“You’re really hot!” he exclaimed as I walked into his office.
I immediately regretted showing up.
A colleague of mine is friends with a successful publicist who said he’d meet with me as a favor to him. I was taken aback that this publicist would speak to a woman like this during a professional meeting, let alone a married religious woman.
“Thanks,” I stammered as I sat down, “my husband agrees.”
My general method is to use humor to cut through awkwardness. I wasn’t certain that he knew I was married, but it seemed like a good time to remind him.
I quickly changed the subject and started talking about ideas – our mission, the way the Orthodox Jewish community is rarely covered with nuance, the videos we’ve made to combat this bias, the challenges we’ve had getting traditional media to take note.
“I love to write,” I explained. “If you could help send my pitches to any contacts you have, that would be an amazing help.”
“Nah,” he interrupted, “we should get you on TV, because you’re so hot.”
I can’t remember how I responded to the next few mentions of my “hotness,” but I did my best to remain calm and professional for the duration of our conversation so as not to put my colleague in an awkward position.
I didn’t give the publicist much thought for quite some time, but then one of his articles was sent to me by a friend. He had written an op-Ed in a newspaper about what a lifelong champion for women he is, and with access to abortion and birth control being debated in government, men should all be like him and support women to make sure they always have access to both.
The article rubbed me the wrong way. The Jewish approach to birth control and abortion is more nuanced than the Liberal or Conservative approach. But that wasn’t what bothered me. How could this man pretend that he was this feminist, fighting for women when he spent our entire meeting ignoring my ideas and talents and focusing only on my looks, making me feel like my only value was my appearance?
I raised this conundrum with a friend who explained it so perfectly: This man sees women as objects and then wants to ensure that there are no responsibilities attached to them when he uses them. This is the exact opposite of feminism. It is the degradation of women for the benefit of men, and it’s antithetical to the Jewish approach to women as well. (It should be noted that Jews don’t always live up to Judaism’s ideals, and that while there are a plethora of very positive sources regarding women, there are a few challenging ones as well.)
Not only are our holy books filled with examples of women who are praised for their positive character traits, like being selfless (Rachel, letting her sister Leah marry her beloved Yaakov so as not to embarrass her), wise (Sarah and Rivkah seeing the true character of Ishmael and Eisav when their husbands missed it), courageous (Yael and Esther putting their lives on the line to save the Jewish people), and scholarly (Bruriah being an expert on Talmud in a time when most women couldn’t even read), perhaps the most famous compilation to sum up what values Judaism places on women is King Solomon’s poem, Eishes Chayil. Here are some excerpts:
Far beyond pearls is her value. Her husband’s heart trusts in her, and he shall lack no fortune. She repays his good, but never his harm, all the days of her life.
Her value is not materialistic – she is trustworthy, steady, and never petty or vindictive.
She rises while it is still nighttime
She is a hard worker.
She spreads out her palm to the poor and extends her hands to the destitute. She fears not snow for her household, for her entire household is clothed with scarlet wool.
She is generous to those in need, while at the same time, caring for her family.
She considers a field and buys it; from the fruit of her handiwork she plants a vineyard.
She is a shrewd businesswoman.
Strength and splendor are her clothing, and smilingly she awaits her last day.
She is not shallow; people see her for her personal strength, not her outward appearance; she does not fear death as she lives a full and meaningful life.
She opens her mouth with Wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
Her ideas matter – she is both wise and kind – and she teaches those values to the world.
Her children rise and celebrate her; and her husband, he praises her: “Many daughters have attained valor, but you have surpassed them all.”
Her children and husband appreciate and value all that she is; she is exceptional in their eyes.
False is grace, and vain is beauty; a G‑d-fearing woman, she should be praised.
Looks are meaningless and don’t define a woman, it is the decisions she makes that earn her credit.
Give her the fruit of her hands, and she will be praised at the gates by her very own deeds.
The community recognizes her accomplishments too and praises her for them.
Nowhere, not anywhere, does anyone care if she’s HOT.