The Role of Women in Judaism
A Kula Perspective
How can an enlightened post modern Judaism wrestle with both today’s feminism and a Jewish history which usually leaves out and frequently appears to denigrate the role of women? This year, Aitz Hayim wrestled with these issues, both in our ongoing discussions and by welcoming several women scholars.
Irwin Kula began the dialogue early in the year in a weekend that included introspection, a survey of contemporary authors, and a broader perspective of history. We report here on that weekend with Irwin and will report on Susannah Heschel and others in later issues.
He began with the stereotypes Jewish men and women have about each other, noting a survey taken at a UJA workshop entitled “Men and Women Can Talk”. Participants were asked to fill in the blanks “A Jewish man is…..” A Jewish woman is….” about the opposite sex. Immediately stereotypes emerged. Jewish women were considered narrow minded, spoiled, high maintenance, never on time, nagging, image conscious, and expected their husbands to be as successful as their fathers. Jewish men were egocentric, materialistic, intimidated by successful women, driven, spoiled, looking for perfection, fearful of commitment and wanting mothers more than companions.
Despite these descriptions, when the facilitator asked how many people wanted to marry someone Jewish, almost everyone raised their hands.
Gender as a Social Construction
The meaning of gender, noted Irwin, is a construction. The fact that we are biologically different doesn’t inherently determine most of the ways people define themselves and the other sex. People look at the biological differences and project a wide range of meanings on them. These meanings get encoded, and subsequent generations accept them as if they were biologically determined because they are embedded in the basic perspectives of the society.
Two examples of this type of cultural development were outlined by Deborah Dash Moore. They were the characterizations of the Ghetto Girl among early twentieth century immigrants and the JAP (Jewish American Princess) in the post World War II era. Both were interwoven with generations of Jewish men seeking to rise in the business and professional worlds. They projected their insecurity onto women. The women were seen as heavy consumers who became status oriented and high maintenance as they unrelentingly sought to move up through their accomplishments. At the same time, the projection on Jewish men was that they were so driven, they had no time to love. The irony Moore pointed out was that they were both involved in the same process succeeding in America.
The point, said Irwin, is that to have a useful discussion about gender, we have to realize that our conception of gender reflects the meanings that we give it. Since it is a social construct, we have to acknowledge that we are responsible for the images and connotations that have been used to justify unequal distributions of power and privilege.
It is obvious that there are biological and gender differences that have evolved that produce socially and culturally acceptable results. Few would want to erase all gender differences; rather we want to get away from the kinds of meaning that results in patterns of victimization and domination.
The feminist insight of gender as a social construct arose in Jewish circles as women began to experience a sense that their voice was not a part of recorded Jewish history. We see that when we read 32 verses of Moses’ song and find only a brief mention of Miriam’s. Or when God tells Abraham “lech lecha” and we read how Abraham and Sarah set out together, but find no mention of their conversation after he told her of God’s command. We miss hearing Miriam’s voice or Sarah’s and wonder what it would have sounded like.
Struggles with Gender
Irwin noted his own struggle, as a man, to recognize those gaps and expressed his feelings that none of this inequality or missing voices came about intentionally, but as a result of deep psychological forces. He noted how, when he stays home with his kids, he considers that he is involved in a discrete activity he calls babysitting. His wife probably doesn’t think of her time with the children as babysitting, but as a more essential part of her life, he notes.
In a religious perspective, our sense of God and our relationship to God follow from the human roles and relationships in society. For example, Irwin considered how, 1500 or 500 years ago, the most elemental thing a man did was pick up a sword to defend his family. Women, for the most part, were not allowed to do that. It made sense in that kind of society, he said, to envision a God who as a protector was male. Both men and women related to that God as a super-male protector. Yet if God was male, then, in order to relate to that God, men had to become feminine. He noted rituals, such as the wearing of tefillin, that, in effect, feminize men. He also noted how a passage in Ezekiel, originally about God washing a woman of her menstrual blood, made its way to the circumcision ceremony. The overall result of this over the ages was the feminization of men. This was reinforced by a history of persecution in which men, in fact, had to deal with being powerless. With men in this feminine protected relationship with God, women became even more marginalized, ironically by the very men who were themselves feminized.This theme of the powerless man needing to marginalize the woman is illustrated in a Midrash Irwin shared, about a rabbi who used to sit and immerse himself in Torah. His face is described as “as beautiful as an angel for he never lifted his eyes to look at another man’s wife or at any woman.”
So how do we deal with a story such as this? One of the ways may just be to laugh at it. That’s important, but it’s only a beginning. We need to look at the man’s side and the woman’s side. This rabbi was sitting in the Beit Midrash, which, noted Irwin, is basically the place where the masculine psyche and its imaginings happen. It’s the paradise without women. An exclusive boy’s club. And there is tremendous erotic energy there, Irwin said.
Continuing the story, Satan asked God for permission to test this rabbi. When the rabbi turned from Satan, Satan took on the guise of a woman. Then he surrounded the rabbi. The rabbi asked his student to bring him hot nails, which he put into his eyes. In other words, we have a social construction, which embodies evil as feminine, and make a hero of a rabbi who thinks of a way to avoid feminine temptation.
