In six installments I’m going to discuss:
- 1 – Orthodox Judaism and Sexuality – I did here
- 1a – Orthodox Judaism and Self-Gratification – I did here
- 2 – Orthodox Judaism and the Two Sexes – below
- 3 – Orthodox Judaism and Transgender – later
- 4 – Orthodox Judaism and Homosexuality – later
- 5 – Orthodox Judaism and Bisexuality – later
Here comes part two.
2 – Orthodox Judaism and the Two Sexes
Several sub-chapters. Let us start with definitions.
Oppression and Liberation – the Basics
Oppression is the one-way mistreatment of a segment of the population, enforced by behavioral (psychological) and institutionalized unfairness (laws, history, culture) in society.
That people belong to an oppressed group is only the excuse for their oppression, not in itself a wicked thing – as the oppression wants us to believe. There is nothing wrong or unfortunate about being a child, being from a minority, being female, being handicapped, being a Jew, etc. In any humane society, especially the one we are heading for, all people with any special needs will happily be provided with extra assistance, tailor-mades for their needs, for free.
In our complex general liberation struggle we sometimes need to discriminate positively to counter oppression until it disappears, e.g. promote women for certain jobs. This is temporarily and not “reverse discrimination.”
One-way mistreatment may e clear with this example: woman hits man: abuse, but man hits woman: abuse plus oppression.
Enforced by society means that until the oppression is uprooted, it can’t be escaped. You can decide to not hate and blame yourself for it, to battle it, to heal old wounds, strengthen yourself against becoming hurt too easily, and be smarter at ducking bullets, but you can’t decide not to be part of certain oppressed groups.
Yet, we can ask ourselves: what if I would not identify with the identity or oppression, what would I be? Thus we may learn to recognize and stop acting as powerless or self-sacrificing victims. Example: a woman says repeatedly “I’m not a woman, and therefore …. (fill in spontaneously)”
So, all oppressions have certain constant elements to make them qualify as oppressions.
Yet, every oppression is also unique and needs to be thought about distinctively to be stamped out in specific ways. Still, many oppression have similar qualifications, like people being regarded second class, not important, subhuman, stupid or crazy.
Not every oppression has the same weight, though they each are terrible and there are no unimportant oppressions. As long as one person is oppressed, no one is really free. Yet, you can’t equate colorblindness with racism. However, if a person is only in one group, that oppression is much heavier for that person, even if it’s “only” colorblindness.
The population is divided into groups that each are set up against all the others. Most people are in more than one group. Besides each group suffering from infighting, they all fight each other. Sometimes they band together to jointly oppress a certain oppressed group (against the Jews).
Internalized Oppression is at some level believing the oppressive stereotypes about yourself and your group, blaming and hating yourself and fellow oppressed for how you got hurt, contributing to infighting and attacking your leaders. This is always after initial resistance – though we sometimes forget such struggles, when we gave up because we were simply overpowered without enough effective allies around.
People inside an oppressed group should be able to give priority to spending time and energy on shaking off the internalized nonsense, seeking friendships and unity with their fellow oppressed, creating liberation movements with leaders who are supported rather than attacked, and training allies.
While women try to undo themselves of the internalized oppression, men should listen, listen, listen (and not argue back), organize themselves, support each other, try to win over all men (there is no: we are the good men, and we trash the others), to clean up the mess for their grandmothers, mothers, wives, daughters and granddaughters. To uproot the “oppression out-there” should be the responsibility of the former agents of oppression turned allies.
No man has chosen to oppress women, as much as no woman has chosen to be oppressed. A popular misunderstanding is that men are oppressed too. Boys are oppressed – surely. But once they grow up, they become agents of oppression, even against their will. They have only one valuable option: to become pro-active allies of women, seeking support for themselves from other men.
