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.)