Lesbians (“Keep Your Wives Away From Them”)

Finished a couple weeks ago Miryam Kabakov’s edited anthology, Keep your Wives Away From Them: Orhtodox Women and Unorthodox Desires). For my purposes here, I’d like to read it against contemporary Jewish philosophy, which in my more churlish moments, I tend to think has become obsessed with questions regarding values, norms, authority, tradition, necessity, and coherence. What Miryam’s anthology does is to open Jewish thought and culture to an alternative set of values and norms based on possibility, chance, change, and transformation. The non-cognitive values that interest me about all the essays in this book are surface-depth, warmth, security, generosity, beauty, humor, and merging  –for instance, in the very notion that orthodoxy might actually encourage “homosexuality” or that lesbians might actively seek out orthodoxy.

What I noted below in my post about the Steven Greenberg book on Judaism, orthodoxy, and homosexuality happens here. All the halakhic-legal sourcing occurs in the middle pages of the book. This means that Halakhah does not ground the phenomenon of Jewish life, in this case the lives of lesbian orthodox Jews, as much as it gets bookended between life-histories.

I’ll make especial note of the importance of place in these life-histories. These emphasis can be found in the sealed rooms (cheder atum) in which Dyke Shabbos met in Jerusalem in the 1990s around the time of the first Gulf War, the intense sociability that constitutes the formation of queer space, the problem of fitting in and the desire to recoup a semblance of place in the world of orthodox community and practice, the gradual emerging and merging of worlds, the naming of God as Place (Makom), as “Connector.”

What I don’t like in a lot of continental philosophy of religion indebted to Derrida is the focus on “the impossible.” As Leibniz perhaps better understood, almost everything is possible in the best possible world.

It’s a big world out there in which all kinds of things are possible. That’s what I like about this book. My favorite moment in the book is very funny story told by Miryam Kabakov about running into someone she knew in New York at Dyke Shabbos in Jerusalem. “Mrs. Roth, what are you doing here?” and, of course, the obvious answer, “The same thing you’re doing.” It took Miryam a little while “to figure out why Mrs. Roth was now sitting in a room lit by a purple bulb draped by a tichel.” I laughed out loud. More theologically, I’ve always suspected that God is indeed “transsexual,” a point made by Joy Ladin in her contribution to the volume.

The warm, tactile values that animate the logic of this incredibly intelligent book are what I think, at my most charitable, are the values that define orthodoxy at its best, and also the canon of modern Jewish philosophy, from Rosenzweig back to Mendelssohn, which stops with Strauss. They are the kind of quotidian domestic values which have no place in Arendt’s philosophy, with its emphasis on agonistic political action in the public sphere, or with Heidegger and being-towards-death.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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