Have you ever been the victim of a vicious rumor that you are powerless to stop? Well, I am. All the time. Not me personally – but me the Orthodox Jew.
The most recent occasion for that sense of violation was the opening in the United States of "Kadosh," the latest work of Israel’s best known filmmaker Amos Gitai. Kadosh purports to portray the marital lives of two sisters in Jerusalem’s Meah Shearim quarter.
Gitai at least was honest enough to admit that his film is a work of agit-prop. "It’s my way," he said, "of voting against the religious right. There has been a veritable coup d’etat [in Israel] by the religious community."
Others, most notably The New York Times’ reviewer Stephen Holden, however, chose to treat this work of fiction as a factually unassailable documentary. For Holden the film establishes the "oppression" of women in ultra-Orthodox society. The "profound and shocking misogny" of that world has its source, according to Holden, in a "fear and loathing of sex that originates largely from a primitive notion of women’s bodies as essentially unclean."
Yet no religion so celebrates the physical union of husband and wife as Judaism. The Sages saw in the relationship of the lovers in Song of Songs, the holiest of Biblical songs, a metaphor for the love between G-d and the Jewish people. The Talmud details the sexual obligations of husbands to their wives. Women are advised to marry Torah scholars. Why? Among other things: their concern they show for their wives’ pleasure.
In the Talmud one finds one Sage’s explicit advice to his daughters as to how to maximize sexual pleasure with their husbands. Nachmanides, one of the greatests of our exegetes, writes that the best recipe for producing happy, beautiful children is the extra measure of love brought about by the joy of sexual union.
The marital night of one of the sisters in Kadosh was described by the Jewish Forward’s reviewer as perhaps the "crudest, most unloving portrayal of the sex act ever filmed," with the husband hastily removing as few clothes as possible and lunging at his bride as she screams in agony. How many Orthodox marital bedrooms, one wonders, has Gitai witnessed? As a matter of fact, the Talmud speaks derisively of those who have relations while clothed.
Anyone with eyes to see can detect a palpable electricity between newly married Orthodox couples, despite the absence of public physical contact. And that electricity surely derives in part from the fact that they are each others’ first partners, and can reasonably expect to be each others’ last.
Among the other patent lies perpetrated by Kadosh is that Orthodox Jews view female impurity as the sole cause of infertility. Really? Were the Matriarchs – Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel – impure?
Another lie is that sex other than for the purposes of procreation is forbidden. Orthodox marital relations are not suspended with pregnancy nor do they end at menopause. When Orthodox couples experience fertility problems, they consult medical experts, like everyone else.
But what about the overall charge of misogny? As an Orthodox male, I am obviously not a credible witness. So let Orthodox women relate their own experience.
Debra Renee Kaufman, author of Rachel’s Daughters is someone who did. Though Kaufman is a self-described committed feminist sociologist, she is also that rarest of beings today – an honest listener. Rachel’s Daughters is her report of interviews with 150 baalot teshuva (returnees), most of whom were themselves active participants in the women’s movement and the sexual revolution.
Rather than the strictures of Torah Judaism being something that these women had to overcome on the road to religious observance, they are all quick to point out that "the most valued part of their lives has to do with their lives as women within Jewish orthodoxy." Not one expressed any doubts about her "theological equality in Orthodox Judaism" or doubts that she is as "capable and worthy of spiritual bonding with G-d as men are."
Upon entering the Orthodox community they found themselves for the first time members of a community in which the traditional "feminine virtues" – modesty, the centrality of home and family, sharing rather than competing – are those emphasized by the society at large. As a consequence, they are "able to make demands on men as husbands and fathers in ways they believe less possible in the secular world."
Orthodoxy empowers them. "Before I became Orthodox," one woman told Kaufman, "I was male-identified. You know: what’s male is better. Not in Judaism. If anything, it is a bit reversed." Orthodox women engage in a daily round of communal activities dominated by other women.
Many find that their female friendships are deeper than in the past because they no longer "compete with one another for men’s attention." One teacher of the laws of family purity reports secular Jewish women "brought to tears by the thought of a society in which every move is not subject to the lens of male appraisal, and where they may be truly free to be themselves."
Even the laws of family purity, with their mandated periods of sexual separation and coming together, which Kadosh depicts as "primitive cleansing and fertility rituals," are experienced positively. "The family purity laws are so in line with me as a woman. . . [I]t is commanded that I not be sexually taken for granted, that I have two weeks each month for myself," one woman told Kaufman. Going to the mikveh, these women feel "connected to history and other women."
Because their intimate lives are wholly reserved to a private domain, Kaufman discovered, "the baalot teshuva seem to stimulate and deepen their sense of sexuality." One woman describes the laws of modesty as focusing all the couples’ "G-d given libido, like a laser beam, on the marital bed." After decades of marriage, Orthodox women still report experiencing the excitement of new brides upon returning from the mikveh.
Ultimately, the real evil of Kadosh is not the hurt inflicted on Orthodox Jews, who will not recognize themselves, but the deception perpetrated on all those Jewish men and women who may be prevented by its lies from exploring their Judaism.