What is true, yet, is that agents of oppression are hurt more than the victims of oppression. That’s how bad it is to be on the bad side. Paradoxically, throwing out an oppression will benefit most the agents of the oppression. However, that is not to deny that the victims targeted by an oppression more often loose comfort, health and even their lives. So we don’t need to pity rapists, but still, a rape victim may spend her whole life trying to recover but the perpetrator may not even start doing so (keeping his trapped inside what happened) – but that doesn’t make him her victim. (However, most likely he was sexually violated when he was young, so once he was oppressed to.. in this area.)
It seems to me that success in liberations greatly depends on how well we are allies to other oppressed groups. Hillary Clinton didn’t lose the election because of the FBI or the Russians or because Donald Trump was better at lying (though he was). Rather, she comes across as too arrogant. I understand that she wants to project self-confidence, but on top of that she’s just a tiny bit too pleased with herself. Working class women (and men), blacks and others see that in a sec. It’s off-putting. It overshadows all her great courageous leadership. It’s important that women become great feminists, but they also must stand with the Working Class – and every other oppressed group. (And this is true for people dedicated to any Liberation Movement.) Don’t tell me that Feminism is too young. It’s much older than Gay Lib and they got half of the US on their side in merely a few decades.
It seems that Jews are prominent leaders in all liberations – even in Jews’ Liberation (chuckle, chuckle).
Sexism and Feminism
As mentioned above, men are not oppressed as men. Not by women, not by children and not by society. Men were oppressed as boys and young adults. And if they don’t work, smoke and drink themselves to death before their time, they will be oppressed as senior again. And most men are oppressed in many other identities (by Classism, Racism, Homophobia, you name it).
Men are often in bad shape not because they are oppressed but because their role as Agents of Oppression is so inhumane. If A hits B, both get wounded, but B will recover faster and A will be struck and stuck by denial and guilt feelings. Compare: Nazis often are not doing so well, nor are Whites, compared to the ones targeted by these oppressions (Anti-Semitism, Racism). However, no matter how pitiful they may act or feel, they are not the “new victims.”
Sexism is the name of Women’s Oppression. The opposite is not Sexual Liberation but Liberation of Women or Feminism. It’s goal is a world in which women are not considered second rate.
Jews’ Liberation from anti-Semitism is not the establishment that all Jews would be so smart and play so excellent violin. Women’s liberation is also not an adaptation of the story that all women are so sensitive and sweet. The idea is not just to counter negative stereotypes with positive ones. Rather, oppressive laws and behaviors need to be changed, oppressive stereotypes challenged, girls and boys need to be taught the truth.
Judaism and Women
I just mentioned that the way Orthodox Judaism in general rules about sexuality is nothing less than spectacular. The same could be said about the way the Rabbis of Old thought and taught about women. Many Orthodox-Jewish women are very pleased with their lives, which does not mean that they are not oppressed or that things should not improve.
While most cultures in the world treated women as second class, as if just here for the men to have better lives, Judaism, run by men, still sought their protection and dignity. Women had rights and deserved to be treated with care. And not just in later or earlier rabbinic writings. The First Book of the Hebrew Bible tells us already that Sarah was a greater Prophet and wiser person than Abraham. Jacob had to obey his mother Rebecca rather than his father Isaac. And this is only the beginning.
Let me just point out how exceptional that was 3,500 years ago. And not only that, is there anything in the New Testament (1,700 years ago) or Koran (1,200 years ago) that equals G-d telling Abraham: Listen to all that your wife Sarah tells you?! No, traditional Christianity only had place for wicked women (Eve made Adam sin) and pure saints (Maria never had sex). If Islam would have been Jewish, it easily could have ordered submission of men to G-d but then would also have demanded that men subject to their wives too, and not the other way around!
In the virtue of women were we liberated from Egypt. A saintly guy with a wicked wife could become wicked, while a wicked guy with a saintly wife could become saintly. Children of a Jewish woman will stay Jewish. Women need less Commandments because they are holier already without. Jews don’t have the Christian idea as a the woman (Eve) as symbol of the introduction of evil.
