On Patriarchs

 Posted by on October 26, 2012
Oct 262012

Abraham looking for his luggage that contains his wife Sara

Such is the legacy of our first patriarch Abraham: he put his wife into a suitcase. Abraham gave patriarchs their reputation not for naught. All parsha I learned of him depicted him as a stereotypical male on top. He wasn’t just dragging his wife with the luggage and frolicking with that Hagar lady; Poor Sarah died when he took their beloved son Isaac to have him sacrificed for the God.

I know there have been thousands of apologetics and many Jewish feminists who tried to explain the patriarchal legacy and show in many ways that Judaism is not, in fact, prejudiced against women. But in Hasidic Satmar I knew of no such modern sugar-coating and reinterpreting. Women were, by the knowledge of all, the submissive, duller sex. From when I was a snotty-nosed nursery student with a blue hand-me-down jumper and dirty-blond home-cut bangs, I heard Sarah’s story told as plainly brutal as above. Long ago, the teacher would say to us wide-eyed girls, Abraham heard a voice say: GO. Lech-Lecha, and HE went, and SHE was lugged with the equity. She died tragically because her husband was about to kill her baby — she just fainted and passed away at the news. The nursery teacher would ask us “why did she die at hundred and twenty seven years?” instead of asking “why in heavens name did she die of her husband killing her son, WHY?” When at the end of the week I took home a little camel on a paper-plate with raisin boxes for luggage and two pages of parsha questions, it never raised the problem with the narrative of killing a mother and her child. It was all sacred, no questions asked. Or at least no relevant questions asked.

Our education was so innocently dismissive of women it was as if feminist consciousness hadn’t even touched the tip of the Hasidic world. Patriarchy was a simple known fact of life. So was the assumption that women are weak, stupid and reliant on men. I heard that often from the many teachers who came after nursery, who taught us how to cook and sew as good wives. “Us women, what do we understand?” we all said with a good dose of self-deprecating idiocy. At eighteen I went for kallah lessons and I was taught all about MAN and how I, a woman, was to serve as his wife. I remember that feeling of my stomach tumbling as I walked up a steep shortcut and over to a private deck, knocked on the porch door which was answered by a sweet but frightening kallah teacher. Her table was a mess of sheets of diagrams with female ovaries and uterus and menstrual travel maps. Every week she would tell me with a coy smile and a very low voice what it is that I need to do to make men tick. I struggled to hide the excitement – young, awash in hormones, the subject flooded me with feelings so intense I spent half the time in a daze. “Men”, she would tell me “need to be in charge of the woman because women are only created from their backbones”. My paycheck, my decision making rights, my body were all to be relinquished to the original owner of the backbone. He was to be in charge, she made it clear over and over again. She was slick enough to throw in that a woman can always use her chachmes nashim to manipulate for power – but all so long as the assumption that the man is in charge is left in place.

That is the very definition of patriarchy; the society in which the male belongs on top (even when in specific families it isn’t so). Patriarchy isn’t just the male ego nursed on yeast; it’s also a position in which a woman has limited control. Of course, women have always been able to negotiate power within this structure by executing power over other women, becoming more pious, finding opportunity for creativity through loopholes, embracing their position and expanding it and focusing on the materialistic (cooking and shopping, yes!). Some women even wear the pants in the house — metaphorically speaking of course. But those opportunities are severely limited. Women who want to go beyond these opportunities stand to be crushed by a towering hierarchy of husbands, rabbis and male-centric halacha. When at some point in my life I challenged the restriction on my ability to learn, use birth control and drive, I was warned I’m overstepping my womanly territory. To quote verbatim, I was told much to my horror that “women are born to make scrambled eggs”.

Eggs anyone?

People who never tried my green and white scrambled eggs often wonder why I’m a feminist. They give me that long look as if they expect me to be a nutty man-hater who perceives the very existence of men as sexual abuse. But that isn’t feminism. Feminism is the belief that a woman should have rights to make choices in life. In a society rooted in patriarchal narratives that regard women as the reproductive “aids” to men, this is especially relevant. No one should force a woman to live her life any which way — no matter how right it looks to them. We should respect a woman’s right to send her underpants to a rabbi as much as we should respect her right not to. If someone wants to embrace the pious life, have a large and religious family, yearly celebrations and a rich traditional life, go her. If someone wants to drive her own car and get her children to the appointments, not shave her head, wear lipstick, go her too. If someone never wants to get married or never have children, go her too. If someone wants scrambled eggs, served up by someone ELSE, go me too. But I digress.

