Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I Signed My Death Warrant Today

Jordan would get a kick out of this. This is the question we were asked to respond to for my Sex & Gender Roles class, and as you can see, I did so...



In what ways do you perform gender? Is this a process that you are actively aware of, or does it happen on a more instinctive level? Who do you perform for and why?

Your response should be at least two paragraphs long, and must be posted online by 11:59 PM, Tuesday, July 28. Feel free to comment on and inquire about your fellow classmates' responses.


chana - Jul 27, 2009 11:13 PM - Remove

I take issue with the question. I do not feel that I *perform* gender. I *am* a gender. I am female. Resoundingly, perfectly, happily, gladly female. And since I believe in the biological determinism approach, I think that being female is something that comes with its attendant qualities and character traits and I am quite glad of all of them.

I think the premise of a gender-neutral society is entirely flawed. Why would I want to live in a world where gender is interchangeable? "Hello," I would say. "My name is Olivia and I am Neutral. I am Gender Neutral. Neither boy nor girl, male or female- I am Nothing. I can choose to *perform* as whichever gender I please." To me, that does not seem like an ideal to strive for; indeed, it seems like an utterly nonsensical state of affairs! It takes away the very qualities that make me who I am and substitutes nothing, a poor in-between place- for them. I think that one can respect the fact that genders ought to be treated equally without resorting to the idea that gender is entirely socially constructed and therefore ought to be destroyed (or made a choice.) Males and females ought to both be given the right to vote, earn the same wages, be awarded the same promotions, etc, but this does *not* mean that they are utterly interchangeable and have exactly the same skill sets, abilities, forms of thinking or modes of behavior. The two are unrelated. One can live in an equal and fair society without resorting to the model that gender ought to be abolished.

Certainly a large part of my attitude is informed by my religion. The religious structures have differing roles for men and women. They are different- not unequal. Indeed, the attempt to promote egalitarianism as a way to "equalize" men and women is somewhat ridiculous as it misses the point of understanding that these roles exist to complement the natural character traits afforded to men and women. (Aside from the fact that men and women themselves are meant to complement one another, not be interchangeable with one another!) An example of such appears in Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's description of his mother and father and the role they had in instructing him in the Torah. This appears in 'The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik' by Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Volume 2.


People are mistaken in thinking that there is only one masorah, and only one masorah community, the community of the fathers. It is not true. We have two masorot, two traditions, two communities, two shalshalot ha-kabbalah [chains of tradition]- the masorah community of the fathers and that of the mothers. "Thus shalt thou say to the House of Jacob [=the women] and tell the children of Israel [=the men]" [Exodus 19:3], "Hear, my son, the instruction of thy father [musar avikha], and forsake not the teaching of thy mother [torah imekha]" [Proverbs 1:8], counseled the old king. What is the difference between these two masorot, these two traditions? What is the distinction between musar avikha and torat imekha? Let us explore what one learns from one's father and what one learns from one's mother.

From one's father one learns how to read a text- the Bible or the Talmud, how to comprehend, how to analyze, how to conceptualize, how to classify, how to infer, how to apply, etc. One also learns what to do and what not to do, what is morally right and what is morally wrong. Father teaches son the discipline of thought as well as the discipline of action. Father's tradition is an intellectual-moral one. That is why it is identified with musar, the biblical term for discipline.

What is torat imekha? What kind of a Torah does the mother pass on? I admit that I am not able to define precisely the masoretic role of a mother. Only by circumscription may I hope to explain it. Permit me to draw upon my own experiences. I used to have long conversations with my mother. In fact, they were monologues rather than a dialogue. She talked and I "happened" to overhear. What did she talk about? I must use a halakhic term in order to answer this question. She spoke of inyana-deyoma [the affairs of the day]. I used to watch her arranging the house in honor of a holiday. I used to see her recite prayers. I used to watch her recite the sidra [weekly Torah portion] every Friday night; I still remember the nostalgic tune. I learned much from her.

Most of all I learned that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is flavor, a scent, and a warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life- to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.

