Last week I got an email from Rabbi Judith Hauptman (whom I do have a great deal of respect for, though I still felt compelled to write this) detailing some of what’s behind observance for Yom Kippur. She started things off this way:
According to Jewish ritual law, there are five main restrictions that apply to Yom Kippur. They are: 1) no eating and drinking; 2) no bathing; 3) no anointing with oil; 4) no leather shoes; 5) no sex. If you ask yourselves what these five activities have in common, the rather obvious answer is that they are all pleasurable.
As a woman, I can’t help but ask myself, “Whose hearts exactly are we talking about here with this our? And is there anything that can be meaningful in this ritual for me?” These practices were tailored by men for men, given women’s secondary (an understatement) status under Judaism with regards to public religious practice. If I think about what relevance (if any) Yom Kippur could have for me, the answer I come up with has to start with this assertion: “I was born with a hole between my legs, and therefore assigned the socio-economic sex role of woman,” a role that involves a lot of fear, sexual humiliation, and unpaid work, just to name a few of the shittier points. If Yom Kippur is designed to “break our hearts,” to make “us” regretful and penitent, then I can see why these five activities are proscribed for men; it makes a great deal of sense; from the point of view of an individual with a penis in male dominant culture, these five things all generally do give unfettered pleasure. Yet for women, what should we think about being asked to bend our heads obediently and follow the same rules? Let’s look at each of the proscribed activities individually, and proceed with the question of weather or not, on a daily basis, these acts can be seen as “bringing joy” to women to begin with.
First up, there’s eating and drinking; With these two, there’s the question of what putting food in her mouth may or may not do to a woman, psychologically, in a society that tells her the goal for men is strength and invulnerability, while for her, it’s to be weak and fragile, take up as little space as possible, and never get fat. The whole ritual of self-starvation is pretty wrought with contradictions and self-hatred. To place food in one’s mouth in front of a man at the very least means running the risk of being viewed as a pig, but when my own struggles with eating disordered behavior began as a girl, I remember self-starvation as a distraction, a way of manipulating one variable I could control in my life at least, in a way that won me praise and approval (until I took it “too far” and became frighteningly emaciated of course, but when I first began losing weight the response from peers was overwhelmingly positive). There comes a point in ever girl’s life when she notices her body is changing into a woman’s body. The women in Playboy that I first saw as a child seemed humiliated, spread out for men’s pleasure, degraded as fuck objects rather than seen as whole people. I felt an impulse towards remaining straight and narrow, without breasts and curvature, so that I wouldn’t have to become a woman, somebody whom pornography presented as weaker, made for men’s sexual use; I didn’t ever want to inhabit the world of an adult woman, which I understood, would mean being fucked, lodged into a subordinated position forever, in bed and out in the world; all this meant that, for me, eating became about displeasure, and true elation came from not eating, from controlling one point of entry into my body, in a way that would be approved of. Starvation and suffering are prescribed for women; we are told to be fragile and thin on one level, but also fuckable, able to be sexually used.
And bathing as well, under the constraints of femininity, is hardly a pleasure, or at least not an untainted one; a woman is always choosing product—the right cleanser, the right razor, the right shampoo. She is not so much cleansing or caring for her body as she is making it acceptable, less smelly for some male viewer. And given that this ritual cannot ever really be separated out from the need for male approval—to be loved and desired despite occupying a body the rabbis defined as a pitcher with blood at both ends—I for one think that the ultimate act of pleasure for women might be saying, fuck you! to patriarchal beauty standards, and loving our bodies in their own juices, hairy, unwashed, unadorned; If anointing with oil means applying lotions, that too is just more daily misery for women—the fearful war against wrinkles, as we dab, dab, dab creams and retinols, blemish treatments, makeup to enhance (read, adapt to the rigid moors of femininity) our bodies, which are not considered adequate “as is.”
Rules against wearing leather shoes also still give women ample leeway to keep right on wearing the ultimate torture device–the high heel–so long as they are paten, synthetic, the height of misery to the knee and foot arc, but still allegedly indicative of pleasure (pleasure for a male viewer maybe, but not for any woman who doesn’t like to limp around in pain). Sheila Jeffreys has noted that some women’s feeling that they choose these behaviors and would do so whether or not patriarchy were in play, rather than marking any biological imperative, simply reveals some women’s ability to make a blessing out of a necessity.
And then the final restriction, the one on sex, forces me to think about how almost always sex is defined as female receptive intercourse, an act in which a woman’s vagina is “penetrated”–or as the guys like to put it, fucked, pounded, screwed, nailed, boned, fingered, or otherwise degraded and abused; can anybody really call that pleasure for women without believing women are sexual masochists? How happy is she who is able to abstain, and how andocentric the proscriptions for penitence set out here for us to use, us women, by those dear old sages, who never felt the unshakable hurt of being sexually used, never had to inhabit even for one second my woman’s body—my poor body, having been, at different minutes in its 32 year history on this earth, so deeply hated, so hurt, both by men, and sadly, sometimes even by myself; these rules are not for me gentlemen, sorry.