Earlier this week, my excellent colleague, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz asked the important question of whether, “there can be a new type of “masculinism” that is not about stereotypical manliness, but about confidently embracing what it means to be a man today while also honoring the narrative, journeys, and rights associated with feminism?”
Rabbi Yanklowitz didn’t initially frame the question in terms of Jewish practice, although he did post it on ejewishphilanthropy, and very properly pointed out his perspective as an Orthodox rabbi certainly must color his views in terms of the spiritual meaning of gender.
In those terms, it is interesting that many traditional Jewish cultures valued masculinity in quite different ways than modern western culture does (Daniel Boyarin writes extensively about this in many of his books, most notably, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, and of course, others have as well).
In the rabbinic imagination, as well as some Ashkenazic cultures that sprang from them, the feminine is judgement to the masculine mercy (for example in kabalistic imagery); women are suited to labor, while men study; and women are physically tough while men are valued for their delicacy and yeshiva pallor. Of course, we all know that the expression of these values most likely differed more by individual case than by actual gender – as is true regardless of what society one lives in- but the fact that these ideas about how gender is performed varies so dramatically from that of our current western society, demonstrates how entirely socially constructed those values are, and how little they have to do with the people inhabiting them. In fact, these values were so different from the cultures surrounding them, that the non-Jews made note of them, often stereotyping Jews negatively based on them, viewing male Jews as effeminate and weak and female Jews as lusty and strong – stereotypes that we have sadly spent a great deal of effort on disproving by assimilating the contrary gender attitudes of the culture around us.
The irony doesn’t quite end there: even though Rabbi Yanklowitz has essentially brought us full circle, by wondering how we could re-imagine gender roles (to which one might at first consider answering by saying, “bring back the traditional values!”), to solve the problem, it is the question itself which must be examined. As long as society defines each gender in opposition to the other, the problems of sexism cannot be avoided. As soon as you ask, “how can I be not like a woman,” the implication must be that being like a woman is bad (“you throw like a girl,” or the like) and in a society where women are still significantly less powerful than men, it is impossible to avoid this.
Is there a genuinely good reason to differentiate genders in this way, by defining some behaviors as female-appropriate, and some as male- appropriate? My mother-in-law, bless her, likes to say that there are only two jobs that require a person to be sexed a particular way: sperm donor and surrogate mother.
There is no way to equitably explore separate gender roles until equality has been fully achieved. Even then. On the other hand, there is no downside to trying to achieve full gender equality. It will not in any way rob either men or women of being male and female (anything which is biologically determined won’t change, presumably, so what are you afraid of? And if it isn’t biologically determined, then reinforcing it benefits whom, may I ask?) – but it will benefit people by encouraging them to pursue spirituality that fits them, rather than insisting that they should fit themselves to someone else’s notion of what their spirituality ought to be.
Of course, Judaism does require us to undertake obligations, sometimes even responsibilities that we have no desire for, but nevertheless, we are called upon to fulfill them. But is performing gender roles, and separating what women and men do religiously, part of this set of obligations? Or would it be more appropriate to be strict, and say that all are obligated, unless their specific case renders that obligation impossible, or temporarily difficult. For example, perhaps the exemption from positive time-bound mitzvot should be based on who is taking care of the children, rather than assuming that it is the female person that is doing so. Sometimes it will be, but sometimes it won’t – requiring the exemption along gender lines prevents people from choosing which role suits them – and of course some people might never have children- why should they be exempt?
It’s not the way our sages would have thought about it. Perhaps, though, we can draw wisdom from how we today think about the four sons of the haggadah. Most of us are disinclined to assume that our children are permanently the wicked child, or the simple one (and certainly those of us with children know that they aren’t always the wise child): rather, we understand that all four of those children is within each of us, and at different times, we will ask (or not ask) those questions based on where we are then, at that moment.
And finally, we should remember that while the four children are examples of different kinds of people looking for answers, and provides a script for each of those defined roles, the haggadah also requires us to each ask our own question: that is why one can fulfill the obligation of the four questions by asking any question at all.
Perhaps that is a better example for us today: instead of insisting that we must stick to a preordained script, let us encourage everyone to remember that we are not the same people at all times, and that we will play different roles throughout our lives – thus, we must ask different questions for each of them. Instead of asking, how can men can express their supposed differences from women, maybe the right question is, “How can each person be themself?”
In the fortunate cases it is the grandparents, often it is the parents, and sometimes even a sibling who stands before the congregation and presents a tallit. Early in the service, the child celebrating becoming bar or bat mitzvah the tradition is literally handed down generation to generation. As the child takes the sacred object from their elders and wraps about their shoulders, the message of the day is clear. Just as I have done, you too shall do too.
