Elevate Difference

Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires

Approximately 900 years ago, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote a book, called the Mishneh Torah, that acknowledged the presence of women “who rub against each other.” His advice to the tract’s male readers was clear: Keep your wives away from them. Sadly, it is one of the only Hebraic texts in which the existence of lesbians is acknowledged.

Kabakov’s collection of fourteen personal and scholarly essays not only acknowledges Jewish dykes, it argues that as long as Orthodox Judaism exists, there will be Orthodox LGBTQ people. The anthology includes the voices of diverse women, all of them bound by a desire to maintain a connection to traditional Jewish life—reciting daily prayers, keeping kosher, going to a monthly mikveh after menstruating,observing the Sabbath—but with a female partner. Some wonder—obsess,even—about whether this will doom them to an afterlife in hell, or whether living authentically trumps all else. Others question whether lesbianism is completely prohibited, or just discouraged by Jewish law. How about passing as a man, or having a sex change?

Mara H. Benjamin’s “Learning to Be a Lesbian” describes the process of choosing a same-sex partner. “I fantasized about women: Not just about having sex with them, but about the whole package, of what living as a lesbian seemed to offer: Companionship. Understanding. Good food cooked by someone other than me. A presumption that household chores were a shared responsibility. All told, life with a woman seemed a better arrangement than living with a man, even with the one obvious downside, homophobia.”

Benjamin joined a group, called Orthodykes, which helped her to not only come out, but to interpret traditional texts in ways that affirmed her queer, feminist persona. The camaraderie she found also enabled her to push back against heterosexist assumptions.

Sasha T. Goldberg’s “The Road to Yehupetz” chronicles her move from the US to Israel where she lived as a male. A self-described “bulldagger,” she writes that what initially started as “passing,” over time “turned into being... Being a man in Israel was one of the most comforting experiences in my life... I say my prayers, I like to eat, I love and respect women as I love and respect my mother, and I am faithful, hard-working, and neurotic. I was the nice Jewish boy that they wanted me to be.” While Goldberg eventually returned to California and resumed living as a butch female, she owns the power of adopting a false identity. It’s an exhilarating read.

But what of those who don’t want to pass, but instead desire a more radical identity change? Joy Ladin’s “In The Image” is a heartfelt overview of her transition from male to female—all while teaching at Stern College for Women, an Orthodox institution in New York City. Her pre-surgical certainty that she was doing the right thing left her both breathless and terrified. “When, in a few months, I achieve the sin qua non of transsexual transition—living full-time in my new gender role—I will simultaneously complete the mid-life crisis trifecta of losing my career, my home, and my family,” she writes. An Afterword reveals that her worries were at least partially for naught:Stern College did not fire Ladin after she transitioned, but used her example to open dialogue about transgender issues inside and outside the Orthodox world.

Keep Your Wives Away from Them is a bold plea for tolerance. What’s more, the depth of faith that keeps Orthodox lesbians within the fold affirms the need for LGBTQ visibility in both religious communities and their secular counterparts.

Written by: Eleanor J. Bader, July 1st 2010