The laws of Shabbat, for instance, were passed on to me by my father; they are part of musar avikha. The Shabbat as a living entity, as a queen, was revealed to me by my mother ;it is a part of torat imekha. The fathers knew much about the Shabbat; the mothers lived the Shabat, experienced her presence, and perceived her beauty and splendor.

The fathers taught generations how to observe the Shabbat; the mothers taught generations how to greet the Shabbat and how to enjoy her twenty-four hour presence.

~pages 182-183


There's more, but I figured I would cut it short there. The mother passes on Torah Judaism through living it, imbuing it with emotion, spirituality and passion. The father is more practical and pragmatic; he gives over the law but not necessarily the flavor that describes it. These different roles complement the different personalities of man and woman. At the beginning of time, at the beginning of the Bible, the first woman is termed 'Eim Kol Chai' in Hebrew, which means 'Mother of All Living.' She is a mother in the literal sense and in the figurative sense; she gives life and continues to give life. Where men are told to nurture the earth and conquer it, women are the ones who nurture and care for future children, watching over them.

This does not *limit* women to these roles. I think each man and woman/ husband and wife could have a conversation and discuss whom they wished to take on certain roles within the class. If the father wishes to stay home and watch the children, well and good! But a woman has a predilection and affinity for that role because of who and what she is, her essence, her soul, and her function as *mother,* the one who carries children in her womb. That women and men have very specific roles is a *beautiful* thing; it allows us differences and differences are good. There is no equality in a gender-neutral society; that is a deadened society where we have eliminated differences because they frighten us. These differences are real; they certainly exist. Anatomical differences, differences in temperament, physique- all of these things are real. And I believe that it *cheapens* men and women to eliminate these differences and strive for a gender-neutral society.

Once again, I do not *perform* as female. I AM female. I was born female, I am biologically female, and my character traits and personality are those that embody female attributes. It is *as a female* that I am meant to create myself and fulfill my role in this world. I firmly believe this and think the fact that we believe gender can be "performed" because it is external to us and exists in some no-man's-land outside ourselves is foolish. Men and women are fundamentally different- the anatomy we share is just the beginning of that difference. I think we should revel in those differences, accept them and strive to develop ourselves in accordance to them, not fight them or wish we were other than we are.

Whence comes this desire to claim that we are *not* different, that we are totally interchangeable? That is what I do not understand. I think only the woman who feels that she is not empowered *as* a woman would wish to strive to present herself as male or achieving masculine attributes. Why else would anyone strive for this? What is the gain; where is the benefit? What does one achieve by denying oneself? I think that this claim that gender is socially constructed is simply a desire to achieve control over that which one cannot control. I believe people crave to control their environment, circumstances, self, etc as much as possible. Indeed, it can be a very comforting feeling to believe that one can *choose* one's gender or how one performs one's gender. But I do not think that is the truth. It is, if anything, a pretty lie that grants one the illusion of control where it does not exist. To me, the idea of 'performing the male gender' is as ludicrous as 'performing being a dog.' I am not a dog and I am not a male; I cannot *choose* to be or to perform what I am not. It is intrinsically not me. Thus, I am female- nothing more and nothing less. I am, was, will be and can only be- female. And rather than limiting me, this is something I see as fulfilling me in every way.


Unknown said...

I'd answer along those lines and take the F. (Hopefully this will not actually happen. :) )

Erachet said...


The Cousin said...

You are aware that an answer like that is practically begging the teacher to fail you.

(Ergo, why i deliberately avoided any and all sociology and similar classes while in College)

ProfK said...

Where it counts, in the "real" world, you get an "A" on this in my book.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...


(But sometimes, getting an F is worth it :-)

Ari said...

Is this something you'll be graded on or is it just a part of discussion?

Northern Light said...

Excellent! You are sorely needed in academia! Let us know what grade you earn--I bet in the name of diversity, the prof grades your superb and articulate response highly!

Dorron Katzin said...

Have you ever read this article from The Commentator?