Continuity has a power of its own. It is wondrous to see grandsons and sons stand side by side with fathers and grandfathers that are similarly wrapped. But even today rare is the grandmother or even the mother who covers the top of the beautiful outfit with a tallit. Yet, the girls in my community, with only the exception of those who affiliate Orthodox, not only wear a tallit on the day they celebrate becoming bat mitzvah but make it part of their regular religious garb. They are breaking new ground.
The tallit has become a symbol of not only of continuity but also of change.
On the rare occasions when I attended synagogue as a child, my father’s tallit was both a refuge and a source of entertainment. But when it came time to celebrate my coming of age, the mere fact that I would chant Torah (with my father saying the blessing with me—lest the agency be mine entirely) was so radical that we had to travel far from home to find a rabbi willing to allow it. A girl wearing a tallit was literally unthinkable.
At the start of the Jewish feminist movement, women and girls battled and largely won the right to take their place at the Torah. But when it came to adopting the ritual wear that historically goes with the privileges and opportunities of Torah reading, the issues were significantly more complex. In part, I suspect that there was a desire to push forward but not too much. Even as Jewish women asserted their power they did not want to ‘be men,’ as they were often accused of being. In addition to the historic prohibitions on women reading Torah, there are prohibitions against women taking on ‘the dress of men.’ Furthermore, 30 years ago the Reform movement, which played a significant role pioneering change, did not encourage ritual garb regardless of gender.
Today in most communities—even Orthodox ones—the place of women next to the Torah is no longer a question. But change is happening when it comes to tallit.
I bought my first tallit in my early 20s. It was large, woolen and woven like my fathers but had colored stripes instead of the traditional blues and blacks. It was as wildly different as the very fact that I dared wear such a thing. Today, as I shop with my daughter ahead of her being called to the Torah, I am struck by the array of feminine materials, cuts, colors and designs that she has to choose from in addition to the more historic types. No one would confuse a lace pink flowery tallit with the ‘dress of men.’ The modern bat mitzvah can choose a tallit that both expresses who she is as a person as well as her pride in her tradition.
Each time I attend bat mitzvah service in different synagogues of my community, I am struck by the passing on of the tallit. More than with the boys, this moment with the girl and her family encapsulates my hope for the next generation of Jews—regardless of gender. Wrap yourself in our tradition but make it your own and don’t be afraid of making change.
Yesterday was a big day for our family. My daughter graduated from college. She was the fourth of our five children (in our blended family) to graduate with academic honors. The youngest, now a college junior, is headed there. It was a day for all the pride that parents feel at college graduation. I couldn’t wipe the memory of her pre-school graduation out of my mind as I watched this poised, beautiful young woman in cap and gown take her place in front of the audience as she was recognized for her accomplishments. She told of her areas of academic interest in her double major of Comparative Literature and Women’s and Gender Studies and was applauded for it. Her yellow cord hanging down the front of her academic gown announced her achievement for high grades. Her Phi Betta Kappa pin completed the outfit. Her modest smile was the same as the one she wore on the day of her pre-school graduation, and I teared up.
I’m not telling you this to brag. My daughter’s achievements were well earned; she worked very hard for four years. In fact, she worked hard for the 12 years before that too. She had earned this moment of pride. It belongs to her.
Her favorite professor told me softly how wonderful my daughter is. “She is really talented. She is such a great thinker, with wonderful questions, and she writes so well! I’m watching her.” I asked her if she had discussed future pursuits with my daughter, and she enthusiastically reveled in being an advisor to my daughter. She hastened to add that she would stay in touch and continue to be there for her.
We – parents and professors — had all done our best to give my daughter (and all of our kids) the tools to succeed as learners. She grew up in a home that valued education, one filled with books, journals and discussions. She was encouraged and supported, including our commitment to pay for her undergraduate education, as we did for each of our children. I realize that we were blessed with the ability to do this, even though it was not easy (this is a story for another day.) I was determined that my children should not have to struggle to be educated as I had when my parents didn’t provide for my education. We encouraged our kids to study subjects that interested them – to engage with the world through the ideas, questions and knowledge that would fill them with possibilities and prepare them to chart their future.
Our family’s Jewish values had taught us the value of learning. The primary tool for Jewish engagement is the discursive nature of Talmud study. Our sages of the early generation of the Talmud spoke repeatedly of the importance of learning; for example, exhorting us to, “Acquire for yourself a teacher.” (Mishnah Pirke Avot 1:6)
There is a lot of talk these days about a perceived failure of a liberal arts education to prepare young adults for careers in the real world. Many twenty-somethings are un- and underemployed. It is a frightening problem for a parent of three young adult children who relish their learning in the humanities. But yesterday I remembered why I encouraged my kids to pursue their interests. As my daughter’s professor reminded me, the ability to ask good questions, the interest to pursue knowledge and the skills to organize and integrate thoughts and write well are significant life skills for success in any pursuit.
