Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Reform Rabbi's Thoughts on Gender & Judaism

I had the pleasure of hearing a Reform rabbi speak to us at our school recently. She gave a presentation on Gender & Judaism, with a specific emphasis on feminism. I found her presentation interesting, first, because it explained to me why many people who are Jewish feminists think the way they do, and second, because it illuminated to me the differences in our starting premises that explain why I do not think this way.

She began her presentation by asking three questions, but I can only remember the first one, which was: "To what extent has your gender impacted your experience of Judaism, and your Judaism impacted your gender?" I liked this question very much, as there is no question that my experience of Judaism has been greatly impacted due to my being a woman.

After raising the three questions, she explained that per her point of view, there is no such thing as "just" Judaism. Judaism has been created through the lens of men, with rituals that work for men, and with a halakhic system that favors men. Thus, the Judaism that we have been practicing is not "just" Judaism; it is male-defined and created Judaism. She was careful not to place a value judgement on this- it is not necessarily good or bad, but simply, from her perspective, a fact.

Then she touched on the binary process in Judaism, which she referred to as "the sanctity of separation." In Judaism, objects, times or events are made holy via the "sanctity of separation." There is a binary process in which we have (and there is obviously a longer list than these provided):


She explained that current research explains that women favor connectivity in their relationships, living within shades of grey. This may be based on the difference in their very biology; they are the ones who are capable of birthing a child, a connective experience if ever there was one. Thus, this very binary separation between different items may not work for women; they may not experience it as holy. How can we (or should we) change Judaism in order to create holiness that works for women as well?

Gender issues in Judaism can run the gamut from our liturgy (in the Orthodox siddur, men thank God for not having created them female) to our Torah (notice that Sarah is not mentioned in the story of the Akedah; her absence is meaningful; had she been there, the story might have ended differently) to our very language. Hebrew is a gendered language; nouns, verbs and so on can be classified as either 'male' or 'female.' In her speech, our presenter brought up an anecdote about a woman named Norma who is the wife of an Orthodox rabbi and who told her husband she found it hurtful that every day he thanks God for not making him like his wife or his daughters. (Does anyone happen to know who this person is?)

In addition, our presenter challenged us to think about where women's mitzvot traditionally take place. Women's mitzvot generally take place within the home or in private places: consider mitzvot such as lighting Shabbat candles, going to the mikvah or counting days of niddah. She suggested that this might not be satisfying anymore.

She also noted that it is inappropriate to think of objects themselves as being gendered. A pink tallit, for instance, is thought of as a female tallit. But that is not ideal. The tallit itself ought not to have an identity as either female or male, or specifically feminine or masculine. Rather, it should simply be an object unto itself, and males or females or anyone of any gender identity should be able to purchase it without it being understood to be a "women's" tallit.

When it comes to feminism in Judaism, feminism has gone through various stages. It started out with the "language of permission," which refers to the use of the word can. It is almost as though women were knocking at the door, so to speak. Can we learn Talmud? Can we don a tallit? Can we wear tefillin? Can we count in a minyan? Women, per our presenter, were still asking permission of men to take on these rituals.

Then we got to the point where women determined that they did not need to ask, but could simply appropriate whichever rituals they felt comfortable with. Women decided they had the right to do this. Today, we can go further- women can create new rituals, should they so desire, for their needs, such as lactation, menopause and so forth. Today, we also have female rabbis and women who lead services in shul. Unfortunately, part of the pushback with that is that in services where women are very involved, male participants tend to flee. This is an issue that needs to be addressed/ discussed.

Our presenter did not like the idea of special "Women's Tefillah" group or "Women's Week," because if that one week in your synagogue is "Women's Week", then what were all the other weeks? Women ought to be a vibrant, participating part of the service every week, not only during special weeks.

To conclude, our presenter urged us to consider why gender is so important, anyway. Why is it that the moment a baby is born, the first thing parents want to know is "Is it a boy or a girl?" Why must we ascribe gender designations and labels to this little child when it is barely an hour old? Why is this our greatest concern?


I found this speech very interesting, particularly because it clarified to me some of the major places in which our premises differ.

1. I do not see Torah, Talmud or Halakha as a male-dominated system that privileges males. I believe that our Tannaim and Amoraim were vessels for the halakha rather than the creators of it; thus, they carried and passed on a tradition rather than creating it based on their own biases and prejudices. (See more on this by clicking this link).

