Thursday, June 04, 2009

What If God Is Sexist?

Women today grow up knowing we can be anything we want to be—doctor, lawyer, CEO, president. Never mind that the last election perhaps imbued girls with the sense that they could be anything, but not quite president. Orthodox women today grow up knowing we can be anything we want to be except rabbi or tefillin-wearer or ba'al koreh or, in some circles (not mine, I should note), Talmud-learner.


Certainly, approaches have changed, and women have found more of a place within the realms of halacha in the Jewish community than they have had in the past, and that is fantastic and should continue, but there are things that so far as I can tell Jewish law can never let women do or be. Like a witness in beit din. Like a member of a minyan.


Which leads to the question: What if the God and religion I believe in are sexist?


It seems pretty clear to me that some semblance of gender roles and what we would call sexism are inherent in Orthodox Judaism. Judaism's approach toward women is different than its approach toward men: We have different (read: lesser) obligations than men have. And arguments like the one made by an Orthodox rabbi in response to the first female black rabbi that "Orthodox Jews have the highest respect for women and they play the most important role—to raise a true Torah Jewish family" are, well, disingenuous at best. 


Not because I don't think raising a family is important but because I want to be valued for my intellect, for my commitment, for my ambition, for my ability, not for my physical ability to bear children or for raising them. (Not to mention that I don't think raising children is solely the woman's domain.) I want the same things in my religious life that I have in my secular life.


I believe in feminism in the secular world. I believe that women should be considered equal in the work force, that women should be given equal opportunities, that women have equal abilities. But what if religion doesn't play by those rules? 


I may not understand all the laws I believe are divine, but if I believe they are divine, then I need to accept them. Which doesn't mean accepting mothering and homemaking as my role in Judaism (more on feminism within Orthodoxy at a later date), but it does mean that while I will not tolerate sexism in any other realm, I have to accept some sort of gender roles in religion as ideal.


At 6/9/09, 5:22 AM, Anonymous Katherine said...

This may be because religion IS sexist.

I could point out quotes like the Judaic "thank God for not making me a woman" and the Christian "women should never hold authority over men in the Church, a man is beneath God, but a woman is beneath her husband" etc etc, but believers will find some way to rationalize these, so instead I will provide an argument for why religion isn't true.

Religions have been around for as long as human existence.

Muslims need only read the Qu'ran, Bible etc to see that their own people were worshipping sun Gods rather than Allah at the time of Moses.

Christians, Jews and Muslims convince themselves of the truth and logic of their God, compared to the Greek/Pagan/Roman Gods of yore, but those worshippers at these times were equally convinced of their existence.

The notion of monotheism was first derived when an Egyptian king (his name slips my mind) wanted his peoples to stop worshipping the "Gods" and worship only him.

Religion is psychologically a way to decrease confusion about life and death and it plays an important role in giving (sometimes good) moral guidance and a sense of belonging and community as well as a focus on something higher than ourselves.

Whilst I too believe women are as mentally capable and competent as men, men are obviously physically superior. The ancient world gave birth to primal societies - hence the superiority of men, hence why men were given the top jobs.

I believe both genders are secretly scared of the opposite gender having too much power and men have the physical capability to enforce women to (for want of a better word) keep out of it and keep the dinner on the table!

I was brought up in church, and yet in the past few years have also had many muslim friends.

Both sides provide STRONG (and almost identical, give or take a few details) arguments for their faiths but both fail to see the basic truth - Ahmed from Cairo is a muslim because his society is muslim, Anna-Beth from Texas is a baptist because she was raised baptist. Both are equally convinced of the truth of Islam and Christianity respectively, but both fail to see their religion is a combination of their environment and upbringing - rather than some divine inspiration.

I realize there are some exceptions, but those are truely in the minority.

At 6/9/09, 8:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Katherine, Jewish men say every morning "thank God for not making me a woman" because they recognize the extreme hardships a woman has. Please note that they say "thank God for not making me a woman" right after saying "thank God for not making me a slave". These thank-yous are in a list of blessings a man has to say in the morning to remind him not to take things for granted. Its a gift that he is not a slave, is not a woman with her many hardships, can see, can stand, has clothes, etc...

At 6/9/09, 9:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Orthodox women today grow up knowing we can be anything we want to be except rabbi or tefillin-wearer or ba'al koreh or, in some circles (not mine, I should note), Talmud-learner.
Like a witness in beit din. Like a member of a minyan."