Yesterday’s front-page story in the New York Times documented, in sad detail, the sharp decline in public funding for college education and the enormous burden of student debt that has become a national crisis. The problems are vast and deep: the cost of college education is rising faster than is sustainable; it is becoming unaffordable for most Americans. Americans families will have an increasingly difficult time justifying the investment – sadly, many who are burdened by sizable student loans are already proof of this. Without a doubt, our country needs structural change. We must recover our foundations as a nation that offers opportunity for all.
I celebrate the blessing that education offered my children and me. Congratulations to the class of 2012 – our future leaders, teachers, and great minds. There is no telling what you will accomplish. Don’t let our nation off the hook – it is our responsibility to preserve what we taught you – that education shapes our future, together.
People often ask me why I decided to become a rabbi. Some would say in a condescending tone, “You want to be a rabbi? What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish girl?” In response, I would smile and say, “A very good job, thank you.” But it would not be lost on me that those who expressed this question did not think that women should be rabbis. Though I entered rabbinical school almost a decade after the Conservative Movement started ordaining women, and almost two decades after the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements had done the same, a woman becoming a rabbi was still an oddity.
My path seemed strange to almost everyone I encountered. There were no rabbis in my family, so I was not building on a family tradition, and I did not grow up going to Jewish camps or day schools. I did however have a rich Jewish home life, and discovered Jewish feminism in college. Jewish feminism hooked me. Yes, I know, this sounds strange to many. But I voraciously read about the Jewish women’s movement and emerging feminist theologies in writings by Judith Plaskow, Blu Greenberg, Rachel Adler, and Paula Hyman. Their way of looking at the traditionally patriarchal Jewish tradition through a feminist lens captivated me. My mind whirled with images of a female God, of women’s seders, and stories based on female biblical characters. This was my way into Judaism. I saw that Judaism was not a closed tradition ruled by men is long beards, but rather was something living and growing before my eyes. The idea that I could add my voice to creating new rituals, writing new stories, and opening up Jewish wisdom to others excited me. And so, I found myself applying to rabbinical school much to everyone’s surprise.
What I encountered when I entered the professional Jewish world was not quite what I expected. I naively thought that the major battles had been won. Women could be rabbis right? That meant that the Jewish world was open to women in leadership roles, that women would get jobs, be paid equal salaries, and not suffer sexual harassment and stereotyping right? Right?
Take a look at the survey published last week by the Jewish Daily Forward. The article’s title says it all, “Gender Equality Elusive in Salary Survey.” In the Jewish professional world, Jewish non-profits, women earn 62.5 cents to every dollar a man earns, and women make up just 12% of the top leadership positions. An article in The New York Jewish Week last spring chronicled the difficulty women rabbis are having finding jobs. Surveys of women rabbis also find that they are paid less then male rabbis in the same positions and that a stained glass ceiling exists. Only one woman in the Conservative Movement is serving a congregation with more than 500 families. (The larger the congregation, the larger the salary of the rabbi, generally speaking.)
Contrast this to an article in the New York Times this week with the tile, “ They Call it the Reverse Gender Gap” which states that: “For starters, young women today — and not just in the United States — are moving quickly to close the pay gap, or in some cases have closed it already. ….Women are ahead of men in education (last year, 55 percent of U.S. college graduates were female). And a study shows that in most U.S. cities, single, childless women under 30 are making an average of 8 percent more money than their male counterparts, with Atlanta and Miami in the lead at 20 percent.”
There is more work to be done in the Jewish community. I am still inspired by the first wave of Jewish women who fought for women to be counted equally in a minyan, who argued that women could be synagogue presidents, read from the Torah, and be rabbis. This week, as one of the women who inspired me down my path, Dr. Paula Hyman, who was the was one of the founders of Ezrat Nahim a Jewish consciousness-raising group that advocated for women’s equality in American Jewish life, and who went on to be the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale, died from cancer. her death is a wake up call. Though women have accomplished a great amount in the past thirty years, there is more work to be done!
Many borders still exist in the Jewish community. In the next thirty years I hope to see them come down. Women who choose to enter the rabbinate, or become leaders in Jewish non profits should have the same opportunities as men, and should be paid the same salaries. According to The New York Times, the rest of America is already there. The Jewish community should be too. I want other women to be excited about what they see happening in both secular and religious Jewish life and want to join it, just as I did. They should not encounter low salaries, organizations run mainly by men while women make up 90% of the other positions, and lack of parental leave.
My path into Judaism and the rabbinate may have been strange. But I fully believe that there are many paths someone can take. We need to keep those paths open and welcoming. We are all created in the image of God. It is time we treated each other that way.
Dedicated to the memory of Dr. Paula Hyman