2. I see Judaism as something that I strive to live up to, not something that I can change because it is not working for me. Thus, the idea that research points to women focusing more on connectivity and thus needing a type of holiness that doesn't center around separation doesn't hold weight for me. Judaism for me is the standard; I am not the standard. It's the same way that my father taught me to learn Rashi. I was never to say "Rashi is wrong," rather, I was to say "I do not yet understand Rashi."

3. Much of this presentation focuses on the idea of rights vs. obligations. The idea here is that women deserve rights. They deserve equal rights to participate in Judaism, and participation in this regard refers to their being able to count in a minyan, don tefillin, do public mitzvot, not only private mitzvot, etc. This reminds me of the sentence, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." The way in which I approach Judaism is "Ask not what your religion (Judaism) can do for you, but what you can do for your religion (Judaism)." Judaism for me obligates me in certain ideas and actions; it is not a system in which I can really speak about my rights so much as about my duties. This is a fundamental difference, not only in this regard, but in medical ethics as well. Secular society will talk about abortion within the framework of a woman's right to choose; religious Jews understand abortion as a question of what are my obligations to the fetus. (More on this if you click this link).

4. Longtime readers of this blog know that Heshy & I are huge fans of Heschel. Heschel writes about aggada & halakha and how/ why the two of them must remain in a symbiotic relationship, where we cannot detach one from the other. I think that dissolving traditional divides between the gender roles and discarding mitzvot that women do not find meaningful to them does away with the halakhic approach, to the aggadic approach's detriment. We are, in fact, doing away with the concept of making an effort to do something that is unfamiliar to us, and that is not ideal. (More on this if you click this link.)


Shades of Grey said...

Great post - and very interesting food for thought. I appreciate you sharing your perspective, because I think I would have heard as well as thought about this lecture differently, coming from a male point of view. I am obviously a bit of an outsider looking in on women's issues/conflicts when it comes to Judaism, so having an "insider's perspective" both yours and the speaker's helps widen my field of vision.

Thanks for sharing!

Am haaretz said...

" I believe that our Tannaim and Amoraim were vessels for the halakha rather than the creators of it; thus, they carried and passed on a tradition rather than creating it based on their own biases and prejudices."

Vessels? Why do vessels have machlokets? Did they not create takanot and gezerot? Surely, you realize that even chazal found women's right as granted by the Torah deficient in certain areas. That is not to say that they had nothing to pass on either.
Btw, Judaism believes in both obligations and rights.

ATF said...

Rights vs. duties, and the binaries of separation (boundaries) are in Tanakh, and Rambam discussed them too.

Rabbi Sacks wrote the most beautiful piece about it here - - I highly recommend reading it.

Simply put said...

Chana, your elucidation is excellent!

This debate reminds me of the analogy of the 2 fellows (circa pre Colombus) that were arguing if one traveling west will ultimately reach India and the Orient.
Finally a wise man pointed out that their argument isn't really about traveling or destinations, but rather they should be debating the basics, if the Earth is round or not!

The point of contention here is really, basically, upon what authority did the Talmudical Sages and The Anshei K'nesset Hag'dolah rule.

When a person accepts the fact that they, the Sages of old, were DIVINELY inspired "vessels for the Halakha", so-called "God's mouthpieces", and the successors of the Prophets (albeit at a diminished level), then the debate is over.

Indeed the Talmud relates many instances where these saintly angelic men had direct communication with Heaven.
Their views were based on levels of sanctity and cognizance that we can barely comprehend.

To second-guess their motives, expertise, caliber or qualifications is beyond ludicrous.
However, we can, and should, endeavor to understand the reasons behind their rulings. Just like your (fabulous) father schooled you when learning Rashi.

Some may call it "blind faith".
I call it "complete trust".

Those that don't completely believe in concepts such as "Torah min ha'Shomayim" and Ruach-Hakodesh have, understandably, a hard time accepting this.

p.s. In response to commenter "Am haaretz":
Chazal does in fact teach that "Elu v'elu divrei Elokim chayim".
Both views are valid and cherished by God.
But, by the power vested in the Sages by our Creator, the Rabbis need to come to a consensus in ruling how, in fact, do we practice the law.
And, with few exceptions, the majority (of authentic Sages) rules.
And so it is recorded in the Heavenly court.

This is the system laid out before us by Moses our greatest prophet and teacher.

Chana said...

Am Haaretz,

A good book that will explain this matter to you in more detail is The Dynamics of Dispute: The Making of Machlokes in Talmudic Times. Read it and enjoy.

Chana said...

