Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Talking about Sex: Hasidism, Catholicism, and Republican Politics

In Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (NY: Continuum, 2006), Margaret Farley notes the widely divergent understandings of sexuality in the various religions and cultures of the world.  She notes that when we look carefully at what sexuality means and how it's handled across cultures and religions, the most important factor that may emerge from the cross-cultural perspective is not the amazing differences in how many cultures handle sexuality, or the striking cross-cultural similarities that can be found, but "the very plasticity of human sexuality, its susceptibility to different meanings and expressive forms."  

To recognize this is not to say that the meaning of human sexuality is infinitely malleable or that it doesn't matter how we understand the meaning and practices of human sexuality, Farley maintains.   It is to say, however, that 

[r]ather, along with variety among traditions, what is striking is that any particular tradition’s internal understanding of sexuality and gender might have developed differently had there been some variation in particular circumstances.  It may be that such an observation is possible only in a critical age such as our own, when reformers emerge in almost every major tradition—reformers who do not reject their traditions, but who advocate change, transformation that is grounded in lost (silenced or contradicted) elements in the tradition itself (p. 104).

In what follows, I'd like to take my cue from that final sentence.  It notes that in a critical age such as the one in which we live, as reformers who do not reject their traditions advocate transformation in almost every major religious tradition, what is silenced or contradicted in religions traditions has a chance to emerge anew and be reassessed.  And to reshape the tradition for the better.

I hear Margaret Farley advocating for the constructive witness of women who are willing to engage, to struggle with, their religious traditions in order to tease out the elements of various religious traditions of the world that malform, abuse, or harm women and that give unwarranted privilege to men.  I've just finished reading a book that, in my view, admirably performs precisely those tasks for the Jewish tradition.  It's Deborah Feldman's Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots (NY: Simon &  Schuster, 2012).

Note that I say that Feldman seems to me admirably to engage and struggle with her religious tradition without completely rejecting it.  Though she has left the Hasidic community in which she was raised, she hasn't left Judaism itself.  As she notes at the end of her painful saga, she remains culturally Jewish and even observantly so, though her engagement of her tradition is perhaps not engagement that strictly observant members of her community would honor.

At the heart of the story Feldman tells in Unorthodox is difficult, searing testimony about how her formative Hasidic community's understanding of sexuality and gender roles deformed her--quite specifically, as a Hasidic woman.  This is a story about the expectation that an aidel maidel be a submissive, quiet, malleable, and therefore from frum* girl who grows into a wife with all of those qualities.  It's a story about the demand that wives shave their heads and don wigs, and, if they're really observant, that they then top the wig with a shpitzel lest anyone imagine that the wig atop their shaven heads is a brazen display of their real hair.

It's a story about how girls are brought up to expect to be married (in marriages arranged for them by their families and matchmakers) at a young age, and how girls ought therefore not to expect to be seriously educated, except in the ways of goodwifery.  Because goodwifery is what women are made for, and what God expects of them.

It's also a story about a young Hasidic girl who is so unprepared to understand the obligations of her arranged marriage that she laughs when the kallah teacher to whom she has been sent to prepare her for her arranged marriage tells her, entirely circumlocuitously, that she has a little door, a hole, in her body designed to interlock with her husband's body.  Because she is totally unaware of having any such hole in her body--and she's suddenly expected to learn this within days of "interlocking" with the husband with whom she's been matched . . . .

And so the marriage is fraught with difficulty from the wedding night forward, when she and her husband are unable to consummate the marriage, and when her grandparents who have raised her, her new in-laws, the rabbi, the entire community become involved in this drama, which goes on for weeks, as the newlyweds try to figure out the problem and how to solve it.  Does she perhaps have a double hymen?  Is her vagina deviated?  Does she suffer from vaginismus?

All this and the mikvah, another expectation of her married life for which she is hardly prepared by anything in her formative experiences: the days in which she must use special cloths to determine if she has or has not ended her period; the expectation that if she is any doubt about the stains she might find on the cloths in these cycles, she must bring them to the rabbi for his inspection; the obtrusive, embarrassing questions, probings, and inspections of the women who assist in the process of ritual purification at the mikvah.

Feldman's eventual choice is to leave this life behind, as her marriage fails and she decides to go to university.  Just as her mother before her had left the Hasidic community, and--as Feldman learns while she's trying to figure out what to do with her life and how to handle the painful questions of religious and cultural transition--who has declared herself a lesbian.  

Naturally, in a religious tradition that is entirely male-dominated, Feldman's whistle-blowing, her airing of her community's dirty laundry, brings wrath down on her head, and the vituperation continues today (all of what I've described in the preceding paragraphs was happening to Deborah Feldman in the opening decade of the 21st century).  One of the stories she tells that particularly horrified me is a story of a Hasidic father's murder of his son when he found the son masturbating.  The father took a jigsaw and cut off the boy's penis and then cut his throat.  And the incident was covered up completely, she maintains.

At the same time, she states that her husband had told her that he might be part of the problem as they struggled to consummate their marriage, because the boys in his yeshiva engaged in mutual masturbation . . . and I wonder as a total outsider to this particular religious tradition how to put together the adamant prohibition of masturbation and the practice of mutual masturbation by schoolboys.