As far as I know, its mutar for a woman to put on tefillin (I'm just glancing right now at the end of the Sefer HaChinuch on Mitzvah 421), read from the Torah (my sister did at her Bat Mitzvah... the women took over the main shul and shoved the men in the side shul), and learn Gemara (you are such evidence).

"We have different (read: lesser) obligations than men have. "

Hey you want to be yelled at for not being at minyan every day at 7am, by all means obligate yourself in 7am shachris.

"not for my physical ability to bear children or for raising them. "

Your husband will value you for those things And your physical ability to bear children and raise them.

"that women should be given equal opportunities, that women have equal abilities"

7am. See you there. Bring on the obligations. They're oh so wonderful.

"I have to accept some sort of gender roles in religion as ideal."

We learn hashkafa from halacha, not halacha from hashkafa. We have to accept what G-d wants from us, and learn why He wants it that way. Yeah it doesn't seem fair, its not what Western culture tells us, its this its that. It sounds racist or sexist or another ist but we know its not because - Its Torah.

ps shlomah shamos does not necessarily speak for the entire orthodox jewish community.... and you as a journalist know his quote could be taken out of context and he has more to say about the value of women than they should 'raise a true torah jewish family'.

pps see rabbi mordechai miller on shelach lecha. i don't remember which volume of sabbath shiurim. i think the first or second. you will know which one i'm talking about when you see it. i think you will enjoy it.

At 6/10/09, 7:06 PM, Anonymous Katherine said...

Ok, thanks for sharing that with me, I'm not Jewish - I found this site by accident, so is always useful for me to know more stuff.

Although, on the other hand, I have to say most of the holy books in general seem to propogate the hardships of men being greater than those of women - I think women have less responsibilities than men in the Torah.

Religion can definitely be sexist - but it can be interpreted by some groups in a non-sexist way, and I know a religious communities in which sexism plays no part.

P.S. Off-topic - how would one convert to Judaism? It's not easy/possible, is it? Do all believers of Abrahamic faiths qualify for salvation under Judaism?

At 6/11/09, 10:24 PM, Blogger Eli7 said...

So, Katherine, a few things: The debate on whether religion is true is an interesting one, and if you're interested in it, I can point you to some resources, but I'm not sure this is the right forum for that discussion. And it is possible, though hard, to convert to Judaism. The point is to ensure that a convert is truly committed. We don't really believe in "salvation" in the Christian sense, but we believe non-Jews have specific laws—the Noahide laws—that they are supposed to follow. Anyhow, if you have more questions, please feel free to e-mail me.

Anon1, I've heard that explanation of the bracha many times, but I don't find it particularly compelling. Or rather, it doesn't make me feel any better about the fact that the bracha exists.

Anon2, it's not about the obligations being fun or wonderful or whatnot; it's about being viewed as an equal member of society. As a contributing member of society for more than just being able to give birth. It's about being valued for intellect, ability, etc.

It is totally true that sometimes we have to accept what the Torah says even if it seems sexist to us because Torah supersedes whatever other ideas or preconceptions we have. That doesn't make it easy, though, and doesn't mean women shouldn't try to find a place they feel comfortable in so long as it falls within halacha.

(And yes, I believe it is mutar for women to put on tefillin—in fact, there are stories that Rashi's daughter wore tefillin—but that's not really the point. It's part of a much larger discussion about where women stand in Orthodox Judaism.)

At 6/17/09, 4:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So I would argue with the idea that Orthodoxy assigns a very specific role to women that does not take into account their intellectual abilities or their ability to lead or all sorts of other things.

On the Mishnah in Sotah that troubles so many: Tiflus doesn't mean "if you teach a woman gemara she'll be too dumb to understand it." Tiflus means silliness. Rashi explains the gemara to be explaining that that silliness is a Good thing and useful: in bed. Rashi doesn't say "all a woman is good for is silliness in bed" or "women aren't smart enough to understand gemara" or the like.

If you really think the gemara is telling you here that women aren't allowed to or are to stupid to learn gemara, how do you explain the gemara discussing the wife of Rebbi Meir, Beruryah, and her ability to learn 300 sugyas from 300 rabbanim in one day? How was she allowed to? Why do we even (I believe) poskin like her in regard to being mekulal reshayim?

