Gender issues feature prominently in our lives. Just this past week we witnessed the unravelling of a Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein for his serial harassment and assault of women and abuse of his privileged position. Hilary Clinton spoke on ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) about her harsh treatment as a woman candidate, the shameful name-calling and the way she was stalked by Trump in their debates.
Just these past weeks the Torah prominently featured gender distinctions, their origin and their expression. The first chapter of Genesis refers to the first creation of the different sexes: “And God made mankind in his image, in the image of God he created him; Male and female he created them…” (Gen 1:27)
Unlike the second chapter of Genesis and its well-known story about women (isha) being created from the side (or rib) of man (ish) in this first chapter there is a oneness, a unisex being, a conjoint male and female: “Male and female he created them”. This leads the Midrash to suggesting that originally there was only one being both male and female and only later were they split into two.
There is something eerily prescient in these observations. The Torah itself seems to be presenting the mystery of gender, and rejecting the simple binary categories of male and female. It suggests a gender blurring and the enigma of transgender identity may not be so new and contemporary after all. We’ve only progressed to the extent that we’re now more able to have an open discussion about the mystique of gender.
The first chapter of Genesis implies the equality of the genders despite their differentness. It’s the second chapter that suggests a secondary role for the woman as she is created for and after the man. This is however only a superficial reading – she is his עזר כנגדו”“ a challenging, even oppositional partner and she is created after him, a more perfect model! More than this, as the Malbim points out, Adam only identifies himself as “איש“ a man when he recognises Eve’s mystical singularity (Ibid 2:22). He only truly knows himself through recognising her individuality. Even the one verse that seems to imply male control (and thus the potential for abuse) is not read literally by many (if not most) of our commentators: “Your craving shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you” (Ibid 3:16). For example Rabbi Shimshon Hirsch comments that if a woman is true to her purpose, she will not be ruled over but an equal partner. Ruling over could also simply refer to man’s stronger physical capacity.
All of the sources lead us to a Jewish perspective on the treatment and abuse of women. Despite our progress – mandatory training and HR departments -a tyranny of intimidation still prevails across our developed Western cultures including Australia and Israel. From Bill Cosby to Rolf Harris, Roger Ailes (Fox head honcho) to President Katsav, men in positions of power have acted as predators. 70-90% of women victims still do not file a complaint with their employers or fair-employment agencies.
The demeaning of women may exist in some Jewish sources and does exist in some Jewish circles, but it’s morally unacceptable and Jewishly intolerable. Harvey Weinstein may be one of ours but his behaviour is not ours. We should also note that his behaviour was known and seemingly tolerated by many in the industry. It’s easy to point the finger of blame at the one fallen man, but we are all guilty: “All Jews are responsible for one another” and in a free society, as Heschel put it “all are involved in what some are doing, some are guilty, all are responsible” Jill Filipovic, writer and lawyer notes that: “Every woman knows these men we’ve worked for them, loved them, married them, raised them… compromising our ideals to defend a friend or protect our own hard-won but tenuous positions. Every woman also knows the pretty good men who aren’t predators; but who… create the conditions for predation… or marginalisation of women: the men who make up all male boards and executive leadership… who go silent on ‘women’s issues’… The men who are supposed to be on our side, these men are the ones who break our hearts”.
In our Australian Jewish Community we can be proud of the women who lead and participate in our organisations. But we’ve still got a way to go, further to go in increasing the involvement and leadership of women in our Orthodox congregations, more women on our panels and boards, better education of our boys about the rights and responsibilities of girls, more respect for women in their lives. To adapt the words of the prophet we look forward to a time, not only of bringing the hearts of parents and children towards one another but also the hearts of women and men closer to one another.