I think Danya Ruttenberg kicks ass for many reasons, but chiefly, today, I think Danya kicks ass because of her response to Matthue Roth's letter to the editor in the latest issue of glorious Bitch Magazine.
See, in last month's issue of Bitch, Ruttenberg wrote briefly about the mechitza in the context of a discussion about "women-only spaces". "A divider separates men and women in Orthodox synagogues because a visible female presence is considered a sexual threat at a time when the (male) Jewish subject should be focusing on his prayers," she says, in part.
In response, this month, an offended Roth opines:
As a rabbinical student, Ruttenberg should be aware that the purpose of a mechitza is not becuase "a visible female presence is considered a sexual threat" as she claims, but, according to the Talmud (tractate Sukkah,page 51b), in order for everyone to focus on the ceremony at hand. There's no mention of anyone, least of all women, being considered a sexual threat — except, that is, when she writes "the (male) subject should be focusing on his prayers." Visible female presences are all over Orthodox Judaism, from Miriam and Devorah in the Bible to Orthodox women like Blu Greenberg, Tziporah Heller, and the First Belz Rebbetzin. Praying isn't supposed to be a natural experience. It's actually supposed to make you feel unnatural, so that [you] turn away from the world around you and get closer to G-d.
Could I disagree with Roth any more ferociously? (No, I could not.) What kind of bizarre-o, bullshit assertion is "praying isn't supposed to be a natural experience"? What kind of exclusionary, off-putting absurdity is that? It's an adherence to religion utterly devoid of spirituality or organic wisdom, if you ask me. And, uh, hauling out a few random names of women who appear in the Bible alongside a few random names of women who've indeed existed within Orthodox Judaism does not an argument about the role of women in Orthodoxy make, buddy. Also? Way to avoid the real issue.
But Ruttenberg has the rabbinic chops to respond in a more level-headed manner, which she does thusly:
Sukkah 51b refers to a specific event that no longer takes place; Maimondeds, the Meiri, the Rosh, and others suggest that it wasn't indicative of how worship should be in a post-Temple era. There's no mention of gendered partitions for regular prayer until the medieval period, in Seder Eliyahu Raba: "nor should a man stand among the presence of women." Women are the objects/distraction to male experience. Some, including R. Joseph Soloveichik, justify mechitza through Deuteronomy 23:15, "Let (God) not find something unseemly among you." In the Torah, this verse is about ritual impurity. Here women are the unseemly problem to expel from male ritual space. Is the mechitza gender neutral? No. It's offensive to suggest that the mechitza is fine for transfolk. Having to "pick a side" will create and enforce rigid gender binaries like nothing else. As for queers, defenders of mechitza generally presume heterosexuality — it's about removing sexual temptation during prayer. Learning to become absorbed in coversation with God, regardless of who's around, is a hallmark of spritual maturity. Service to God doesn't come at the expense of anyone else's subjecthood or wholeness.
Pump your fists in the air with me, will you? Beautifully put, Danya.
This issue, from a queer standpoint, was also quite eloquently argued by Aaron Hamburger in Jewcy a few months back, by the way.
(Patriarchal, chauvinistic, misogynistic, knee-jerk Bible-thumpers, start your engines.)