Judaism doesn't want to hold back girls from using their intellect. I know plenty of orthodox girls that are nurses, doctors, OT, PT, speech therapist, etc - these things take education, intellect. These things are Pushed for in many circles. How about using intellect in the religious realm? i did a simple google search and see on wiki ( that trends are changing. it looks like there's quite a bit of opportunity for women to be involved in halachic process.

At 6/17/09, 4:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would also argue with an idea that a kesubah is called essentially a sales receipt in which a man takes ownership of a woman. A woman is not a piece of property. I do not know a single orthodox man that views his wife as a piece of property, no do I know any orthodox women that view themselves as a piece of property or think that their husbands view them as a piece of property. Do you know such people? Do you view yourself as a piece of property because you will have a kesubah? Do you not want a kesubah because you feel it will uphold such a view that you're a 'piece of property'?

I would also argue with the idea that homemaking is so easy - as if there's no inherent learned skill in these things. Many people don't know how to be good parents just by virtue of being human. Ask some parents how many books they have read and how many difficulties they have had in learning how to raise children and keep a household together. Do an internet search for things like child abuse, child neglect, etc - look at some stats. Being human doesn't equate to: they will be great parents. Cooking is Not an inherent ability. People go to school to learn how to cook well. Cleaning is menial and requires no schooling, but patience is not. By the way, cooking, cleaning, and changing diapers is not the sole responsibility of the woman. Now wait, though, if your husband did some of that for you would you view him as menial? Would you discredit his intellectual ability? Would you look at your husband changing the baby's diaper and say "what good is this guy for?" Would you like your husband to do these jobs? If not then who? Perhaps you would like to hire someone fit for menial work to change your own baby's diaper and feed it if these jobs are so beneath someone who has intellect enough to graduate a university? My point is obviously that homemaking is Not easy, being a parent does not come from inherent skill, and you're really knocking something very beautiful and critical.

Orthodoxy does not value you more for your ability to bear children than your intellectual abilities. It values you for both. take a look at how many meforshim (which bring down oral torah) the bais yaakov girls learn. where is your proof? because of a bracha in we say in the morning? the declaration of independence says that "all men are created equal". this is a proof that thomas jefferson was a sexist? because of one opinion in one mishnah that's taken out of context? we can quote gemaras all over and suggest all sorts of disgusting things if they are taken out of context.

What is behind your need to validate your intellect?

At 6/17/09, 12:45 PM, Blogger Eli7 said...

Anon, Orthodoxy does assign a specific role to women. That role is mother/housewife. Surely, those things are important, but are they intellectually demanding? Do they require one to use her brain on a regular basis? I think not. Changing diapers, cooking, cleaning, laundry—all good things. All important, beautiful, critical, skilled things, even. The pinnacle of intellectual achievement? I think not. I don’t think that doing these things degrades a person’s self-worth. I, in fact, enjoy cooking. But those tasks do not involve lots of intellectual stimulation. Learning and working (well, some kinds of work) do.

And Orthodoxy treats women and men very differently in the realm of Torah education. I went to a relatively mainstream Modern-Orthodox school, where the boys had school on Sunday and the girls got off an extra day or two before Pesach to help their mothers clean.

I don’t think the tiflut gemara means women cannot learn gemara, but it is interpreted to mean that in many circles. And it says straight-out that teaching your daughter Torah (not gemara, I should note) is teaching her foolishness. Hardly a ringing endorsement of women’s intellectual abilities.

And yes you could reference Bruriah or Deovrah ha’neviah. But they are certainly not viewed as the ideal Jewish woman. Bruriah has a particularly tragic end. But in any case, if you can cite only two women in the whole of Biblical and Talmudic tradition who were valued for their intellect, these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Is it true that there’s quite a lot of opportunity for women to be involved in the Orthodox halachic process? I’m not so sure. Certainly the concept is gaining traction, but that doesn’t mean women have been equalized. And I don’t think they ever will be within Orthodoxy. The point, for me, is that this is something I struggle with—that women are not treated as equals within my religion.

Anon, have you ever read the text of a ketubah? You can find it in Aramaic here and in English here. It reads pretty much like a sale of property and certainly assigns gender roles. And, no, of course I don’t know anyone who treats marriage like that and for obvious—halachic—reasons, of course I will have a ketubah when I get married, but that’s hardly the point. The point is that the ketubah is an authentic portal into how Orthodoxy views women.

