“Look at that booty.”
“Mmmhmm…Straight fine. What are you, shy?”
Steps from my door, two men lounging by the pool volleyed comments in my direction. As I fumbled for my keys, I was careful not to glance their way. Silently, and with what I hoped was something akin to fierce and impervious swagger, I slipped into my apartment and closed the blinds.
This was not the first time I found myself the target of such sentiments. Like all women, I possess an ever growing catalogue of harassment stories. Despite my familiarity with the scenario, I always feel completely powerless. Though sarcastic rejoinders routinely jump to mind when I find my body remarked upon in this way, I fear escalating the situation too much to deploy them. I have learned to avert my gaze, for fear meeting the offenders eye-to-eye would be mistaken for encouragement. Whenever possible, I make a quick getaway. In short, I have grown accustomed to sudden disempowerment, surrendering to fear and relinquishing both my right and strong desire to object.
In conversations conveying my frustration with street harassment, I’m often met with confusion. “I don’t understand why you don’t take it as a compliment,” is something I hear frequently. Simply, in a public space, when strangers offer unsolicited commentary on my appearance, I am immediately transformed from an individual to public property. I am an object to be acted upon, subject to the opinions, analyses, and control of men. No longer am I equal, but rather subordinated to the whims of others. The sense of unwarranted entitlement that this behavior demonstrates is a byproduct of a much larger and pervasive paradigm. It is a “spoil of war” mentality that has plagued us for millennia.
In Parshah Shof’tim, the Israelites receive detailed instructions when occupying land already inhabited. Before waging war, the Israelites are told to offer their enemy peace through surrender. “If it does not surrender to you,” our Torah continues, “but would join battle with you, you shall lay siege to it; and when the Lord your God delivers it into your hands, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, and the children, the livestock, and everything in the town – all its spoil – and enjoy the use of the spoil of your enemy, which the Lord your God gives you” (Deuteronomy 20:12-14).
That’s us, ladies. The men get slaughtered and we, as male property, are claimed for the enjoyment of the conquerors. Of course, the treatment of women and children as property should come as no surprise. Our Torah is a reflection of the time and culture in which it was created. The concept of women not as equals but as male possessions was not unique to the Israelites, but standard practice for the majority of peoples populating the region at the time.
While societies have advanced considerably since, the constraining influences of such attitudes and behavior remain. In many parts of the world, women possess rights equal to those of their male counterparts, have access to education, and laws specifically barring sex-based discrimination are enforced. In the 21st century, the spoil of war mentality that frames women as objects is far more covert and subtle.
The pervasive sense of entitlement demonstrated by street harassment is one example. Rates of domestic and sexual violence which continue to plague our society is another. While we are legally no longer the property of men, the worth of women in our society rests often on our value as physical objects. We are bombarded relentlessly with messages equating our worth with our physical appearance. Our size, skin color, clothing, hairstyle, the condition of our nails, our smiles or lack thereof, the way we walk, the volume of our speech, and every other element adding up to how we present ourselves in the world is open for criticism. Virtually every source of media available proclaims the physical parameters by which we supposedly secure self-worth. These parameters are unbelievably narrow and in no way reflect what is normal for the majority of women on our planet. Even the fitness industry, ostensibly an area emphasizing health and wellbeing, colludes in the objectification of women’s bodies. A quick comparison of fitness magazines directed to men with those intended for women reveal stark contrasts. Men are encouraged to get strong, build muscle, and eat to perform. Women are promised shortcuts to attributes like a “firmer butt,” “thinner thighs” or a “flat stomach.” Celebrities who are pregnant are criticized for gaining weight and even the fashion choices of elected officials are scrutinized. Women do this to one another and we also do this to ourselves. It’s a pernicious trap. We have largely succumbed to our status as spoils of war.
Considering the words of our Torah, it’s clear that navigating both overt and subtle striations of patriarchy has been a central component of the Jewish female experience since the beginning. Yet, our tradition is devoid of such stories. Nowhere do we hear from a woman what it means to be handed over in marriage to a stranger, taken as a captive during war, or serve as a concubine for the purposes of reproduction. We do not learn of sisterhood. Sometimes, we are granted hints at the stories which went unrecorded. But we have no useful instruction for righting what remains askew and claiming our power and agency.
Women’s voices are not the only ones missing. Stories ground us in history. They can serve as mirrors, calls to action, or simple instructions for daily life. When we accept the omission of specific stories, we accept a Judaism that can never be inclusive or egalitarian. We are better than that. If we truly desire a thriving, sustainable Jewish tradition, we are obligated to pursue the voices that have yet to be heard. It is our responsibility to seek out the stories that have gone unrecorded and elevate them until they become the foundation of our shared future. If we are to aspire to be a “light unto nations,” we need to demonstrate an ability to look critically at where we’ve been and work together to build something much better.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.