Can I Ask You Something?

Cartoon image of a girl looking embarrassed.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve butted heads with Orthodox men. There was the time in third grade when I volunteered to sing the Torah trope, but was discouraged  by a boy in my class who said that “girls don’t actually read Torah at their bat mitzvahs.” In other words, why bother? Then in sixth grade, when all I wanted was to learn advanced Talmud,  I was met with a discrediting, “okay, Abigail, okay. We’ll see.”

Later, in seventh grade, I was playfully teased by the Rabbi who prohibited me from wearing a kippah. He asked if my fedora was my “davening hat.” I responded cattily, “No, my ‘davening hat’ is my kippah, but some people won’t allow me to wear it in school.” The list goes on. I had always thought of myself as an open minded person, so when I looked back at all of these instances and recognized the pattern, I was disappointed in myself. Was I only clashing with these people because of their religious practice as Jewish men?

Last year, at my new school, which is pluralistic, the pattern was broken slightly. I butted heads with an Orthodox woman. I was in my Sex Ed class and that week we were discussing Judaism’s views on sex. The woman teaching us was describing the difference between something private and something secret. She explained that when something is secret, you’re hiding it intentionally because it’s something, often shameful, that you don’t want anyone to know about. Whereas when something is private, there are certain people you share it with and certain people you don’t, but it’s by no means a source of shame.

She claimed that the inability to differentiate between these two categories is often what makes it seem like Judaism sees the female body as shameful. In reality, she continued, the Rabbis and Orthodox men who, for example, believe that women should cover their hair and wear modest clothing, care about women so much that they want to preserve the body’s privacy, and integrity. At first, I was okay with this interpretation of the laws. I had long struggled with trying to live a halachic life that didn’t interfere with my feminist identity (see my blog post about reconciling my Jewish and feminist identities), and this teacher’s explanation satisfied my need for a justification of the laws, not just an interpretation.

But, the more I thought about it, the more upset I was by it. The laws that prohibit hearing a woman’s voice after her bat mitzvah, or touching a person of the opposite sex, (even if they are less than half your age, I might add) had long left me confused and embarrassed. My teacher’s explanation was so nuanced and intricate; it made me realize that it takes more energy to justify and explain the laws than it does to practice them as they are written. If the rabbis were so interested in the way women feel about their bodies, wouldn’t they write laws that weren’t so easily distorted in practice?  I decided to bring it up in our next class. I asked, “Don’t you agree that these laws made about women were written without taking into account the realities of women at the time? When you don’t understand this nuanced distinction between secret and private, can’t the laws make you feel ashamed?” I asked this with true hope for an answer. I didn’t mean to embarrass the teacher or criticize her traditions. She responded with a question: “Do you actually know any religious men who make girls feel that way? Most religious men don’t practice in a way that causes those feelings.” I thought back to the countless times my male teachers brushed invisible cooties off their arms after I’d accidentally brushed past them, or left the room when my female friends and I were singing, and fought back tears. How could she ignore my experiences, my embarrassment?

The bell conveniently rang after her question, so I was able to escape the classroom effectively without anyone seeing my humiliation. Shortly after I made it to the bathroom, I began crying uncontrollably. I couldn’t understand how she could ask me that question. But more than that, I struggled to make sense of my adverse reaction. I decided to email her. I wanted to let her know why I asked those questions, and how shut down and embarrassed I felt by her response. We ended up talking in person and the more she defended her stance, the more clear it became to me that I disagreed with her on a fundamental level.

If this had purely been a difference of opinion, maybe I could have moved on. But, this was different. She didn’t stop at explaining her own beliefs; she actively worked to discredit mine. She explained all of the ways in which the laws protect women and preserve the sanctity of sex. She wanted to defend these confusing and shame-inducing laws until I thought them justified. I recognized that I wasn’t going to get anywhere, so I decided to keep my mouth shut for the rest of the course.

Later that same year, I accidentally signed up for a session she was leading about women in the Passover story. Once I realized she was the faculty member leading this class, I grew anxious. As I suspected might happen, I was troubled by her perspective. Again I asked one question with honest hope for an answer. And, you guessed it, I was shut down again.

Until this year, I didn’t know why I took such issue with our butting heads, why I couldn’t seem to just brush it off like I had the other times. I now realize that when this teacher defended her value system with such credence, she wasn’t only discrediting my opinion, she was discrediting me and the way I choose to live my life. I’m someone who’s closely connected to my Judaism, but I’m also inquisitive. I need to grapple with beliefs before I can accept them, and even then I don’t always agree. Unfortunately, in this case, my questions were threatening to my teacher. She didn’t use them as an opportunity to expand my perspective. In fact, she didn’t answer them at all. Instead, she shut me down.

I was used to being hushed by Orthodox men. I was able to see that hearing my questions and my voice would weaken a foundation they had tried balancing their whole lives upon. How could they know what it felt like to sit behind them in the women’s section trying not to sing too loud? How could they feel what it feels like when someone is afraid of your shoulders and your knees? With a woman, I assumed she agreed, that she felt shut down the same way that I always had. It was all the more upsetting to learn that she lived this way and didn’t question it. Even more so, that she couldn’t even listen to to an opposing view. Although she couldn’t give me the answers I craved, I will not stop challenging the world around me. I will continue to ask until I’m satisfied. 

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Fisher, Abigail. "Can I Ask You Something?." 4 November 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 28, 2020) <>.

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