Patriarchy in progressive Judaism/ In the middle of a shame experience


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As they sign their Jewish marriage covenant, I feel the various threads of emotion start to twist and tangle again.

You’re in the middle of a shame experience, I gently remind myself.

I breathe deeply and feel the knot unfurl. It is a subtle shame – not enough to impede my enjoyment of the wedding, but just enough to seep into my thoughts. Thoughts telling me I’m tainted, that I shouldn’t get too close to the happy couple, that they don’t want to be associated with me. Telling me to make myself smaller.

You’re in the middle of a shame experience, I repeat. This may be harder than expected.

I had expected to be completely divorced by now. Done. Finished with the entire process. It’s been over two years since our court date in Cambridge, which was super sad and also relatively smooth and followed by getting food together at the Cambridgeside Galleria. When the civil divorce was finalized four months later, we started seeking a ghet, a Jewish divorce document.

They feel sorta parallel – the civil process and the ghet. You submit your paperwork, then you go in front of a court, then you get some letter confirming that the divorce has occurred and you are now considered independent entities. Except in Judaism, it’s super gendered.

I want to talk about patriarchy, and I want to talk about shame. I want to explore these topics to better understand the psychological experience caused by systems of oppression in general, and to illustrate the specifics of how patriarchal oppression continues to impact me as a so-called “progressive” Jew today. I believe that as a Jewish community, we need to do better to address and eradicate patriarchy from our systems and rituals. This belief comes from my principles as a queer feminist Jew. And it also comes from my own need, out of the depth of my own experience… as a response to my own shame.

Charlie Glickman talks about shame as an experience of disconnection that tells us how we’re doing by our community’s standards of behavior. Sometimes shame can be really helpful, when we’ve done something that betrays our values and we need to work to reconnect. But when something’s off in the social system, shame is often part of the problem.

I experienced a lot of shame throughout the divorce process. I felt shame as I watched myself hurt someone I love. I felt shame about having made a personal and public commitment that I did not keep. I pulled back from the Jewish community that we had been involved in together – I didn’t know how to show my face.

I had also faced a lot of patriarchy throughout the wedding process. I felt it when I went dress shopping, I felt it when I tried to talk through the details with my partner, and I felt it especially in the Jewish ritual we were working to reimagine.

I’m no Jewish legal scholar, but let me explain what I think happened:

I walk in with the person who had been my husband. A kind rabbi smiles and shakes our hands. We meet the two men asked to serve as witnesses for us. Very generous of them. They shake our hands with reserve and sympathy. We sit down in an overheated room, and I’m uncomfortable and thirsty.

This will only take twenty minutes, I assure myself. Then it will be over, I’ll drink water, and we’ll get lunch. I’m excited to see if Inna’s Kitchen is open, and to get time to catch up with Matt, my ex.

The rabbi gives us an outline of the ritual. Matt had made the official request for the ghet (the divorce document) to be drafted and delivered to me. The witnesses were there to confirm the delivery. Matt was there because, no matter the legal meaning of the ritual, this was really about both of us. And like, for “closure,” maybe?

Maybe, but it doesn’t work. There is an error in the paperwork. Someone confused something about our Hebrew names and the ghet in the rabbi’s hands is not valid. It will not do the trick. This is not done.

That’s when I start to really feel it…if we’d moved through the ritual smoothly, would I have felt it in the same way? I’m not sure. But there I was, sitting in a room with four men: a rabbi, two witness, and the person who had been my husband. And they were frustrated. But I was the one most impacted.

I don’t feel ashamed of the tears. I don’t feel ashamed of needing a few minutes to take off my sweater and get water and use the restroom. I don’t feel ashamed of asking questions.

I feel ashamed because I feel subordinate, dependent, and powerless. I feel ashamed because at the most fundamental level, my status in the community is on the line. Because of the patriarchy. Because the function of the ghet is for a man to release a woman from marriage, as delivered by a rabbi, with two men witnessing. Back to the days of gender binary hetero patriarchy power system. (Back to the days of Pooh?)

We were both raised in affiliation with the Conservative Jewish movement, we got married within that movement, and we were trying to divorce accordingly. And the patriarchy only got thicker as we went along. Something about wanting to make sure the ghet would have as good a chance as possible of being honored by Orthodox communities should anyone ever care. The rabbi starts saying that we do it that way so that if I have a child and my child wants to be Orthodox then an Orthodox rabbi would respect the ghet as somehow a legitimate divorce that then allowed me to be legitimately remarried and have so-called “legitimate” children. It’s a long hypothetical dystopian fantasy in which this divorce remains a shadow that can call into question everything yet to happen in my life. I will continue to be suspect and this ghet will be the thing that will satisfy people that I am okay, that my actions are okay, that I can love again and build a family in acceptable, “legitimate,” ways.

Shame. Tangled, twisted knots of shame.

And this was very clearly directed towards me, not towards Matt.

Because patriarchy.

It was a female rabbi who had prepared the document actually – but she lives elsewhere, and the rabbi trying to deliver it is male. So that’s a quirk in the ever-quirky system of Conservative Judaism. The witnesses were to be men, but the rabbi could be any Conservative rabbi? The (male) rabbi explains it as a sort of wink to the Orthodox movement, just in case, to try to make the document as “acceptable” as possible. I keep asking questions until the rabbi stops and says: I think this is interesting, but you probably want to get on with your day.

To him it’s interesting. How to be a progressive rabbi in a patriarchal religion. An intellectually and probably morally satisfying mission. But see, it’s not just intellectual for me. Shame is social feeling. I want to be a “legitimate” community member. I want all my functioning and rights – I shouldn’t have to give that up just to avoid this experience of patriarchy.

It’s not only about injustice – that makes it into something that is intellectual, theoretical, something we can all be “against” together. We are all against disempowering women. Especially the “we” of progressive Jewish community. We’re committed, in concept.

It’s not only about microaggressions – the men were sweet to me even though they didn’t know what to do with my tears. They expressed a mix of “pleasure to meet you” and “sorry we meet on this occasion,” and then, after it didn’t work, they uttered hope for something to come of the process. They were trying, in concept.

What it was really about for me, that day, was the psychological experience of being in that room and being subordinate, dependent, and powerless. My status in the community was in question, and – and this centuries old system of power persisted through these men in the room who considered themselves my equals in every other way and yet were participating in, defending, upholding, honoring that system of power. As was I, in my own way.

Shame is a social emotion about not feeling part of a community. Not because I’m being shunned or feel disliked – but because I can tell that I’m not being cared for. My needs aren’t being met. I feel ashamed that my community would desert me so – leave me so subordinate and alone. Even when I actually get the ghet, that’s a psychological experience that I will hold with me. It’s the psychological toll of systems of power and oppression that we know we are “against” but – but are still here. I can’t reject it on my own; I would be even more isolated. I can only ask questions and accept the tears and seek help. And that is all compounded when the room is full of men, and the men respond to me with intellectual attention, as I keep hearing the rabbi say: I think this is interesting, but you probably want to get on with your day.

No, rabbi. I want to get on with my life.

Written by Mimi Arbeit. Mimi has a Ph.D. in Child Study and Human Development from Tufts University. Her research takes a skills-based approach to promoting adolescent sexuality development and sexual health, with specific attention to questions of gender justice and the experiences of queer and trans youth. She applies this work to sex education and sexual violence prevention in contexts such as public schools, college campuses, and youth development programs. For two years, she wrote The Debrief, a weekly column on sex, dating, and relationships at Read more at, and follow @MimiArbeit. The following piece originally appeared on Mimi’s blog on February 16, 2016.

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