Herstory #2/Work in Progress: Conversa Women and the Politics of Personal Practice

So, as it turns out, this internship has me busy, and I am rushing to finish a paper that I’ll be presenting on Thursday, but I think I’ve got the introduction down. This paper has been something I’ve been thinking about for several months, and I hope to turn it into a full-blown research project that will hopefully take me to the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City sometime after graduation, where I will hopefully explore specific cases more in depth through this sort of lens.

As the deadline approaches (I have to do a trial presentation on Tuesday), I’d appreciate your feedback, comments, questions, etc. I’ve provided the intro, and to anyone who is interested I will email the pdf of the full paper once I finish (just email us at arewefeminists@gmail.com).

The Spanish Inquisition and the years following 1492 marked a time in which traditional Jewish practice was banned from the public sphere and many Jews were forced to publicly convert to Christianity under the fear of death or expulsion, becoming known as “New Christians,” or Conversos. While almost all men, who traditionally are the dominant figures in public Jewish practices, were subsequently isolated from a world of public religious life that was their domain, many women, who traditionally dominated the private sphere of the home, continued to practice Judaism through traditionally female-dominated methods (Galasso 102). Furthermore, the limitations placed by the Inquisition on public Jewish practice led to a shift in the balance of gender-based relations of ritual power, and women found themselves assuming new roles as “initiators, officiants, and spiritual guides” for their entire communities, as they led practices that fundamentally altered the ways in which Jewish women and men each related to their own religious identity, to the Christian authorities, and to mainstream Judaism (Galasso 103-104). During the transition from a focus on public male-led practice to a focus on home-based female-led practice, Converso women modified their situation within a relation of power with their religion and the outside world through methods that can be classified as points of resistance, or through Foucault’s notion of counter-conduct (Foucault 194-195). This modification was achieved primarily through the perpetuation by Converso women of a particular Jewish identity sustained on their own terms through practices that they led and carried out in their homes, which effectively brought women into positions of communal power within Crypto-Jewish communities. These practices were aimed at resistance to complete conversion to Catholicism by the Conversos, and sustained a distinct, independent form of Judaism in the absence of mainstream rabbinical institutions.

Throughout the process of return of some Converso families to mainstream Judaism, both in the centuries shortly following the Inquisition and as late as the 20th Century, male-led public practice returned to its previous position of predominance, and women’s home-based practice returned to its previous position of relatively limited access to power (Galasso 110). Although men eagerly adopted new customs and relationships to religious life that mainstream Judaism offered them, many women expressed ambivalence towards the implications that assimilating to mainstream Judaism had for their roles in religious life. In the face of these changes, many chose to continue in the religion they formed during years of persecution, with varying attitudes towards the religion that their children would adopt (The Last Marranos, Galasso 112-113). The ambivalence of Converso women to the changes in religious life they faced upon their return to mainstream Judaism suggests that they had found, through their own ways of relating to their religion in home-based female-led environments, positions of communal power and opportunities for political resistance that did not necessitate, and were perhaps preferable, to full equality or inclusion in synagogue life.

The theories of power and practices of the self developed by Foucault, which meet most significantly in his work on the concept of counter-conduct in some of his lectures at the Collège de France, provide a theoretical basis through which it is possible to understand both the changes in the relationship of Converso women to religious power, and the ambivalence of these women concerning opportunities to demand more participation in public religious ritual once they returned to mainstream Judaism. In one of his lectures in the series “Security, Territory, and Population,” Foucault describes counter-conduct as points of resistance within existing relations of power, aimed at transforming the methods, leadership structure, leadership makeup, and goals of existing relations of power, such as those found within individual religions (Foucault 194-194). During this time, many Converso women modified their relations of power in ways that reflect Foucault’s theory of counter-conduct. The eventual return of their families to mainstream, public, and male-dominated Judaism presented a tangible site of confrontation between the religious counter-conduct women had developed, and the return of male-dominated methods of conduct, predominantly male leadership, and goals determined and articulated by men.

By conducting practices within spheres in which they already held dominance, and eventually using these spaces to access power over broader communal religious life, these women engaged in forms of empowerment and resistance without direction by male-dominated institutions. Today, in a time when current debates over the empowerment of Jewish women center on greater access to male-dominated synagogue life with the goal of full “equality” and the blurring of distinctions between men’s and women’s spaces and spheres, it may be helpful to keep in mind that other avenues for effective resistance have previously existed outside the synagogue, centered on the religious practices of women conducted at home and in women’s communal circles. This is not to say that women should confine themselves to the home and abandon their struggle for dignity in Jewish public spaces, but is instead intended to recommend further possibilities for innovation and concentrated efforts in home practice, an increasingly overlooked potential space for social, religious, and political change to be enacted.

