How the Jewish Concept of Humility Taught Me to Take Up Space

I spent a long time riddled with insecurities and the need to shrink myself. The idea of 'anavah' helped me expand.

Content warning: mention of abusive relationships and disordered eating

“Promise me you’ll never get a big fat belly like your mom,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence we’d been standing in while brushing our teeth together. My bar for relationships was pretty low at that point, but this was far too shocking out of nowhere, even for me. The shock and anger must have read pretty openly on my face, because he immediately tried to down-play what he’d said. But even he realized he’d crossed a serious line, so he finally apologized.

Though this was years ago (and we broke up, far too long after the toothbrushing incident), it still resonates sharp and fresh in my mind whenever that memory is conjured up. It has joined the Pinterest collection of my inner world, the boards that hold every thought, comment, person, experience and message that has ever made me feel small.

I was born into a heavily assimilated (and toxic) Jewish family, and raised in the conservative South, surrounded by right-wing values at every turn. It’s not the kind of environment that encourages women (or AFABs, those assigned female at birth) to be bold; to survive it, you have to learn young to make yourself as small and neat as possible. Taking up space was not a safe choice for me.

Flash forward: I’m an Orthodox Jewish 19-year-old marrying a Hasidic man I hardly know. My family had begun the journey of finding our way back to our Jewish roots when I was around 12, ultimately peaking in Orthodoxy. While many women feel empowered living an Orthodox lifestyle (including women I hold near and dear to my heart), it was not a positive or easy experience for me personally (exacerbated by my living with an unhealthy home dynamic). There are a lot of sharply defined roles and rules in Orthodoxy, and if I’ve learned anything about myself, it’s that I best exist in a world as nonbinary as my gender.

My marriage was the smallest, hardest, and most extreme confinement I’ve ever had to live in. It was also, however, a springboard. My life had been a concrete sidewalk with a thin crack that I, a tiny seed, had fallen into and been struggling within to survive. Walking away from that marriage was what blew the goddamn sidewalk to smithereens. And from out of the rubble, the seed finally began to unfurl its leaves and stretch out its roots. The expansion was slow at first, but gained momentum as I eventually realized that I not only enjoyed the taste of freedom and space — but that I needed it to survive.

It was still a process. I had a mountain to climb, and I was on the very first step. I had to learn to set boundaries, and it took me a long time to stop dating the kind of guys like the one quoted at the beginning of this article. It took even longer to come out to myself as pansexual and nonbinary — because that definitely did not fit within the tiny, tidy role I was expected to fold myself neatly into. Every relationship was riddled with the intense insecurities of someone small. And because of this, I always ended up with someone who pushed and took up more space than their fair share, meaning I had to shrink even more. This was conceptual: downplaying my intelligence, not doing things I was good at, withholding my true thoughts and opinions, repressing my needs and desires. And it was also physical: living for 15+ years with various eating disorders and fitness addictions.

It wasn’t just about making myself small in relationships, though. It was feeling terrified of taking up too much space by asking for even my most basic needs, never wanting to be a burden. It was fearing being bold or sharing my thoughts, because I didn’t think my opinions mattered. It was feeling like I didn’t deserve to take up enough space to experience joy in my relationships or my life, and never even questioning that.

I had to learn that I was worthy of love and belonging and choose to believe it (thanks for the nudge, Brene Brown). And there was something else besides phenomenal self-help books written by incredible women that helped me on my journey: the Jewish concept of anavah, aka humility.

That might seem a little counterintuitive, because how could someone who has lived so small possibly learn to expand by being humble? The answer is that Judaism does not define humility the way that the mainstream world does. In the ancient Jewish practice of Mussar, anavah is not about making yourself small and beating yourself up for never being good enough. It simply means taking up the appropriate amount of space. How much space to take up depends on the person and the circumstance. If anavah were a spectrum, some people exist too far along the right end of the scale and are unbearably egocentric, and some, like me, live too far along the left end of the scale, in a place of low self-worth and smallness. While many fluctuate but tend to land more or less in the middle, the unfortunate truth is that most women/AFABs fall to some extent on the left end, taking up too little space.

The thing that the people on either extremity of the spectrum share is an over-occupation with the self, whether that’s illusions of grandeur or the “woe is me” rumination mentality. But true humility calls for us to fill the space we are called to fill. For example, God asked Moses to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. Though Moses voiced his concerns about filling this lofty role, he didn’t wait for a convenient time to bring it up with Pharaoh, make sure not to seem too emotional or loud, or apologize for bothering Pharaoh. No, he marched into the palace and told Pharaoh boldly and clearly, “Let my people go.” In his role as a leader, he was required to fill more space.

For women, especially women in minority groups, it is more often appropriate to take up more space. Yes, it is OK for you to do this; no, it does not make you an asshole. If you have trouble with this, it’s not your fault; we were all raised in a society that calls for women to live along a spectrum of smallness.

It is also difficult to embrace this concept if you, like me, have an imbalanced relationship with space. If you have an empty space within you, you will always feel the need to take up either too much or too little of the space outside of you, to either try to fill it in or to keep people from noticing this gaping cavity. Neither method works. The only way you can fill the emptiness is by building a solid sense of self and knowing that not only is it OK for you to take up space, you are worthy of taking up space (and then truly living according to that truth). Then, you’re more prepared to step up to the Burning Bush and figure out what kind of space fits your calling, fits your life and fits you.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what happened to that young girl just stepping out into the sunlight after breaking out of an abusive marriage, marveling at all the space… She now asserts her needs, shares her opinions (including the divisive, taboo ones) and allows her physical body to grow and take up the space it needs to heal. She works at a job she loves, has had lots of great sex, bought herself her first home completely on her own and understands that sometimes taking up space is scary and difficult — but pushing through the doubt is worth it, because she is worth it. And so are you.

Kate Hennessey

Kate Adina Hennessey (she/they) is the Education Director for an LGBTQ-founded synagogue in Atlanta. When she isn't writing about feminist Jewish things, she is posting her art on Instagram, going to therapy, and reading tarot for her friends after D&D sessions.

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