Patriarchy thinks you can force women. Feminism thinks you can’t. But we CAN raise feminist consciousness and help women who themselves feel oppressed. Because such women, when squeezed in the box of Abraham hierarchy, can be almost imprisoned, without any recourse for action. Because mothers could easily be exploited through their children. Pregnancies and children make women much easier to mess with. Women are often controlled through their vulnerabilities, and that strikes my deepest justice sensibilities.

Frieda Vizel

Frieda Vizel left the Hasidic community, the Modern Orthodox community and the Formerly Orthodox (OTD) community. She now lives in Pomona and is actively looking for a new community to leave. She deals with the perplexities of the communities she left by drawing cartoons about them, a habit that gets her into an excellent amount of trouble.

  16 Responses to “On Patriarchs”

  1. Feminism is not about rights, it really isn’t, not today. It’s about theories of a social order, theories popular in the academy, with huge Marxist influences, but for which little of the usual academic rigor is applied.

    The reason people chafe against feminism, as an ideology, as a zeitgeist, is because it is far too politicized a subject to allow for honest critique, and that makes people instinctively uncomfortable. It’s not even because it’s man-hating (it isn’t, for the most part). It’s because it’s a “feel good” movement into which people can channel anger and frustration that has little to do with “rights.” Spurned wives, jaded girlfriends, ex-Hasidic women who never got to learn gemara, etc. Yes, patriarchy is real, but blaming it for every social ill known to mankind is just a little too easy.

  2. Now that we’ve all heard the key word “Marxist” and phrase of “blaming it for every social ill, ” shall we return to what the author actually says about what feminism means to her? Choice anyone?

  3. What was unconvincing about this narrative? Scrape away the specific jargon that you object to, Not Convinced, in this light-on-jargon post, and what exactly is it that you are unconvinced of?

  4. >>> shall we return to what the author actually says about what feminism means to her? Choice anyone?

    Sure, Yoelish. But that wouldn’t be “returning,” because that’s not what the author was doing. Our dear Shpitzel was standing up, not for herself but for capital-F-feminism. It’s fair to critique her stance then. I don’t say this with malice. It is only a humble request for more rigorous scrutiny of the ideas she presents.

  5. Wow, that is so not what she wrote. She defined feminism very clearly. While not a super academic definition, what do you find objectionable? I know that some people are allergic to personal definitions, but it’s not like she defined it as a submarine. It’s a very minimalist definition and, importantly, capital F feminism *is* the only thing which confronted that historical situation, as it was, and rolled a lot of it back and changed many people’s attitude. As for the term patriarchy, which I assume you also consider a loaded jargony thing – how exactly can you deny that “don’t drive, make scrambled eggs, unlimited babies, and nashim datos kalos” is anything but that?

  6. Equality is an idealized word and notion that get bantered about. No two people are ever “equal” in reality. It does not exist in the natural world. And ironically the ideology of femism proves Aristotle’s point” nature abhors a vacuumed, so quick fill it with an ideology.

    What this seems to be suggesting is the notion of choice and the ability to make cross gender choice. Sure why not? All for it. If people can change their gender why can’t a woman wear pants or a man learn to sew his own buttons? So everybody should be have the choice to do whatever with whomever as long as no minor children get hurt. Enact laws and statues to safe guard all of it—button slogans face book posts—okay. Fine, I can accept that in a secular venue. But I have no intention of taking these ideas into my observant home and accepting women “rabbis” (lipstick or not) or something equally absurd, to my mind. And that I can’t be compelled to do. Nor am I compelled to respect rabba Rebecca or Jennifer or Stephanie. See choice, the knife cuts both ways. While the ideas themselves are just that- ideas–I see “feminism” often as a cover for some women’s power trip. She is doing exactly what she wants and still claiming that it for other’s benefit, like for the greater good—go figure. Few “feminists” are toiling away in quiets obscurity. Along a similar line I also see embracing the ideas of feminism as a conformity and a precondition of acceptance into certain current circles.

    I do “accept” my position as helpmate, I relish it. Personally I am glad I can sew and cook. I savor the possibility and yes power that when I have sex with my husband—and I can get pregnant—bottom line that is power, pure and simple. No work or friendship can ever come close to that power of pregnancy and motherhood. Now some women may see or feel that as drudgery or degrading—fine. I don’t. Ayn eesha ela l’yofi

  7. No, no, ein isha ela li-send your panties to a rov, and ein isha ela li-let the rov decide if and when you can use birth control.

