how it was possible that the physical reality shouts discrimination and violence, yet the participants could not notice any of this at all. I knew many of the men that danced there. They are good-hearted people. I allow myself to assume that the male guests that I didn't personally know were also fair and good-hearted.
So where did everything go wrong? The cage is obvious and obtrusive at the corner of the auditorium. The people are good and sensitive. So how can there be such indifference to the damage done to "tzelem elohim," God's image?
I asked myself if inside every group of dancing men was there not even one man who saw the situation and asked himself what it meant? Was there not even one man who felt uncomfortable? I so wanted that someone from the male guests would come to the dancing women, even if quietly on the side, and request forgiveness. Forgiveness for the mastery. Forgiveness for the domination of the space. Forgiveness for dancing on our dignity.
How can we not get angry?No small number of the talkback responses discuss my mood. People criticize me for being angry, ask why am I aggressive and why I don't relax. While I am still observing the walls of the "cage" and the men whose dancing has taken up all of the common space, I asked myself how the men would respond to being moved to the "cage."
What if they were demanded, year after year, to believe that they deserve less and less, that it is forbidden for them to appear in the public domain, that it was forbidden for them to sing out loud, that it is forbidden for them to lead, and there are even things that it is forbidden for them to learn?
And why would all this be forbidden to them? Because a group of wise women, who lived in generations past, thought it would be easier for them to deal with their sexual inclinations (and also with the competition in the realms of sustenance in the world) when the men would be confined in "cages." I am able to imagine a few men who would respond with slight criticism, and maybe a little anger. But when women are angry about the "cages" and insist upon attempting to redeem their sisters from captivity, they are perceived as responding with unfathomable aggression.
This is if course a strategy for control. If the patriarchy were not to define us, women feminists, as aggressive, it would be forced to acknowledge the correctness of our claims, and as a consequence give up its position of power over us. As long as we are "angry women" and "crazy women," we are wrong and they are right, and my sisters must continue to hide themselves in 'cages.'
To build a basin out of mirrors
In this week's Torah portion, 'Vayakhel', the details of the Tabernacle constructed by Betzalel are described. The description of the construction of the Tabernacle's basin is surprising and deserves special attention (Exodus 38:8): "And he made the basin of brass, and the base thereof of brass, of the mirrors of the serving women that did service at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting."
What are "the mirrors of the serving women" and why is the brass basin built with them? The description of the construction of the Tabernacle teaches that those who left Egypt were in possession of a great deal of valuable building material; gemstones, wood, silver, gold, skins, and cloths. Then suddenly the basin is built out of leftover recycled mirrors?!
Biblical commentators are overjoyed by unusual verses, and they offer a wonderful Aggadah whose intention it is to explain why Betzalel built the basin out of shards of broken mirrors (Tanchuma, Pekudei 9): "You find that in the time when Israel was in forced labor in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed against them that they could not sleep in their houses, in order to stop them sleeping with their wives... What did the daughters of Israel do? They went down to draw water from the Nile, and the Holy Blessed One would arrange for them tiny fish inside their buckets. They sold some of the fish, and cooked the rest, took wine, and went to the field. There they fed their husbands... Once they had eaten and drunk, the women took mirrors and showed them to their husbands. She would say 'I’m more beautiful than you' and he would say 'I’m more beautiful than you' and through this they became accustomed to desire once more, and they were fruitful and multiplied... Through the merit of these mirrors that the women showed their husbands and re-accustomed them to desire... 'All the hosts of God left Egypt'... 'They (the women) arose and brought the mirrors to Moses. When Moses saw the mirrors, he was furious. He said to Israel ‘Take sticks and smash them. What do we need mirrors for?’ But God said to Moses: ‘Moses, you think these are worthless? These mirrors established all the hosts in Egypt. Take them and make a basin of brass and its base for the priests, for through it the priests will sanctify themselves...'"
What a beautiful is described in the opening of this Midrash: The women bring it to the men in the field water and small fishes, and then the women are aroused by the men and by the women through viewing one another in the mirrors. The women teased the men. The men responded with teasing, and from this playful mocking more Jewish children came to the world.
And while the women mocked the men with the mirrors in a sexually provocative and playful fashion, Moses mocks the women's contribution in a minimizing and violent fashion. Their small gifts are unworthy, determines Moses, and he sends his servants to break the women's mirrors.
I do not suspect Moses of not appreciating the women's only prized possession. Rather it seems to me that he is frightened from the mirrors that remind him of the feminine sexuality that succeeded in overcoming the oppressive decrees of Pharaoh and awaken from their depression the male slaves.
Specifically it is God who is not afraid of feminine sexuality and enticement, as He orders the shards of broken mirror an esteemed role in the Tabernacle. Female sexuality contains holiness and it will function as vessel to purify the priests.
It seems that the Torah which was given by God to Moses, and acknowledges the religious role of feminine sexuality, has yet to heard by the Chardal "cage" rabbis.
Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas
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