Now if you teach this for 1500 years as the predominant male metaphor of heroism, its not surprising that in the 20th century you have women feeling disempowered. The point is that text is the vehicle of power in the rabbinic community. Anything that gets in the way of the autonomous man and his relationship to his text is a problem.
“The Torah is his wife, and there is competition with the Torah for his attention. But if he leaves the Torah, the definition of the Jewish male dissolves. Because a Jewish male’s relationship to the Torah is key.”
From Medieval to Modern
While things may have changed today, some of these sensibilities remain. If you replace the Torah with work at the beginning of the 21st century, the question is how fast can you rapidly rise to upper middle class and become rich? That quest becomes, in fact, Torah for many men. And anything that takes you away from that, or that pulls on you (such as a woman) is going to wind up being threatening.
Irwin stressed how this is hard to deal with even when it is brought to consciousness. The consciousness begins to change the situation, but those changes have implications as well. He remembered an article by Betty Friedan, quoted by feminist author Rachel Adler, who has written extensively on Jewish gender issues, in which Friedan compared being a Jewish woman to being like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. “We did not participate in making the rules, nor were we there at the beginning of the party. At best, a jungle of crockery is being shoved aside to clear a place for us….At worst, we’re only tantalized by the tea, bread and butter, while being confused, shamed, and reproached for our ignorance. With our external reality’s absurdity and madness, it’s difficult for us to retain internal coherence. We begin to ask who we really are.”
Noted Irwin, this could as well apply to the Jew at the end of the 20th century. Yet the relationship of the Jew to the Gentile is exactly what we’re playing out between women and men. We don’t know what it means to be Jewish at the end of the 20th century because Judaism has been shattered, we’ve been erased from history for the past 1800 years. And having been erased, we don’t know what it means now that we’ve come back.
Perhaps, Irwin suggested, there is learning that can be passed between the two struggles. If we can learn from having women’s experience once again be part of the creation of what it means to be Jewish, we may actually figure out how to be Jewish in the modern world. The task is to figure out how to re-encode the relationship between Jews and the rest of the world AND between Jewish men and Jewish women in a way that does not rely on patterns of domination.
Rachel Adler, noted Irwin, noted a disconnect between her internal and external realities. Externally, men were telling her she wasn’t part of the covenant. Her own experience did not jive with that because she knew in her inner core that she was as much a part of the covenant as anyone else. She found herself asking “Are women Jews in the Bible? Are women Jews in rabbinic Judaism? Are women named and treated as Jews in the life of the community?” She was asking these questions. She was not asking whether she, Rachel Adler, was a Jew. She knew she was, it was just that everywhere she went to play out being Jewish, she didn’t feel like Jew. The one place she was 100% Jewish was on the inside.
He read a similar passage from Cynthia Ozick’s work. “In the world at large I call myself and I am called a Jew. But when on the Shabbat, I sit among women in my traditional shul, the rabbi speaks the word ‘Jew’ and I can be sure that he’s not referring to me.”
These feelings are very analogous to Jewish Americans as a whole, Irwin said. “95% of American Jews measure Jewish on interior subjective measures,” he said. “They don’t deny it like they did in the 20s, they don’t deny it to get away from it as they did in the 40s. They score out ‘proud to be Jewish’. But there is no hold for most people. This is not just about women. There is no hold for most Jews.”
The Rift is Deep
Irwin then went on to read further from Ozick, in a passage, he said, that really “shattered” his own reality:
“Imagine yourself, for example, a woman at a Shavuot service. Hearing the Torah reading, in which the giving of the Torah is recorded, you’re following the preparations for the central revelation when suddenly you’re struck in the face with ‘And Moses said to the people, be ready for the third day, do not go near a woman.’”
Now there was a reason for this, Irwin interjected, underscoring his notion that there is no purposeful pejorative behavior. “There was this notion that men and women, as they were going to hear the revelation, shouldn’t make love because there was the notion that if something discharged from your body, you became impure because your life forces were seeping. And that’s an amazing insight about life.”
But Ozick continued “If you say, ‘Don’t go near a woman,’ who is Moses speaking to? Men. But this is Shavuot. Who is at the Covenant? Clearly the person does not mean you. You try to set that aside to be caught up once more in the majesty of the revelation. The thunder and lightening and the shofar and the flames, but you’re jarred as the commandments begin to be proclaimed. One after another in the masculine singular. Ending with the commandment not to covet a neighbor’s property or livestock, including his wife. And you’re left standing apart as your mother stood under the mountain eavesdropping on the conversation between God and man, wondering if there is anything God wants you to do and so why doesn’t God tell you so himelf.”
Irwin followed this with his own experience and revelation studying Talmud. He notes there is a volume about agriculture, the next is about sacred times, the next about holidays, then the last three volumes about civil law, temple law and purity. In this last volume a whole order is called Nashim, women. Noted Irwin, once you hear anomalies like Ozick’s, you realize that it is unimaginable you would ever have an order called “men”. “And so you begin to say ‘Wow, I didn’t mean it, but men is what’s normative. Women is what we have a tractate in Talmud about.”
