From The Age of “Seducing By Scents” to “The Emergence of Ortho-Feminism”

I have often felt that misogyny has been one of the oldest sins since Adam and Eve.  The woman’s liberation movement has some remarkable antecedents in American history. It is remarkable how much the 20th century fight for gender rights have completely overturned thousands of years of  male hegemony.  It is no wonder why traditional religious societies across the globe fear it–change is necessary as it is inevitable.

Seducing By Scents

I came across an interesting article from House and Garden Magazine that illustrates just how much we have changed as a society over the last 300 years. It reads, “Legislation proposed in England in the 1700s: All women of whatever age, rank, profession, or degree, whether virgin, maid or widow, that shall impose upon, seduce and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s subjects, by scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high‑heeled shoes or bolstered hips shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witchcraft and the like misdemeanors and that marriage, upon conviction, shall stand null and void.” —- Act of Parliament, 1670

Incidentally, one of our readers (see comments) points out that this story was originally a joke that appeared in the magazine. That is an interesting thought, but who really knows for sure?

The Humble Beginnings of Women’s Liberation

Now move the clock ahead about 100 years later . . . Abagail Adams penned one of the most famous letters of her era, demanding that the new Declaration of Independence respect the rights of its female citizens, which she unabashedly says:

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws, which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation. That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy, willingly give tip the harsh title of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend. Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity?” [1]

—-Abigail (Smith) Adams (1744-1818), Letter to John Adams, [March 31, 1776]

John Adam’s Fear of “Petticoat Despotism

Her husband John Adams replied:

I cannot but laugh…We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bands of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented. This is rather too coarse a compliment, but you are so saucy, I won’t blot it out. Depend on it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and in practice you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight. [2]

Back to the Future: The early 2oth Century  Debate Concerning Women’s Suffrage

It is remarkable that the world has changed so much over the last 250 years. Some of you might be surprised to know that back in the 1915 many Orthodox rabbis opposed the right for women to vote. Woman’s suffrage proved to be a very divisive issue among American Orthodox Jews. Some rabbis felt that a women’s place is in the home. The rabbis feared that society will become corrupt should women invade the institutions of political power.

Chief Sephardic Rabbi Ben Tzion Uziel pointed out that there was nothing in the Torah to forbid women voting.  However, other rabbis argued, it’s against tradition—a woman’s place is in her home. Let the men worry about the politics!

Rabbi Uziel replied that in the olden days, men used to live in tents, in the desert, should we all go back to living in the wilderness just like our ancestors did? Ah, but the rabbis replied. If we give women equal rights to vote, they will want more freedom tomorrow, and who knows where that will lead to?

And That was Only the Beginning . . .

In a way, those early 20th century Orthodox rabbis were right.

An interesting debate has been developing in the Orthodox Jewish community. And that is the issue of Women’s “Prayer Groups.” Some have taken offense to women having “Minyanim” because only men can have Minyans.

Outraged by the growth of Ortho-feminism, a Queens-Long Island council of Modern Orthodox rabbis, the event symbolized a larger, possibly dangerous trend – the growing acceptance of women’s prayer groups.

Its action this month to ban groups such as the one in Hillcrest that hosted the bat mitzvah has shocked hundreds of observant women worldwide and a number of Orthodox leaders, elicited at least two letters urging reconsideration, and caused one leader of the rabbinical council to resign.

“I see 25 years rolling back,” said Rachel Neumark Herlands, who is active in the Lincoln Square Synagogue prayer group on the Upper West Side. “I would like to say to the women [in Queens]: ‘Fight it. There are legitimate halachic supports for this.’ ”

The issue is really quite old. Leading Orthodox rabbis have frowned on women having Bat Mitzvas for many years. Begrudgingly, they said it was fine so long as the Bat Mitzva celebration doesn’t take place in the sanctuary. These rabbis have long felt that a woman cannot touch a Sefer Torah, because she may be ritually impure. Some early Sages said, that a woman shouldn’t even look at the Torah as it’s being raised. Kabbalists felt that even the gaze of menstruating woman is harmful [3], thus even touching the Torah became commonly viewed as forbidden in many Haredi circles [4].

A Question for the Ages

One modern Orthodox Jew wrote to an Orthodox zealot “that barring women from having a Torah service is in some ways, makes the Torah into a fetish, a veritable Golden Calf.” There is nothing whatsoever to bar someone from saying a blessing over the Torah. Prior to Gutenberg, there were no printed Pentateuchs like we all now have. Women were permitted to read and study from the Torah itself.

