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?”