My point is not to pass judgment on a religious tradition that is not my own and which I freely admit I don't understand as an outsider.  It's to take seriously the testimony of one woman who says (though she's been accused of lying and of every heinous crime imaginable by members of her Hasidic community, almost always men, for telling this story) that how this tradition deals with issues of human sexuality, gender, and male-female roles deformed her in very serious ways.  This is an appeal to a heavily male-dominant religious tradition within a much broader spectrum of Jewish beliefs and practices in which such heavy male domination is not consistently the norm to listen carefully to its girls and women, insofar as they dare to speak in their own voices about what the tradition's views regarding sexuality and gender do to females.

But as my partner Steve consistently reminds me when I describe to him something I've read about the religious views or practices of a tradition different from our own, which strike me as questionable, look at what we Catholics have believed.  And done.

And so I'd like to parallel my report about Deborah Feldman's book with a report on another book I read last week, Ted Lorenz's book Holy Hell.  Lorenz, who was a Christian Brother who has left that religious community, has published his book online at Smashwords.

This is a fascinating and very well-written account of the coming of age of a young boy and young man in an entirely different religious tradition--in the pre-Vatican II Catholic communities of St. Louis and Tucson.  It's a story of a world in which a young Catholic boy becoming aware of his gay sexual orientation is taught to fear, pretend, lie, and feel intense shame about who he is and what he is becoming as he matures.  In which he is taught to go to confession obsessively (since every "fall" in the area of sexuality, whether via masturbation or sexual activity outside wedlock, involves grave matter and serious sin).

It's a world in which a priest might alternately laugh when you tell him how many times you've "fallen" in the past several days (even as you fudge the numbers), or, if you're meeting with him face-to-face and in private, might paw your thighs while you speak to him about your sex life.  It is, as Lorenz says, a world in which sexuality in any shape, form, or fashion is "forbidding and dangerous," and in which the bishop of St. Louis threatens excommunication to any Catholic who goes to see Brigitte Bardot in the movie "And God Created Woman" (pp. 48-9).  Catholics attending any movie shown at a theater after it happens to offer the Bardot film are threatened with punishment by the bishop.

It's a story about a pious young Catholic teen who joins a religious community of presumably celibate males, in which sex is simultaneously nowhere at all and everywhere--in which suppressed homoerotic attraction is all the more powerful in determining what happens in the community's interpersonal dynamics because it's never openly discussed or openly acknowledged, except in veiled warnings about the danger of "particular friendships."

This is a world in which one is required to dress and undress with a towel across one's genital region, so that the genitals are never exposed or seen, even by oneself.  It's simultaneously a world in which one can be sent to the infirmary for nursing care and have another young aspirant to religious life who is intensely hungry for human touch reach from his bed to yours and clasp your hand silently, passionately--and the encounter is never discussed, even after the perpetrator of this act is sent away suddenly, mysteriously, with no explanation forthcoming.

It's a world in which the only instruction one ever receives about how to cope with the reality of human beings' natural and God-given sexual makeup is as follows:

Our spiritual director, Brother Paul, began the discussion.  "Sex is like this," he said in a hushed, secretive voice.  His thick glasses made his eyes look small and sinister.  "Take some water.  Nice, clean and fresh spring water."  He said the words out of the side of his mouth, his face flushed with embarrassment.  "Now take some nice, rich, black fertile soil.  You put them together and what do you get?"  He paused, looked at each one of us as if waiting for the answer before he narrowed his eyes to slits.  "Mud."  The rest of his instruction was no more helpful (p. 91).

It's a world in which a priest or religious who is unhappy with clerical or religious life, all of whose inclinations and sexual encounters have always been homoerotic, can convince himself that if he only succeeds in "trying" heterosexual life and marries, he'll be happy.  It's a world in which, fortunately, Ted Lorenz eventually came to recognize that his God-given nature as a gay man is meant to be the source of celebration, of spiritual connection and not of shame, so that Lorenz now lives in a fulfilling committed same-sex relationship.

Two rather peculiar religious worlds, both obsessed with sex, both riddled with guilt (and ignorance) about sex, both male-dominated in the extreme and intractably concerned to control women and their fertility . . . . And both capable of joining together (along with other religious groups whose theologies are equally opposed but who share the determination to make heterosexist patriarchy the center of religious and cultural life) with adamant intent to force gay and lesbian human beings back into crippling closets and to keep women in their place.

This is a world that we'll see exerting new, powerful cultural strength in all of our lives, in fact, if the Republican party--which is absolutely rooted in the worldview of heterosexist patriarchy, of heterosexist male entitlement--succeeds in sweeping the coming U.S. elections.  And so it should matter intently to all of us who do not adhere to the particular religious views of traditions that make heterosexist patriarchy the centerpiece of their moral and religious life to understand these traditions, or, if we do belong to such traditions, to follow Farley's, Feldman's, and Lorenz's lead and begin to critique what is crippling and deformative in our religious traditions--before those traditions succeed in gaining political power to cripple and deform even more people.

*Spellcheck strikes again and changes a word without my seeing it is doing so.  The word I had typed is frum, not "from."

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