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5 thoughts on “Herstory #2/Work in Progress: Conversa Women and the Politics of Personal Practice

  1. vicuña says:

    no, not a llama, a vicuña. as in mouawf.

    First, I’m not really a Foucault person, so I can’t comment much on the framework used and how it fits in with the work. But, I do like the notion of shifting power dynamics and the ability for power to function in multiple spheres and interact between those spheres. At a certain point the lines blur, which I would consider a good thing–though I don’t think that full equality, in the sense of everyone can do everything, is possible or even necessarily good. This leads to the challenge of defining a space for yourself, because you note that you are working on shifting the focus to ways of expanding and innovating current power spaces while not abandoning other pursuits for public spaces. I think it would help if you gave the reader’s a sense of where that is, because at the moment you seem to be walking a thin and fuzzy line that doesn’t really give a sense of what kinds of roles and spaces you see for women in either sphere–maybe an example or two would help (clearly you won’t want to get carried away with it in the introduction, but one or two might give the reader a better sense).

    hope this helps,

    • Emmy says:

      Thanks for the pointer, vicuña! The vagueness that you point out in the intro is indicative of my own ambivalence towards how this would look. What I meant by “current debates,” which is perhaps mistaken, I primarily meant to direct it at liberal Judaism (although there doesn’t seem to be much debate there anymore about this), which holds egalitarianism as a core value. Equality is not my goal either – I am not a committed egalitarian for several reasons, but outside of the language of liberal egalitarianism it is difficult for me to articulate exactly what my vision would be for an improved interaction with Traditional/Orthodox Judaism, both in the synagogue and the home, particularly if I’d like to propose something that I think would benefit not just me but many other women in traditional Judaism.

      I think, to summarize and give examples and what not, of the solution I’m looking for, would look like this:

      1.) I understand and empathize with women who feel it would be fulfilling to practice religion in a public space and to have a public religious life, and the need for communal support for public spaces in which women can have a role other than spectator. This should be worked out within the framework of Jewish law through Jewish law. Several groups are already looking for ways to do this, including women’s tefilah groups and what not. I fully support that, and think it’s a good idea and what not. I am not a halakhic expert, so there is little I can do other than to refer to writers much more educated than I am on this subject.

      2.) In traditional Jewish women’s spheres, it is difficult for me to think of what new things could be innovated off the top of my head, particularly since I am (thank God) not facing any crisis in any way similar to the Inquisition which _demands_ innovation to survive. However some examples that I’ve read about in the present-day focus on innovation in ritual in crises not as extreme. One example is trend of tambourines among some Hasidic women in the early 1990s New York, which was a way in which women took charge and gave themselves a role in the excitement surrounding what many saw as imminent Messianic redemption (which can be interpreted as a crisis when it doesn’t pan out, see Vanessa Ochs’ book Inventing Jewish Ritual for the full story). This practice happened completely outside of the synagogue. Another notable example is the practice of henna ceremonies in Modern Israel by Sephardic and Mizrahi women (I made a friend here at Brandeis who wrote his senior thesis on how this is a way to protest Ashkenazi hegemony or something like that). What I want my essay to convey is that Orthodox women should explore this as a way to address a plethora of needs and situations, which seems to be lost in the discussions that I read.

  2. Quintus Varus says:

    There’s a gap between how the Conversos reacted to the Inquisition and anything we might call silent resistance today. The Conversos saw the Inquisition as misfortune, but could not imagine a non-confessional state or any form of political, collective resistance. That’s very different from how the United Provences reacted to the Inquisition. Crudely put you seem to be imagining the personal to be the political, whereas I would argue the political is inherently impersonal, in the sense that it demands collective action. A Protestant could easily go to Mass while secretly holding to sola scriptura, sola fideles. A Jew couldn’t as easily go to Mass without some soul-searching. Yet the Protestants (and Jews) resisted the Inquisition in the Provences on the basis of an egalitarian principle, whereas the Conversos who remained accepted the Inquisition as a fact to be lived with.

  3. […] interesting angle that Adams brings up is the perspective of a power struggle, similar perhaps to my previous post on Conversa women, in which vegetarianism is a way for women to assert themselves through a […]

  4. MS says:

    Thank you–there are still Crypto Jews in New Mexico today–always of interest.

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