I ask you to hold this last thought in your minds — The Torah is not a fetish.  For those of you who don’t know what a fetish is, the Oxford Dictionary informs us: it is an inanimate object worshiped by primitive peoples for its supposed inherent magical powers or as being inhabited by a spirit. b a thing evoking irrational devotion or respect.

I found this analogy provocative, for indeed our parsha teaches us about the sin of the Golden Calf.

The story of course is well known to most of you. As Moses was working on the Ten Commandments, he appeared later than the people had originally expected. Thinking that Moses was dead, the Israelites decided to erect a calf to serve as the mouth piece where God would make His will known to the  Jewish people.

When Moses came down the mountain, he might have said something like, “Oy Vey’s Meire!” He then took the two tablets that were carved by the “finger of God” and smashed them into a million pieces! Was it due to anger or to grief, a sense of powerlessness? How could Moses do such a disrespectful thing? If someone took a Sefer Torah and decided to burn it, wouldn’t that be an extreme act of sacrilege.  How much more would this apply to the two tablets that were written by God.  Surely we have many prohibitions pertaining to bal tashchit— not being wasteful with God’s creation. How could Moses be so wasteful with the Two Tablets?

Even the Torah Can Become a Fetish

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk once made a brilliant observation about this passage before us: “Torah and faith are the main aspects of the Jewish faith and all its sanctities e.g., Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem are but the details. Don’t think that the sanctuary and the Temple are holy objects in their own right. Far be it! God dwells among His people and if they were like Adam who violated the covenant, all their sanctity is removed and they become as profane objects. . . .”

Moreover, even the tablets which were written by God Himself, are not holy in themselves, but are so only because of you — if you observe them. When the Israelites whored under the bridal canopy with the Golden Calf, the tablets became as mere pottery, for they had no sanctity in and of itself but become holy if you live a holy life. There is nothing in this world that is holy except for God. Nothing in creation is holy in itself, only in terms of the observance of the Torah. Let these words be written on the walls of every synagogue.

What Is It that Makes a Synagogue Holy?

By making the Torah off-limits to the women, the Orthodox have in effect, made a fetish out the Torah. What makes the Torah holy lies in its capacity to make us holy should we live by its precepts.

The issue is not about whether women receive an aliya or not; nor is it whether a woman’s prayer group is  “kosher,” or not, even though communal prayer is a rabbinic invention (which is a Halachic moot point). It is more about power and control. The sin of idolatry is about being able to control God to make God do what you want Him to do. Effigies in the ancient world were believed to confirm a certain measure of control over the gods, to make the gods as it were the subjective to their earthly masters. Today, the sacred synagogue is controlled much the same way by men–to the exclusion of women, who are for all practical purposes invisible and non-existent, since they have no voice in this debate.

Women are tired of being controlled by men. These Orthodox men who claim to speak in the name of faith are in reality trying to manipulate the faith. It’s not the honor of God that is at issue, it’s honor of men in control that is at stake. This worship of power is in my opinion — idolatrous. If having aliyot inspires women to be better Jews, then, the Women’s minyanim are a good thing that deserves support.



[1] The Ladies’ Repository for 1866 a Monthly Periodical, Devoted to Literature and Religion Volume 36 (New York: Poe & Hitchcock, 1868), 72.

[2] From The Letters of John and Abigail Adams, written while he was attending the Continental Congress, about to Declare Independence: quoted in John Adams, David McCullough. Reprinted in Diane Ravitch’s The American Reader: Words that Moved a Nation (New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2000), 57.

[3] See R. Moshe Isserles’ Darchei Moshe commentary on Tur Y.D. 195:14 in the name of Agur.

[4] Hayeh Adam 1:3; Magen Avraham on O.H. 88:2, note 153; Pri Hadash O.H.  88.

3 thoughts on “From The Age of “Seducing By Scents” to “The Emergence of Ortho-Feminism”

  1. Yochanan Lavie says:

    I basically agree with your POV, but when religion becomes feminized, men stay away. That is happening in liberal denominations of Christianity and Judaism. How do we give men a role that makes them feel special without marginalizing women?

  2. admin says:

    That is a very good question. Gender seems to be hardwired in our cultural hardware; I am not sure what the balance is, or if it is even possible. From a Jungian perspective, it probably begins with respecting the genderized Other that exists within us. By me, for an example, getting in touch with my inner anima, I should be able to relate more effectively and sympathetically with women in general. The same applies for women too; they need to understand their own animus in such a way so as to not endanger their inner anima.

  3. Pia says:

    Interesting discussion. Just wanted to point out that the legislation you refer to (and apparently found in Home and Garden) never existed. It was a joke originally published in the 1770s that somehow got out of hand.

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