Chyutin, Dan. “‘The King’s Daughter is All Glorious Within’: Female Modesty in Judaic-Themed Israeli Cinema.” Journal of Jewish Identities 9.1 (2016): 39-58.
In the latter months of 2011, the issue of female marginalization within Judaism became the focus of a heated debate in Israeli public discourse. During this period, the national press reported on a variety of incidents involving Judaic exclusionary practices: for example, male Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers purposely leaving an official ceremony because it involved a female singing performance; ultra-Orthodox men spitting on a thirteen-year-old girl who was dressed ‘indecently’; and women being harassed on buses for not observing gender separation by moving to the back. These and other similar occurrences were denounced by secular politicians and media, and even prominent figures within the observant community spoke against the spread of segregation. Concurrently, Israeli citizens took to the streets on more than one occasion in support of the victims of Judaic discrimination. The social uproar around these events signals a growing awareness within Israeli society of the patriarchal facets of Judaic practice and their control and oppression of women. This understanding recognizes that the Bible, as a text written by and for men, situates women as the quintessential Other, and thus acts as the condition for an institutional marginalization of womanhood that covers all spheres of Jewish religious life. With reference to this state of affairs, the Judaic demand for sexually-based tzniut (modesty), visible in the aforementioned incidents, has become particularly important for Israeli feminist critique. As Shira Wolosky explains, Judaism’s modesty discourse has defined the danger of women as “that of ‘ervah, a nakedness that contains an erotic element and requires covering.” In protection of a supposed male vulnerability, the Judaic world sought to contain this danger by imposing detailed disciplines [on] women, regulating their seating in the synagogue, eating at feasts, and positioning in recreational and education settings, alongside myriad and multiplying regulations of dress, hair covering, greetings, deportment and, in the ultra-Orthodox world, also work spaces and public travel. These measures, which may be collected under the general heading of mechitzah (separation), engender Foucauldian ‘analytic spaces’ that ‘provide fixed positions’ and establish operational links as means of social regulation. As such, they become obvious targets for the feminist appreciation of female subjectivity under Judaism. Cognizant of the oppressive implications of the mechitzah, religious feminist discourse does not call for its abolishment but rather attempts to reinterpret it; for example, by looking at modesty-regulated spaces as offering opportunities for women to express and strengthen a self-conscious identity, or by expanding the purview of modesty to all members of the community so as to help them ‘view themselves [not] according to the images of each other that have been generated through generations of cagey anxiety and misguided notions, but in the far more forgiving gaze of the divine.’ In contrast, Israeli secular feminist discourse, as reflected through the 2011 public debate on female marginalization, has been largely uninterested in such reasoning. Instead, it has defined feminism and Judaism as fundamentally incompatible, and therefore offered the breaking of mechitzah as the only proper solution for the religious woman’s plight. This position did not emerge ex nihilo. Rather, we find it mirrored in the proliferation of contemporary Israeli films that aim, so it seems, to stage scenes where religious Jewish (or ‘Judaic’) women transgress modesty norms in sexual and romantic contexts. As a genre, these filmic texts imagine observant women to be not only the principal victims of Israeli-Judaic reality, but also its primary challengers. Their challenge is seen as originating from a desire for sexual exploration, a desire that is deemed natural and thus inherently in conflict with Judaism’s artificial laws of sexual management. Accordingly, these works place their characters on a collision course with Judaism’s power structures, a process that ultimately necessitates they abandon their religiosity or live in painful tension with it. The goal of the following pages is to evaluate this corpus of media texts as manifesting the current Israeli secular critique of Judaic androcentrism.