I recently had the privilege of meeting with Sara Liben to discuss my admittedly intemperate reply to her post. In the wake of that conversation, I thought it important to clarify or correct certain misconceptions which arose from that reply.
As it says in my profile, I am a libertarian. The idea of denying anyone their full civil rights and capabilities – either in political or personal life – is abhorrent to me. I am no fan of contemporary feminism, but I am also in no way in favor of returning to the kind of nightmare repressive scenarios that people accuse me of supporting (denying women the vote, for instance).
It is also true that my post didn’t really address Ms. Liben’s post so much as it did the title. There are many “Where have the Men gone” articles floating around nowadays. My instinct was thus to address that general issue of male flight when Sara was actually referring to something very specific and complex. This is a mistake I will try not repeat in the future.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s address the main issue:
I am well aware of the problem of the handicaps and sometimes negative attitudes to women in traditional Judaism. Regardless of what Jewish communities and denominations decide to about it doesn’t change the fact that the problem will not go away. My problem with religious egalitarianism in general and Jewish egalitarianism in particular is that it goes too far in the other direction.
One issue is gender interchangeability and ‘male disposability.’ By making it so that women can ritually do anything a man can, men become theoretically unneeded for any religious action or ceremony. If all women were thrown out of the shul tomorrow, they would still be needed for all the commandments of the home; the reverse is not true. Thus, much like under a no-fault divorce regime or an immigrant filled city, men who are in a community are effectively no less replaceable than a husband who isn’t ‘good enough’ or a union worker who becomes too uppity.
The second issue is the excessive focus on women’s needs to the exclusion of that of men and boys. There is a great deal of study of ‘gender’ when it comes to women’s needs, but none at all when it comes to men. There are federal and state initiatives to help women; men are left on their own. Worse, the image of men is constantly lambasted in popular culture and elsewhere as, at best, a primitive buffoon and, at worst, a potential sexual predator and monster.
This has seeped into the religious world as well. One need only stick a pin into any feminist daf parashat shavua and find glorification of any and all women in the sources as practically flawless and amazing; a mirror image of exagerrated Tzadik stories. Men, on the other hand, are just as subject to withering critique as in traditional sources.
So what can be done?
The answer of many of the commenters to my post seems to be: Tough, that’s the way it is. Don’t like it? Then you’re a [insert childish insult here] or you should get over your yetzer hara and accept your place. While this kind of shaming and belittling may make people feel better, it will hardly create the kind of enthusiastic male participation (or even any participation) that the non-Orthodox denominations want.
So does this mean that the only way to keep men in is to “put women down” and make them irrelevant?
Not necessarily. It does mean that men’s needs should be given more attention. It also means that there should be rituals and actions – at home and at prayer – which only men can do and for which they are needed. Other activities can be given exclusively to women, and the rest will be shared. At least in egalitarian minyans and leftward, these things can be easily negotiated and compromised on.
Men and women also need their own space for religious activity which is their’s alone. While I was once a believer in the idea of batei midrash, I now think that it’s better that both genders have “learning rooms of their own.” There should be no need to “masculinize” women or “feminize” men – let boys be boys and girls be girls. The exceptions to the rule only prove the need for the rule itself.
In addition, I think that it’s high time that we now study both men and women in the sources as neither sinners nor saints – just as great people who can err. Women rightly complain of having been taught of their inferiority for just being a woman – men should not have to suffer the same indignity.
Religious feminization and subsequent male flight in the liberal Jewish denominations is a real and serious issue. Those who think that men are needed would do well to address it.