In the Talmud, the vagina has many euphemisms, but one of the most affecting is “makom,” meaning “the place.” It is also a name for God.
It was Griswold v. Connecticut, the landmark 1965 case that legalized birth control for married couples, that ultimately established that the Constitution implied a fundamental right to privacy. This right would later serve as precedent for legalizing birth control for unmarried couples, abortion, homosexual relations, and same sex marriage.
This groundbreaking case acknowledged that privacy was a right that existed within a marriage, between a man and a woman. This right did not extend, however, to a single woman who wished to access contraception. In 1965, a woman was also unable to apply for credit or refuse to have sex with her husband. Women’s bodily and economic freedoms remained unacknowledged and unprotected.
In 1969, twelve women came together for a session at a women’s liberation conference in Boston, where they had frank and personal discussions about their bodies and their healthcare. In 1970, they published a 193-page booklet on stapled newsprint called Women and Their Bodies. The following year, the title was changed to Our Bodies, Ourselves to emphasize women taking ownership of their bodies and their medical decisions. A revolutionary text in a revolutionary time when the idea of a woman naming and claiming her body and her sexuality for herself was just beginning to flourish, Our Bodies, Ourselves openly diagrammed reproductive organs and discussed abortion (which was illegal), virginity, orgasms, sexuality, birth control, childbirth, consent, and more.
A lesser known part of this story is that nine of those twelve women were Jewish. In the forty-eight years since the book was conceptualized and embedded in a movement, the world and women’s place in it has changed dramatically; deep, lasting, institutional change takes the work of generations. Those nine women have modern emanations in the many women slowly, but powerfully, coming to own their bodies and sexuality within the Modern Orthodox community. In the past five years or so, a myriad of Jewish initiatives have emerged that are dedicated to claiming space for women’s bodies, ranging from JOFA’s The Joy of Text Podcast, to women and sexuality book clubs, to mikvah salons, to the innovative work of ImmerseNYC, and beyond.
But the work is not done. Two recent performances of “The Vagina Monologues” produced by religious women for women-identifying audiences were dubbed, “Monologues from the Makom.” The title was certainly alliterative with Jewish overtones, yet it also deftly avoided saying that embarrassing, slippery word. It is a word that in the modesty and misogyny of communities both religious and secular, is often seen as more vulgar, more medical, and dirtier than “penis.” But it’s a word filled with holy and powerful potential – like “HaMakom,” the All-Present, and yet, still unmentionable, not to be taken in vain. As recently as 2012, Jewish Rep. Lisa Brown was barred from speaking on the floor of Michigan state House after she said the word vagina in an argument in support of reproductive justice. The Speaker said that he had found the term so “offensive, [he] would not say [it] in mixed company.”
Female sexual organs are confusing and visceral. They birth new life and they can also be messy with the blood of potential. Speaking of the vagina is about more than just the word itself; it is about the concept behind the word, regardless of language. The concept of vagina and women’s potential has impeded women’s religious participation and inclusion, and so increased comfort with the word portends increased comfort with a person with a vagina taking an active role in tradition. The word vagina can and should be claimed in the religious community and beyond as an infinitely powerful and yet still normative organ, like the brain. Communities can speak of God as they reach (or don’t reach) God in daily life, without taking the unutterable name in vain, without dismissing the majesty in the Tetragrammaton. So too, “vagina” can be a comfortable word, filled with meaning and majesty, uttered on regular basis so as to elevate in value the body to which it is attached, validating the autonomous choices that those bodies and brains make.
In all things, Judaism returns to text. To claim vagina in a modern religious sense, the Modern Orthodox community needs a custom text of Our Bodies, Ourselves to address the specific and intimate issues that the bodies of observant Jewish women encounter. Many communities over the years have done the same – most recently, Jewish and Palestinian-Arab Israeli women crowd-funded to create their own editions, customized to Israeli society and containing new Hebrew and Arabic terms for experiences like menopause. In Bereshit, where words created worlds, Adam named creation. A custom text is needed to name the mekomot, the hidden and powerful places, the struggles and the politics, the laws and customs that govern the lives of Jewish women. Bringing new language and new ideas to the fore will continue this biblical tradition, and carry the work of those nine Jewish activists forward.
Chelsea Garbell works in the field of U.S. foreign policy in New York City. She sits on the board of the American Jewish Committee ACCESS NY and is a member of the Planned Parenthood of New York City Activist Council.
For more on the intersectionality of Judaism and reproductive rights, join JOFA and NCJW-NY for our event on reproductive justice next Tuesday May 9th at 6 PM. Click here for more information!
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