Yes, what I write about women and men is pretty stereotypical, but more nuanced stories are too longwinded anyway. Maimonides says that people who grow bent to one side, should first act for some time bent the other direction, in order to end up in a straight line in the middle. So if the culture says that women are inferior, it won’t hurt to say for some time that they are actually superior – which they are.
However, stories about exceptional Jewish women are often presented in an apologetic way and to whitewash what is sexist. It is confusing when the Holiest Book, dictated by the Creator of Heaven and Earth, would hold sexist plots. But it does. I will show it to you, and then, as an Orthodox Jew, I’ll tell you how that could be still G-d’s voice.
Women in the Hebrew Bible are mostly absent. Not only their leadership is obscured, also their voices and viewpoints are often lacking. Exceptions to this just confirm that rule and generally seem only mentioned to introduce male sexuality, male sexual violence, inheritance or procreation – and even in the latter case, women are normally missing. To let men speak for women, to ignore the female voice and wisdom, to see women only as tools in sex and procreation, to tell the history of a family without mentioning the women – that is as sexist as it gets. And these Words are the most Holy in the world?
Yes, they still can be, and I believe they are. How so? The Torah was not thrown onto Earth from Heaven, but rather given to Jews to pass on to the whole of Humanity. It was to be understood in the generation who received it, and so it has to be understandable to them. Therefore it did not speak of nuclear energy or electricity. It spoke the language of those days.
A too feminist text would have been too alien to work with. Rather, it had the kernels of women’s rights in it, showing that women need to be seen as G-dly too – even more so than men. Further clues for more women’s requirements were hidden in the Text for future generation. The Rabbis of Old had enough to work with and preach to their fellow men to further proper treatment of women. Women had to run the household and raise the children but were not obligated in marriage – only the men were. They were exempted from many duties that men were not. They had claims on their husbands for pleasant sex and clothing and shelter and stability – he could not just dump her (wedding contract). These were unknown provisions and attitudes towards women, two thousand years ago, fifty years ago.
However, Modernity, while rooted in Judaism, has overtaken Jewish Law. It sees women as identical, ideally. But Judaism still makes clear distinctions between the sexes. That makes Judaism seem sexist.
Jewish Law must revamp itself to overtake Modernity again. I don’t mean that as a competition, but Jews are tasked with leading humanity to a better future for all. Wherever we lost the lead we lost the rational of our existence and we’d better shape up. In any case, we still should be able to give more speed to our human progress and be relevant as Jews.
However, the present focus of the Rabbis is often defensive, as if Modernity is a danger to Judaism. https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/a-haggadah-without-women-2/ We’ve been clobbered by outside forces for millennia, so I’m not blaming anyone for mistrusting the outside world. But still, let’s see if we may make Judaism less sexist, still stay true to the Jewish Tradition but also to our calling to lead Humanity – rather than prod along behind Modernity.
Feminism has led to mistakes, and maybe Orthodox Jews may help by infusing antiquated insights that might not be so antiquated after all.
- Liberal Jewish congregations that did away with the mechitzah (separation between the men and the women in synagogue) or kept it but let women lead parts of the services met with disaster. Sometimes all men stayed home, slept in. Let the women enjoy themselves! Those who came were often outplayed by enthusiastic talented women and in any case saw no use any longer to notice their fellow male congregants or cooperate with them – women are just so much more pleasant to listen to and be with.
Solution: Men need the mechitzah, leadership and cooperation among themselves – leave it. This is the place where they must battle Homophobia and isolation from men. At home (the center of Jewish life) they need to face and erase Sexism and isolation from women. Have periodically separate services for women only.
- Modernity seems to demand that women have serious work outside the house and inside the house.
Solution: Men need to check in regularly with their wives about shouldering more of the invisible unpaid work at home. And they must give their wives the possibility to veto their prolonged absence for work and other manly obligations. Workaholic men desperately silently hope for their wives to stop them and make them slowdown and be with their families more.
I did notice that women are OKed as equals to men if they hide and shut up about anything men can’t: menstruate, be morning sick, highly pregnant, etc. The norm for women too is to be like a man – rather than be like a woman. That could change.