It seems very clear to me that it takes bending over backwards to even try to indicate that women are viewed as anywhere near equal to men in Orthodoxy or that their intellects are valued therein. What are your proofs that women are considered equal in Judaism?

And, Anon, I am not trying to validate my intellect here at all. I’m very comfortable with it, thank you very much. What’s behind this tension is this: I very much value intellect. I very much value the opportunities equality affords me in the secular world. And there is certainly a tension in that the religion in which I wholeheartedly believe seems not to have those values. It’s a tension I imagine I will feel to some extent for my whole life, and that’s OK so long as I know where my priorities are—halacha.

At 6/18/09, 4:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Anon, Orthodoxy does assign a specific role to women"

Where is that Gemara: "Women are meant to be in the kitchen"? Where again is that in Pirkei Avos?

"Do they require one to use her brain on a regular basis? I think not."

Every Jew is required to use their brain. How would women know how to do the mitzvahs they are obligated in without using their brains and studying them?

"[...] Orthodoxy treats women and men very differently in the realm of Torah education [...] mainstream Modern-Orthodox school [...]"

I can't help you there. This doesn't speak for all Orthodoxy. I didn't go to any mainstream orthodox schools, but I was raised with an orthodox hashkafa - as was my sister - and that was to learn Torah, no ifs ands or buts.

"And it says straight-out that teaching your daughter Torah (not gemara, I should note) is teaching her foolishness. "

Most (basically all) learn that what is meant is Oral Torah here. See Shulchan Aruch YD 246:6, OC 47:14, Beis Yosef d'h v'chosav who cites the Agur, Maharil in Teshuvos Chodoshos 45.

"Hardly a ringing endorsement of women’s intellectual abilities. [...] Bruriah [...] the exceptions that prove the rule"

Exactly right. The Perisha (OC 246:15) notes that the Rambam states that the minds of the majority of women aren't attuned to study in the same way that the minds of men are. However, if a woman does teach herself Torah, she has shown that she is no longer part of this majority, which is why the Rambam states that she gets reward for her pursuit of learning. The Chida (Tuv Ayin 4) mentions Berurya, who learned wholeheartedly with the proper intentions and therefore was taught Torah by others. Thus, it must be that under certain circumstances (the exceptions as you say) woman can study and be taught Torah. If a woman wants to use her intellect she can do it - there is seemingly not an assigned role or regulation holding her back.

Also take a look at the No'am (Vol. 3, pg. 131b) who seems to suggest that the prohibition we're discussing has been lifted nowadays entirely. See also the Tzitz Eliezer (9:3) who comes to the same conclusion. (see B'krovai Ekadesh)

"What are your proofs that women are considered equal in Judaism?"

Proof? Look at the Muslims and Christians and how they treat the women in their societies! There was a whole Sally Fields movie (Not without my daughter) about Muslim women and just read the news about the lack of rights (and abuse) even in the supposedly more democratic of their states. Christian society? Ha, as a feminist you know very well how women have historically been treated in Christian countries. Today you think its better? A woman is an object to western society. Drive in your car two minutes and look for the nearest billboard. Heck, drive one minute and see how society tells them to dress. And now take a look at women in Jewish society. They are pillars of our society. They are respected and revered. I can also honestly say that I know plenty of mothers that know plenty of Torah and can cite it to you on a whim. There is your proof.

"opportunities equality affords me in the secular world"

Do you think you could sooner become a knowledgeable Rabbanit or Supreme Court Justice? Let's see how many women Rabbanits we know and how many women Supreme Court Justices we know. Do you want me to list?

At 6/18/09, 9:41 AM, Blogger Eli7 said...

I’m sorry, Anon, do you really think the fact that there is no movie in which an Orthodox Jewish woman’s child is essentially stolen from her is proof that women are treated equally within Orthodoxy? Really? Even if it’s true that Orthodox Jewish women are treated better than their counterparts in other religions, which I am not convinced is true, that hardly proves that Orthodox women are considered equal. Also, have you read this book?

In fact, if anything, your comment espouses some of the problems I am talking about. True many explain the tiflut gemara to mean oral law. So what? If women cannot, according to that interpretation, participate in arguably the most intellectually demanding form of Torah study, and if, in fact, the Rambam states that the majority of women do not have the mental capacity for learning gemara, then what are you saying except that women as a whole lack the intellectual capacity men have?