Am Haaretz,

You can also read more about this idea in Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch's writings. He begins talking about it here:

"He sees these personalities not as the bearers of the tradition but as its creators. To him, Talmudic Law, which through all the centuries of our exile has upheld the Jews and shaped every aspect of Jewish life, is merely the product of the temperamental and psychological characteristics of these eminent figures. We will leave it to our author's scholarly conscience to judge such a view of tradition, which is not a tradition that harks back to Mount Sinai."

You can read the rest of what he says in his Collected Writings.

I am not denying that these men engaged in debates; I am denying the idea that their rulings were based on their personal prejudices and biases.

Am haaretz said...

Chana - lampel's book is a fine introduction to what rishonim till the maharal thought of the nature of disputes. It's not really a comprehensive or accurate view of historical analysis or process. May i suggest harbertal's the people of the book. The discussion is not really about machlokets but rather the Jewish view of what was given at Sinai. It's interesting or telling that there is no one view - down to our day with the view of RMF.

am haaretz said...

chana - "I am not denying that these men engaged in debates; I am denying the idea that their rulings were based on their personal prejudices and biases.

their rulings were based on many things including reflecting the historical time they lived and their personal viewpoints regarding many areas(as well as traditions passed down)

perhaps there are other views in orthodoxy. for example rabbi wurtzberger asks:

The real issue is this: were the changes and developments that occurred during the talmudic period the result of a creation of an Oral Law that was superimposed upon biblical Judaism, or did the Rabbis, employing principles that ultimately derived from divine revelation on Mt. Sinai, interpret both the Written and the Oral Torah in the light of the historic conditions of their time?"

obviously he held the later - if so, that would include the ideas which include society's biases and prejuidices.

R. Walter Wurzburger in a review of Prof. Boaz Cohen’s Law and Tradition in Judaism (“The Oral Law and the Conservative Dillema” in Tradition 3:1, Fall 1960,
i would also suggest lo bashamayim hee by elizear berkovitz

Critically Observant Jew said...

timely post by Rabbi Eliyahu Fink:

am haaretz said...

chana - btw, i just came across your blog the other day and wasn't sure of the ideology here.

Shira Salamone said...

Chana, we were discussing gender and Judaism on my blog last week, and I've already promised a post on the language of halachah regarding this topic. Thanks for the incentive to get to work.

ATF said...

am haaretz,

There is a difference between R' Wurtzberger and the speaker referenced above. Wurtzberger held that the rulings were influenced by the time and place they lived. The speaker in this post held that that the sole source of the halacha was the people, based on the time and place they lived. It's like the difference between evidence and proof. The latter is all-encompassing; the former is not.

ruvie said...

ATF - i don't disagree. my comment was to the blogger's comments and not to the comments of the reform rabbi.
one can believe in anything they want to about jewish history and the history of halacha. i rather go where the evidence takes me without haskafic blinders that impede one's analysis.

Danarrr said...

Dana like!!

Anonymous said...

While I agree that discarding mitzvot which we do not find meaningful turns religion into self-deification, the idea of progress, evolution, and change within halacha and society is not anathema to Orthodox thought. Just watch from approximately 52:00 to 105:00 of the following link for one example.

Eitan said...

Hi Chana,

I find your blog really interesting, and have just subscribed to you. Could you check out mine, and maybe do the same. I'm an Orthodox Jew (originally from Russia), living in J'lem. All the best and shavua tov!

Eitan said...

Oh, and another thing is I agree with what "Am Ha'aretz" has to say.

Charlie Hall said...

Sorry to come late to this thread.

You are of course correct about the difference between a rights-oriented approach and an obligations-oriented approach. They are completely different and Judaism has the latter. I can see that it would be very different for someone totally immersed in American society to accept this.

That said, the fundamental basis of Jewish practice is the halachah, and the small number of mitzvot that apply differently to women than men is a very thin thread on which to hang a theology of massive differences between women and men.

Take Shabat candles, for example. I am every bit as obligated as my wife -- and it turns out that I have to light them not infrequently as she is a doctor and sometimes has to stay at work late on Friday saving lives. In addition, women can take on almost all "men's" mitzvot and if she does, she says the bracha if she is Ashkenazic and it counts as a mitzvah.

Judaism isn't egalitarian, but we don't have the same kind of theology that parts of Christianity have, that women are misbegotten males, or that men are more Godlike because God is male, or that women caused the Original Sin. We should not go overboard here.

Anonymous said...

I would guess that "Norma" is Norma Baumel Joseph - if that helps you at all.

smoo said...

regarding point 2:
'Tosafot Rid' was attacked for having the audacity to challenge Rashi. His response was sometimes a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant can have a better perspective!