At this point, Irwin became quote emotional, because, he said, as the father of two daughters he deals with these issues and anomalies are deeply embedded.. The legacy is deep, he noted; and you recognize that 99.9% of what you see, you’re reproducing. He notices the differences when his friends bring their boys to visit and what is important to them. He notes the pressure on his daughters as they go to Bat Mitzvahs where being smart is not as important as how sexually alert you are. And yet, he notes, that he works hard to make sure his daughters know that there is nothing more powerful than when her parents make love. But it’s not about power and domination.
What Will It Take to Heal?
The point is the community must work on these issues together. “I want the community to help me out,” he said. “And we have to do that together.
On Shabbat morning, Irwin turned to a consideration of methodology. Referring to the emotional high of the previous evening, he asked “How do you get from the intuitive feeling that comes from holding each other in shul, that comes from being open to each other’s experience and pain, to the process of healing? No one has the way. We don’t know what the halachah is to get there.
People had come up to him on Friday night, he said, asking if it was necessary to make people feel so uncomfortable. In a psychological sense, it is–dissonance and destabilization creates a move to want to change. “Yet I’m hoping there’s another method, I call it the spiritual method, in which, if we create a ground of love and ground of empathy and a ground in which people learn how what they say is heard and learn how to hear–shma in the truest sense–what someone is really saying, that we can build from that ground. It will still be painful, but we may not have to get hurt quite as much.
The first method, step one, is just to try to recognize the silence. We have to do that every time the Torah tells a story in which there’s silence. You have to step back and look into that gap. In the Torah portion (of that day), which is about Rivkah; when she cries out from the pain of the twins (Jacob and Esau) wrestling in her womb, God speaks directly to her. That doesn’t happen to Sarah and it doesn’t happen to Rachel or Leah. It does happen to Haggar, who hears from an angel.
What is the relationship between hearing from God and action? We are accustomed, said Irwin, to feeling pride in Abraham who completely changed his life when he heard a voice. Yet the usual interpretations of the Rivkah incident considers Rivkah as manipulative, trying to make sure Jacob will carry on the line.
We don’t however, always understand that there may be some connection between Rivkah’s drive to make something happen and the voice she heard, which the text validates as God’s voice. We don’t think of this as similar to Abraham’s hearing of a voice. If we are consistent, however, we must. And if we read a little bit more carefully, we ask “What would make Rivkah do this?” All of a sudden you say, look at the social structures within a patriarchal society that don’t allow Rebecca to fully play out and own and give voice to the voice she heard. And now, all of a sudden, there is a tragic dimension to this whole story.
Such realizations pose a dilemma, noted Irwin. “I don’t want to use Torah to separate us. And yet, at some level, there is the realization that this box we call Torah needs to be rewritten. That makes me feel unnerved.”
Part of Irwin’s discomfort comes, he noted, because this whole discussion falls within a larger system. “Sometimes you have to address the parts; and yet, in addressing the parts, you may not be addressing the true situation.
For example, on the question of prayer, he said, “Let’s say we change the Halachah and start saying “Elohai Sarah, Elohai Rivkah, Elohai Rachel v’Leah”… And then you step back and say, ‘But the box in which I changed it has to do with male prayer and prayer that articulates the male experience and gestures that are essentially male, since males created them.”
So we realize we have to work in multiple places. We have to work on the parts, and the whole and we have to see how they interact. For one thing, we have to get out of the duality box. Nothing in Judaism is going to remain the same when it goes through this post-modern lens. And yet, where do we start?
“So I’m starting with Rivkah…one little story.” To see if we can make this story safer.
A beginning might be to reframe Rivkah away from her classic image as the manipulator. To do this, the first thing we have to do is to enter Rivkah and try to understand what it feels like to be her. And we must do this, knowing full well that she has no power to convey blessing in the structure. If she had the choice to give a blessing and chose not to, that is one thing. But she didn’t.
Irwin offered another story, a Yiddish folktale, from around 1900, from a part of Europe that had not yet seen Reform Judaism or the enlightenment. Once upon a time women began to resent that men seemed to own the world. The women decided to present their grievance directly to God. So they decided to make a human tower and a woman called Skotsl (which might translate to a gossip or a kvetch) would climb the tower into heaven. So right off the bat we see that it seems easier to build a tower to enter heaven then to deal with the traditional authorities, particularly in a time and place where men, once they got a decision from a rabbi, were not even allowed to go above the rabbi.
So Skotsl began to climb, but as she was getting higher, someone shrugged and all the women came tumbling down. When the commotion died down, Skotsl had disappeared and men went on ruling the world. The point is, that there is hope in the fact that Skotsl might return.
The point of all this, said Irwin, and the thought I’d like to leave behind is that, someday, we have the hope of climbing higher than the writer of this story thought. If the writer of this folktale would see us today, that writer might say we’ve come a long way, even if we, in our own way, don’t feel like we have.
Clearly, it is up to us to take the next steps.