Isn’t that proof that Orthodox Judaism does not consider women equal? What about the fact that leadership roles are prohibited for us or that we’re not required to do a good number of mitzvot because we’re supposed to be busy with childcare?

To become a rabbanit, a woman needs to marry a rabbi. To become a Supreme Court justice, a woman needs to be an extraordinary legal scholar. The two are hardly comparable.

Also, being respected and being treated equally are two totally different things.

At 6/19/09, 12:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

first of all i was referencing a line from Keeping the Faith (see: Who can name the Seven Deadly Sins? People, it was a very popular film with Brad Pitt. You have the ultimate Cliff note.) second, do you think the movie doesn't represent that muslim culture? its a fluke? its an exaggeration of how they treat women?

"arguably the most intellectually demanding form of Torah study"

nu, meforshim on chumash? rishonim in particular. some are Very intellectually difficult.

"if, in fact, the Rambam states that the majority of women do not have the mental capacity for learning gemara"

he doesn't state that. look this is a whole discussion of different type of intellect: binah, sachel, da'as. do you think i couldn't show you lots of scientific data that women excel at different types of thinking than men do?

"then what are you saying except that women as a whole lack the intellectual capacity men have?"

women have different intellectual skills, not "worse". they have binah yeseirah.

"Isn’t that proof that Orthodox Judaism does not consider women equal?"

that our brains are hard-wired differently? i am not equal to a woman because i can't carry a baby in me for 9 months?

"What about the fact that leadership roles are prohibited for us"

Every Single Jewish Mother Is In A Position Of Leadership. and if you frown on that its ok, but if a man does it he's a bad husband for not appreciating his wife.

Rebbetzin Jungreis, the Maiden of Ludmir, Rebbetzins Schneerson, Landau, Gross, Heller, etc., i can go on.

"or that we’re not required to do a good number of mitzvot because we’re supposed to be busy with childcare?"

that's not why you're not obligated in most mitzvas. that's like me saying i'm obligated to learn gemara because i'm too dumb to know how to care for a baby. maybe judaism is sexist towards men :P (i'm joking)

"To become a rabbanit, a woman needs to marry a rabbi."

the Maiden of Ludmir.

"To become a Supreme Court justice, a woman needs to be an extraordinary legal scholar."

Let's see I count two. O'Connor and Ginsburg. I listed more Rebbetzins that two up above. Looks like you have more opportunity of being a Rebbetzin than a Supreme Court Justice. Where is all your equality?

have a good Shabbos

At 6/19/09, 9:34 AM, Blogger Eli7 said...

Anon, I think you do not understand the tension women today feel in Orthodoxy. To say that all these things are abated because women can be rebbetzins (which in and of itself requires nothing but marrying a rabbi—again, one single example to the contrary proves the rule) or because women are not treated as poorly as they are in a movie about Iran is to totally disregard the fact that many women (I am certainly not alone here) rightfully feel they are in a hard place in Orthodoxy. None of these feelings legitimate violating halacha in any way, and I would never say they do. And maybe we have to re-examine some of the values we have gleaned from the secular world, but to say women today shouldn’t feel this way or should just get over it or that it can all be explained away by bina yiteirah and because women are “hard-wired” to be better at childcare is, well, insulting and perpetuates the sexism that is already there.

At 6/19/09, 11:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

said slowly: i've never encountered a single orthodox woman (other than you) that feels orthodox judaism is sexist and there is said tension. maybe you're right and i'm just sheltered or i don't talk to women enough or something (i admit any of that could be, i'm just saying i've not encountered this wide-scale or really at all).

Being a Rebbetzin (like Rebbetzin Jugreis for example) requires a lot more than marrying a Rabbi. She's a speaker, a writer, a leader, a gomeles chesed, etc.

Yeah it, doesn't violate halacha to feel your religion is sexist, but do you think its kosher? More importantly - Do you think its Healthy? I'm not saying "hey just get over it". I'm saying work through it. Discuss it with Rabbanim. If they aren't giving you good answers, find the good answers from new Rabbanim! Its fine to recognize our feelings - to be in touch and honest with ourselves - but what you do with those feelings - that's important. Its not healthy to have a "tension" with your religion. The word implies that things are not so hunky-dory. Tension is not something you want to keep around in life - you want to deal with and grow from and develop from tension - not keep it around.


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