- Women are now supposed to be men’s equals in everything. They should be allowed to fight in combat, dig canals and smoke cigars.
Solutions: First of all: at work. women are sometimes better than men. Police women have greatly reduced violence between the police force and the public. In politics and in business, women are often better at finding common ground with others and cooperation, rather than fighting for ego, honor and prestige. Women are often better at multiprocessing and at being friendly.
On the one hand, some jobs might be bad for women. It is most noble to want to serve one’s country’s security in a combat unit (though there is a sensitive way to say this and an insensitive way), but learning to kill is already so hard on men’s psychology – should women expose themselves to this, just to prove that they’re nothing less strong? Don’t get me wrong, just like G-d demands voluntary adherence to the Commandments, society should enable women who want to fight in combat to follow their dreams. However, we should make it easy for women to say: rather not that. And make clear that that does not mean that women are less. It has been said: women can do anything men can do and more. Ginger Rogers made all the steps Fred Aster made, on high heels and backwards. And cigar smoking is destructive.
So this is my suggestion: rather than Judaism acting attacked by Feminism, Judaism should embrace Women’s Power and team up to make it even more effective.
This link has some pointers for husbands how to properly treat their “better halves.” They should ask their wives regularly: What did you do for me that I should not take for granted?
The home is not the only place where Sexism must be stopped:
- At work – see the story of man and woman switch jobs. Besides lack of respect: unequal pay, difficulty with promotions, difficulty by many men to be led by a woman.
- In the public eye: public transportation, in shops.
- Sexual intimidation and violence, pornographic ads, porno (degrades men more), rape (most of the times not by strangers).
Judaism has yichud, negia, tz’niut, nidah, mechitzah, but that all still is not enough. Men also need to respect and believe in women.
Orthodox-Jewish men praise G-d every morning for not making them a woman. Some think that that must be sexist. The underlying assumption for that is that it is something inferior to be a woman! Rather, see it like this: a man must be crazy, absolute nuts, to want to be a man, and not to die of jealousy of women. How so?
Women, generally, work harder, and live much longer. They need fewer Commandments to be holy, have better relationships with children, women and men. They are trusted and liked better. Women may bear children, breastfeed and run a Jewish home with rights to shelter, clothing and sex guaranteed by Jewish Law, no questions asked. They more easily multi-task, know how to take care of themselves, are liked and supported when they cry, know how to talk with their best friends (would not go fishing to have silent company), are supported by Women’s Lib, and most people are incensed when a woman is mistreated. Any man must be completely disconnected from reality not to be consumed with jealousy towards women all day long.
Says the Prayerbook to Jewish men, count your blessings. Be satisfied with your share (Mishnah Nezikin, Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1, Ecclesiastes 9:7). (NB: We are not denying murderous Sexism: women earning less or nothing, being exploited more, owning hardly any property, often not being taken seriously, and are sometimes murdered by their spouses, etc.)
In any case, don’t stifle women who complain by saying that Judaism is so good to them. Rather, listen to them and try to learn from what they say – without becoming defensive.
Last but not least, the hot potato: women as Rabbis? Maybe first a parallel. Many have suggested that we do not need separate Sephardic and Ashkenazic Rabbis. I think we do. These are totally different ways to approach life. Of course, every himself-respecting Sephardic Rabbi today will learn and teach Rabbi Salanter and every himself-respecting Ashkenazic Rabbi today will need to learn Maimonides. Ashkenazic and Sephardic Rabbis need to be friends. Still, the two schools don’t fuse and should not.
I don’t see how we can (or: should) stop suitable women becoming Community leaders, public speakers, deciders on Halachah, etc. Not to call them Rabbis would be kind of silly. However, we do make distinctions between the sexes, because men and women are not identical. (If they were, there would be no difference between heterosexuals and homosexuals, or between cis-gender and transgender.) Women Rabbis and Traditional male Rabbis should respect each other, but they don’t need to be equaled. They can each have their own place – and title. How does that sound to you?