I will not pretend I know all the ins and outs about Orthodox Judaism. I, myself, do not even identify as a Jew, though I have casually researched issues related to Judaism for the better part of three years.
One of the more surprising conversations I ever had related to Judaism was over a Passover Seder meal, with a friend of mine who visits a Rabbi and his wife at their house weekly.
We arrived near sunset, shortly before the Sabbath began.
My first mistake was out of foolish nervousness, extending my hand to shake hands with the Rabbi to which he politely declined and informed me that in the Orthodox community, "Touch is reserved for spouses."
I was embarrassed but kept my composure.
After walking into their home, I was introduced to their two little girls and a baby boy. The girls wore matching long-sleeve, purple dressed with bows in their hair. They babbled, singing Yiddish songs.
"It's not totally conventional, but we decided to start dressing them modestly in the last months… other members in our community would usually wait until their girls were 11 or 12."
The oldest of the girls could not have been more than 4.
At this point, I was making assumptions in my head. It's difficult not to jump to conclusions and develop opinions when face to face with lifestyles so different from your own.
I had pretty much pitted this couple, and by association, a religious subgroup as being fairly misogynist.
This perception was challenged as the wine was drunk, cup by cup, and the bitter herbs were swallowed.
The Rabbi's wife scratched her scalp, revealing the pieces of dark hair under her equally dark wig (a common preference to a traditional veil). She seemed frustrated as a conversation of college life and perceptions of Judaism amongst young people developed.
"I've heard many people are under the idea that people like us, Jews, are sexist or something. I get it. It's not normal, according to our world, to dress our kids as we do. It's not typical to exclusively touch our partners… I've had it before at work… There's an awkward moment where I have to explain why I don't shake hands with the client or co-worker. It deviates from the way the world is right now, and because it's different it's deemed as bad and subjecting women like me or in my community… but that's the opposite of why we do these things."
The Rabbi's wife describes the traditional attitudes on the conversation of women she's had with his husband and their community.
Instead of shielding women from the 'desires of men' because women are sinful and seductive and up to no good, Judaism follows laws explicitly outlined in the Torah because men are sinful and have unhealthy obsessive desires and have a habit of over-controlling.
As the story of creation unfolds, God creates women after man, not because she is inferior but the exact opposite. God creates a 2.0, a perfected version — in fact, this version being more symbolic of God's nature since it can produce life from its womb.
The purpose of Jewish laws prescribed only to men and not women is not to exclude women from religious life, but to, "lift men up to the level of women." While men struggle in the fields and are loaded with obligations to do x and y, women fulfill God's promise to be fruitful and multiply and grow Abraham's descendants. In other words, they are doing the important stuff.
Even laws related to separating women during their menstrual cycle are not meant to 'other' them, but rather to elevate them, give them the time they need to recover, focus on the self, take a nice bath.
"God calls men to rise to the level women were born at."
In other words, women are already relatively where they "need to be." Men are the ones who need to work to get to their level of holiness by exercising more maternal, or for lack for a better word, "feminine" parts of themselves.
Needless to say, this is not the kind of rhetoric I was expecting from this woman… it radically shifted not only my understanding of Orthodox Judaism (or at least their understanding of Orthodox Judaism) but also my understanding of my own Christianity and spirituality.
Though I've grown up in a fairly progressive environment, and though, in theory, those who have raised me believe men and women to be equal, I still received the messaging all around me; men are the spiritual leaders; men are more in the image of God; men are stronger and wiser; men achieve more earthly success.
But perhaps, these are all indications of their sinful nature anyways… as I said, men, historically, have accomplished more here on the ground. They've created organizations and structures that hurt and control others. They've created economies and laws and twisted scripture to their own will. Men maintain an allusion of piety under the guise of seized control.
But what can men not do alone no matter how hard they try or want to? Breed life. Feed a child from their body alone. In fact, Judaism operates under a matriarchy, passed down the heritage of their mother not father. They keep the community intact.
This is not a bash on men, but clarification on why we operate in gender-influenced ways as believers in a larger morality.
There are holes in this understanding, surely, but I do see the viewpoint of the Rabbi's wife as extremely valuable and subversive. It blurs the lines between an Orthodox practice which is traditionally quite conservative in its application and progressive ideology which is considered liberal in thought.
What happens when the conservative application of gender norms is executed based on societally-considered progressive attitudes? It's gray… it's uncustomary.
This is yet another example of messages lost between traditional Jewish practice and the modern application of Christianity, which itself, is founded in Judaism. If Abrahamic communities are to act in the ways God has called for them, we must consider these nuanced declarations from God Himself.