The debate about women in traditional Jewish life has come to a head with the advent of what has been dubbed Tefillingate and the resulting conversations about how women can (or should, or should not) be treated in communal Jewish life. One group, however, is noticeably absent from the conversation about how their community will take shape: young men.
This seems to be part of a larger problem within the feminist movement, which is that, until recently, men have not been stepping up and partaking in the conversation about how gender will play a role in their Jewish lives, and this must change.
A disclaimer: I am not trying to reinforce the already patriarchal nature of traditional Jewish society — in fact, as a man, I gain direct benefit from helping break down the patriarchy that the traditional Jewish community has, since there are now new roles available to me that were previously relegated solely to women, such as roles in home Jewish life. I understand that this might be interpreted as an attempt to reinforce the patriarchy, but I want to make it clear at the outset: that is not my intention.
By excluding ourselves from the conversation, we are alienating ourselves from the feminist discussion of how to build a more open and inclusive community. There is value in creating single-sex spaces for a multiplicity of genders, to be sure, but community building should be egalitarian by definition. To exclude men from the conversations that will ultimately create an egalitarian community, where both men and women participate equally in all forms of Jewish life, however, would be to alienate a large percentage of those who will make up the group. As men, we can work to create greater social change and newer, equal-participation communities, but we must do so as a partnership, not despite or separate from connecting it to the Jewish feminist conversation.
A feminist conversation designed to create an egalitarian and inclusive community, but which does not include men as active participants in the conversation, fails, since half of the community is absent from the conversation. Unintentional though it may be, men have left well enough alone. And that cannot continue.
As men, it is our job to empower women by employing our privilege so that we may enter into a conversation, and create a community together, as equals. If our end goal is a truly egalitarian community, then we, as men, must step off of the high horse that is our male privilege, and engage meaningfully with feminism. In a world where women are taking on an increasing number of roles in Jewish communal and public life, it falls upon men to take on the new roles available to them in home Jewish life. We must be comfortable with this, but we must also make that comfort known as something valuable, which propels us toward creating a more open and welcoming community. It is our job to help the women in our communities empower themselves, and make sure that their voices are heard, in turn, we are also able to take on new roles in our Judaism as well. In a feminist movement that is designed to make women equal, men cannot feel scared — or superfluous — in showing their support.
I hope that opening up the conversation to the young, progressive men whom I know are out there – who actively support the decisions like those of both Ramaz and SAR to allow female students to don tefillin during their daily prayers – will allow men to participate in the creation of a new, feminist-minded community. We, as men, cannot stand idly by, since the communities in which we live belong just as much to us as they do to our female companions. The creation of egalitarian communities is not just upon women: it is upon us, too.
I say this as a man who feels odd even writing this. I, too, feel that I am intruding into the conversations that will shape the communities I live in, since they are dominated by the feminist community, and since I am one of very few men who seem to be actively engaging in feminist dialogue. While one of the purposes of feminism is to amplify women’s voices so that they are equal to men’s voices, the purpose of egalitarianism should be to ensure that once women’s voices are amplified, men can – and should – be invited back to the conversation so as to build a community of equal partnership. That, at least to me, is checking my own privilege. And I hope other young, progressive Jewish men can follow suit.
So to my fellow young, progressive Jewish men, I say: now is our time to speak up. Creating the Jewish community that we envision — one that both adheres to our rich tradition and observances, but also looks forward to a progressive and inclusive future — is not a fight for women alone. In an egalitarian community, people identified with any gender must be equally valued, and these people must partake in the conversation as equals, regardless of gender. The feminist fight is just as much our battle as it is women’s. Now is the time to take our rightful place in the feminist conversation, and to ensure that we can create a community together, as equals.
Your voice matters, too. Make it heard.