I grew up, largely, as a Modern Orthodox Jew. That is the closest to where I believe I fall on the spectrum of Judaism, still. Modern Orthodoxy is a sect very close to my heart, especially with being a girl. I want to talk a little bit about Orthodoxy and the relationship to women it has. When I was first introduced to Orthodoxy, I felt a little bit out of place, mostly because I was ignorant of the traditions of the sect in relation to women. What I saw as sexist and misogynistic then, I see today as beautiful. (Maybe this blog post is a little bit more about my evolution as a Modern Orthodox Jew than it is about the actual sect itself.)
I think the aspect that startled me the most was the mechitza, which is a physical divider that separates men and women during prayer. As a young girl, I felt that this was unfair that we were separated, a belief that slowly faded and was replaced with respect for the mechitza. I used to think that the mechitza was an affront to feminism, and I made this very clear to my educators. But can I tell you something about Modern Orthodox Jewish day school teachers? They are the kindest people you will ever meet, and are ready to ponder any subject with you. And I was met with responses filled with respect and explanation. The mechitza is not about being a barrier, but about being a liberating element, especially in private prayer. The mechitza serves to ensure that concentration is kept on conversation with Hashem, and not on the opposite gender. Given the fact that I used the mechitza throughout middle school, I am very glad to have had it now, because middle school boys can be a handful during the Amidah (silent prayer) — let me tell you! This ability pray amongst one gender also cultivates a sense of community in girlhood, which is something that I am so glad I was raised with. I cannot tell you how much I looked up to some of the older girls who knew every page in their Siddurim (prayer books) by heart. And they would help me, too, when it was my turn to lead Shacharit (morning prayer services); they would help me turn to the right page at the appropriate times, and guide me in prayer. The ability to build strong, female relationships as a young girl is crucial to the development of the Jewish woman. There is something so ancient and primal in Judaism about connecting with other women that I am eternally grateful I was able to experience. This article on Chabad.org also offers some insight into the mechitza.
Another aspect of Orthodoxy that bothered me when I was first introduced to it was a certain prayer in the Barkot Hashachar (morning blessings) that reads in English for men, "Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a woman" and for women, "Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has made me according to His will". I could not believe my eyes! How dare men pray that they are thankful they are not women! One of my esteemed Jewish teachers (a scholar of great honor, by all accounts) noted that the intention behind this blessing is not to hurt women, but in fact, is quite the opposite. This quote from My Jewish Learning summarizes it best: "the blessing is not intended to disparage women or imply that they are inferior, but merely to express gratitude for the fact that men are obligated to perform more religious commandments. It must be admitted that the...explanation is not a modern invention, but it appears explicitly in the earliest version of the blessing". It is an acknowledged fact (of sorts) in Orthodox Judaism that women are closer to Hashem, they are made by Hashem to be holier by nature. Thus, women do not have to perform as many commandments — why would we need to if we are already holier? The idea here is that men are grateful in some respects to be created as less holy than women, because they get to fulfill more commandments (and thus mitzvot). In this way, the prayer is actually respectful of women because it acknowledges the sacred and unique bond that women have with Hashem that men lack (from creation onwards).
Let's move towards the subject of tzniut, or modest dress; most of the information here, if not from my own head and opinion, comes from My Jewish Learning. Modesty is seen as a beautiful quality in both men and women, but for the sake of my own purposes, my focus is on women. In more traditional sects of Judaism, women dress only in skirts or dresses that pass below the bottom of their knees (no shorts or pants), with sleeves that pass their elbows and a neckline that not not exceed one inch below the collar bone. Tzniut also involves wearing a head-covering, which can be a scarf, a traditional Jewish head-covering, or a wig. The most modest women will shave their heads and wear a wig, but most pin their hair up under the wig. I want to start with head covering, or wearing a veil. The reason for this dates back to ancient Jewish texts, and is seen as the utmost observance of privacy among women. This privacy is seen as tiferet (glory) within Judaism. To give you a better understanding, the Assyrians made a law saying that women could not wear veils, so that women would be on public display. Thus, the veil is actually fighting the idea of objectification and rejecting the tired notion of the male gaze. So, there is a certain liberation in the head-covering, and in modest dress in general. By dressing modestly, you're not letting men stare at your body or objectify you, you are fighting the modern status quo. Modesty in Judaism stems also from what My Jewish Learning terms a "highly refined sense of shame". Thus, a part of modesty is the rejection of Adam and Chava's mistake of nudity. The aspect of shame and being able to be proud of your covered body is important in Judaism. Furthermore, modesty and privacy, these ideas intertwined with shame and pride, connect to principals of living. To be tzniut also means modesty in attitude: it means respect, appropriate behaviors, and sanctity of humanity. In this way, tzniut is something that our modern world needs much more of. Instead of frowning on tzniut, I choose to see it as a path to personal freedom and self-peace, especially in a society that chooses to degrade and hurt others with inappropriate language that lacks self-restraint (you can check out the comments on my last post for more on that). Women are holy beings, our bodies are holy—Btzelem Elohim—and tzniut is one way to preserve that holiness. I'm not saying it's the right way for everyone, but for Orthodox Jewish women, it is often is the path chosen, and it leads to refinement and beauty in dress and in behavior.
These are just a few points in traditional sects of Judaism relating to women that are often misunderstood. There are many more. But to me, these points, these traditions, are proof of the beauty of Judaism. They stand out to me as incredibly sacred. I hope you learned something from this. Be sure to visit the provided hyperlinks for source information and further clarification. Chabad.org is the site I would recommend for any questions relating to Judaism, as well as My Jewish Learning; they are two of my favorite resources, and becoming familiar with them can serve to better your knowledge of the magnificence of Hashem's blessing of Judaism on this world.