"Yeshivatising YU One Curriculum Review at a Time"

Here is the last paragraph of the article:

One final point: if you ever feel that you are being religiously compromised by a course you are taking, please ask your shiur Rebbe to discuss the problem with a dean. A student should never suffer a lowered grade because his commitment to the values and ideals of this institution come into conflict with a certain class, and should the teacher not be accommodating (though I've heard that they usually are), the deans are guaranteed to handle such issues in a fair and diplomatic way. If we can bring about a change in the curriculum, we will be sparing not only ourselves, but also all future students, some of the difficulties that face students trying to handle the multi-faceted world of YU.

Link to full article:

I realize this article, written for YC students, is not totally applicable here. But there should be someone you can consult.

Benzie said...

The Rav's thought could be said in different words, using the lexicon of his brother, as follows: the mother teaches the logic of the heart, and the father teaches the logic of the mind.

I remember my first (and only) psych class my first year in college - the instructor (a newly minted ph.d.) told us she didn't know how to describe gender. After class I told her that many languages have masculine and feminine forms, and which nouns are which gender should give us an idea of what gender is. She really liked it; I don't know if she ever reached her own understanding.

Anonymous said...

In my book, your F is for going well over two paragraphs. Were you supposed to write a speech?

Chana said...

Cousin- Yup. I delight in that. But she won't fail me.

Benzie- that's brilliant!

Bad4- No, the teacher likes it if you are passionate about what you believe.

The Joy of Ladin said...

>>After class I told her that many languages have masculine and feminine forms, and which nouns are which gender should give us an idea of what gender is.

>Benzie- that's brilliant!

Actually, it is ridiculous. Gender of nouns has nothing to do with the gender of living things. How about where the same object is masculine in one language and feminine in another like perro in Spanish and sobaka in Russian? Maybe dogs are secretly trans-gendered. Or what about African languages that have up to 15 or 20 genders...

Read up on it here.

Unknown said...

I don't think anyone said to look at what nouns are which genders, but instead to look at how a language defines the genders.

As in hebrew it is the "hey" or "taf" that defines the gender. That will tell you something about what the gender means.

Benzie said...

To the student/admirer of the poetry professor of undetermined plumbing at Stern:

You make a very good point. The simple answer is that gender may mean different things in different cultures. A culture is "defined" by the language most closely associated with that culture.

David Staum said...

"Performing Gender"?? I never heard such a thing before. Teaching it must be a recent innovation in colleges (I'm almost 20 years older than you.) Sounds like absolute nonsense.

So I was with you till you started with the usual apologetics that the frum community gives for different roles for men & women. I disagree strongly. Yes, men & women ARE different, that's undeniable. The bulk of the differences are nature, not nurture.

But that doesn't mean that Judaism locks men & women into unchangeable gender roles. There's room for accomodation to modern sensibilities within Judaism, as long as halacha is gently adapted, not shattered. The reason for the "private" role for women and the "public" cole for men within traditional Judaism isn't some deep truth from the Torah that that's the nature of men & women, but rather that the whole world thought that way when Chazal assigned mitzvot to men & women. As far as Torat Avicha & Torat Imecha, you seem to be using a pleasant and warm nostalgic memory of your childhood as an argument. That's very nice for you, but it doesn't prove anything about gender roles within religion.

David Staum said...


I was just introduced to your blog today, via a link from Holy Hyrax. I had only read this post before commenting.

After looking at a few more of your posts, I have to concede that you have a much more nuanced view of men & women's roles than this post made it seem like, so I apologize if I came off too judgemental in my above comment.

Pretty cool blog, especially since you began at such a young age and wrote so prolifically & elegantly! Keep it up.

David Staum said...

I still disagree with those elements of the above post, however.

kisarita said...


On the supposed equality

The Original Sin of Being Born Female>

All I ever need to know I learned in SEMINARY

Learned Helplessness

kisarita said...

Although I must admit that despite my disagreement I do respect your for resisting the groupthing

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