    And the social situation described here, bei some Chassidim, is very different from other feminism-resisting parts of Orthodoxy, where they finally ceded many things, except for Rabbi Jennifer. Here we are talking about ceding the secular and the religious, with very little autonomy at all. I mean, c’mon. No driving? While we may understand why such a society forbids women from driving, it is exactly what it sounds like – a powerful way of control.

  8. “S” We have a box we drop the panties in–no need to send. Yes it is control and men they are not “controlled” and driving–come on? That is a great pose to strike for the secular–lights camera, the paparazzi flashes of “oppression” “inequality”. I did not learn to drive until recently and it has not changed my life and I could have lived the rest of my life never knowing. In fact most of the world does not drive or have a car. Are they howling like babies on every hillside in China–no. Take your values and standards from the American suburban class–good measure. Control is always powerful that is the nature of the beast. And some people have just bought in the popular notion that it is intrinsically bad. Is there not room enough in the human mind to accept that someone can say okay, my life, my family. Gut Shabbas.

  9. Yes, S., Chasidim forbid women to drive. And that’s a horrible thing. They also forbid men and boys from things readily afforded to women, such as secular education. That too is a horrible thing. Women are forced to be homemakers, as unsuitable as they might be for it. Men are forced to be breadwinners, as unsuitable as they might be for it.

    Girls are taught their lives are of lesser value. That’s atrocious. Boys are sent off to cheder for a full day of gemara and beaten for daydreaming or not knowing the meaning of a certain Rashi. That too is atrocious.

    The Chasidish life is horrible, for men and women both. To see it from a feminist perspective discounts a full 50% of those who suffer under it.

  10. As it happens, there is no such thing as serendipity. Hashem designs the most intimate details of our experience. This Shabbos, as I was learning Mesechta Sanhedren with my Chavrusa, I came across the sugyah in Perek Chaylek of Aishes Ohn Ben Peles; Ohn Ben Peles’ better half ( Ohn, started out as a major player in the dispute between Korach & Moshe.) It seems that wifey had no interest for Ohn to get mixed up with Korach, so she got him drunk, tucked him in, then sat at the flap of the tent with her hair undone so that the god fearing minions of Korach wouldn’t deem to get nary as much as a glance at her. (Subversively speaking it seems that the Talmum glossed over the possibility of wifey wearing a shaitel, snood, pillbox or the like- simply that she undid her braids. It seems that they didn’t have vampy shaitlach in the desert.) Of her the verse is referenced “The wisdom of women builds a house. So much for the Talmud’s dismissal of the fairer sex.
    Onto the Torah. Sarah Imeynu, in this weeks Parsha seemed to have a petty jealousy going on with Hagar. Not true. In her near infinite tzitkus, she knew when to pick up the battle ax and stand true for Netzach Yisrael; the Eternity of the Jewish people. Proof of the pudding, when it comes to Hagar not just fleeing but of her getting the boot god tells Avraham: Anything that Sarah tells you- listen to her. Rashi- she is superior to you in prophecy. So much for the Torah,s dismissal of the Matriarchs.

  11. Khorus Al Haluchos, this is not about Judaism’s stance, but about the Hasidic interpretation of what Judaism’s stance is.

  12. This is not about Hasidic commentary either. Its simply modernistic chasidic myopia.

  13. Will you please make me green eggs and ham ? Sam I am, I do not like green eggs and ham.

    On a serious note, sarah was avrahams willing partner and to her devotion merited being a prophetess. And those of us who learned the parsha aren’t surprised that egypt has got major issues with sexual harrassment, its their alta minhag since avrahams times and THAT is why he hid her in his box!

  14. Jeez, you guys. You seem to have missed the point! Madam Shpitzle uses patriarchy and feminism as it relates to Hasidism. Read: “Feminism is the belief that a woman should have rights to make choices in life.” Not: Feminism is the belief that a woman is equal to a man; Feminism is the belief that a woman doesn’t need a man to make her green scrambled eggs; Feminism is the belief that a woman should not cook, sew, clean, birth babies, feed them babies, raise them babies, and send her panties and down quilts to the rabbi.”

    Personally, I feel many Hasidic women are expert manipulators when trying to get their way. But, please, to claim that the Hasidic world, and to a great extent the Orthodox world, isn’t a patriarchal haven, is ridiculous.

  15. Whenever the “women are different but are equally hard up” argument surfaces, mention equality in pay in the Hasidic world or the lack thereof, and then hear it said with a straight face that women are not ridden roughshod over, in that world.

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