challenging judaism’s spaces

by tobybee

of course, jewish communities aren’t always so good to jews. that’s kind of obvious, I suppose: communities make dividing lines, allowing some people in and pushing others out. Making others Other. and, in particular, in the last few weeks, we have seen in israel a move to make it even more difficult for jews who have converted to be considered jews – the so-called ‘conversion law’ that Yisrael Beitenu is trying to get made into law. The bill, as this article in the Jerusalem Post explains, “which passed the Law Committee last Monday and now needs to undergo three Knesset readings before becoming law, would enable city rabbis to conduct conversions, while putting the conversion issue in Israel under the legal jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate. Critics fear this would legally prevent any non-Orthodox conversion from being conducted in Israel, and would allow the establishment to also reject converts from abroad.”

Of course, there has been great opposition from within Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox movements around the world. Apparently (according to J-Post) Netanyahu has said that he would oppose this bill being made law; which has moved MKs from Y.B. and Shas to say that they would leave the coalition if he did indeed prevent it being made law. There’s been plenty of coverage elsewhere, in papers and throughout the blogworld (see, for instance the Union of Progressive Judaism site, which is keeping people up to date).

we’ve also seen the arrest of Anat Hoffman, a leader of Women of the Wall (Nashot HaKotel), during prayers at the Western Wall at rosh hodesh. she has been charged with praying with a torah at the Wall. (you can read an interview, which contains a detailed description of what has happened, with her here) which is all kinds of incredible, I think: that it has been made illegal for women to pray in the ways they want in what is supposedly a jewish state. you’d think that if there was anywhere that protected judaism, it would be there.. but no…

and, finally, from the worlds of orthodox judaism… a new edited collection, entitled “Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires” was released in America a couple of months ago. I’m in the process of reading it, and loving it deeply. i’m loving it for the spaces that it demands are opened up; for the ways it plays with preconceptions of what constitutes a lesbian, a queer woman, an orthodox woman, a woman. for its embracing of spaces of dissent and spaces of inclusion. i’d highly encourage you to listen to this excellent podcast of an interview with the editor of the collection, Miryam Kabakov, interviewed by Nadja Spiegelman (who, on a side note, I think is Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s daughter), available here, from the forward. She describes encounters she’s had with other orthodox lesbian women; the process many have been through in finding the language to describe who they are and what they do; the ways in which these women have remained inside their orthodox worlds or have left; and the possibilities that they endlessly create.

so in these three examples we can see different ways in which jewish orthodoxy is being challenged from within: we can see pushing for restrictions, for tightening of spaces; and pushing for wider spaces, for embracing of difference.

(you might also be interested, perhaps… in another of my roles as a ‘professional jew’ (as a friend and i have come to term ourselves), I’ve just had an article published in borderlands ejournal, entitled “‘We’re dealing with how do we live and work with this memory and what are we supposed to do about it’: Making use of Jewish liminality”. It looks at the ways in which liminal spaces are productive of new Jewish identities: it presents an analysis of a sign, created by left-wing Jews, which was attached to a pole on a street in the Lower East Side of New York in December 2006. By reading the sign—in all its multiplicity and complexity—we can unravel the ways in which Jewish identities in liminal Jewish/non-Jewish spaces, such as New York, are affected by memories of the Holocaust, knowledge of Israeli colonial practices, and Jewish religious identities. This sign can open up new ways of thinking through (Jewish) diasporic languages and identities: it points us to the uncertainties which can be a part of being a leftwing Jew in New York today. By examining the significations of this sign we can open up broader questions of the place of Jewishness(es) in relation to modernities, and the struggles which are continually played out in the diaspora in relation to the practices of the Jewish nation-state, and the ongoing effects of that thoroughly modern event, the Holocaust.)