Gender: A Challenge and an Opportunity

  • by: Blu Greenberg

Blu Greenberg served as founding president of the JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Her books include On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition and How to Run A Traditional Jewish Household. She is married to Rabbi Irving Greenberg and they are the parents of five children and 20 grandchildren.

We were standing in the open field at a summer camp. I had wanted to speak to Morah Rivka about the new Orthodox gender curriculum; I heard she was the obstacle to its use in the 5th grade, and the principal, understandably, would not override her sensibilities. “What do you object to?” I asked. “We don’t teach with an agenda,” she replied. She was my grandson’s teacher, my daughter’s friend, so I contained my astonishment as well as my suspicion that she was simply masking her anti-feminism. Instead, I invoked the pedagogic high ground she had taken. “Of course we do. Do you teach Midrashic stories to explain Torah? Do you select history books the students read, Zionist songs they sing? An agenda is at the heart of day school education. Nothing we teach is value-neutral.”

We were late so our conversation ended. Had it continued, it might have sounded like this: “Yes, but our agenda is to bring our children closer to Hashem, to make them ma-aminim uvenai ma-aminim, to give them skills to be Jewish, to build their sense of membership in the covenantal community, and to make them mentschen, good and ethical human beings.”

To which I would have countered: “I totally affirm that noble agenda. It’s why we sent our children to day school. Strong as we were in our values, we knew that without a yeshiva education, it would be harder to ensure that they choose the same path.”

But I would have also added:

“The gender curriculum you mistrust – admittedly inspired by a secular movement – advances your educational goals. Wouldn’t you agree that widening access to prayer, learning and ritual has actually brought your girls closer to Hashem, made them greater ma-aminot ?” Moreover, the equality agenda is an ethical one: it corrects an imbalance in the tradition. It overcomes centuries of an earlier agenda that conditioned women to accept limited roles and lesser status, an agenda based on negative ancient and medieval assumptions about women and uncritically reinforced for centuries by all the institutions of community. Inculcating gender equality through Jewish education helps transform the self perception of girls and raise their self-esteem. Such transformation is not only ethical, not only offers political and cultural justice but also carries theological weight: it brings us closer to the Biblical paradigm of male and female created equally in the image of God.”

But were I to have stopped there, I’d have failed the test of full disclosure, for I know there are times when new gender teachings conflict with our larger goals of deepening faith and identity. I recall an unsettling incident that took place years ago in a women’s tefillah. Sitting near M., a devout, observant Jew, I overheard her groan during the Torah reading on sotah. Several verses later, she complained in a loud whisper, “I just can’t bear this stuff; this is not my Torah.” She didn’t close the Book, but it was painful to all within earshot to hear her conflict. While her reaction was extreme, it is a conflict Orthodox feminists know firsthand, as do feminists of every faith community.

Upholding the sanctity of Torah and divine origin of halakhah even as we incorporate gender values is a central challenge educators face today. But we cannot bury our heads in the sand or deny new ethical values in order to smooth over conflict. Tensions in the reconciliation must be openly articulated.

Besides, mounting a critique in a setting of love and commitment to Yiddishkeit may reduce fallout later. Had M. engaged the sotah law in school, her teachers might have taught her that the Torah protected wives against honor killings by enraged, suspicious husbands; or that in contrast to other cultures, Judaism protected accused women from tests requiring supernatural outcomes to exonerate them; or that God’s word is eternal but addressed the Jewish people in their times; or that, yes, the law is sexist but we see in Talmud how it changed over time to reflect new realities.

The challenges go far beyond teaching text and law. Questions crop up in every area, cut across all denominations. Prayer, ritual, modesty, authority, the list is endless:

  • What are the tefillah expectations for our daughters and how should synagogue design help to achieve them?
  • Are 11 year old girls taught the Torah trope?
  • What is a definition of modesty – for both boys and girls?
  • In teaching Talmudic passages that regard woman as “other,” do we apply a hermeneutic of gender equality as corrective?
  • Who gets to sit in a small sukkah during ‘sukkah hopping’?
  • If we encourage children to include their mothers in their Hebrew names, should they not also include their fathers in mishebeirakh rofeh holim?
  • Should parents recite barukh shepetarani at a daughter’s bat mitzvah?
  • Is there space for the few girls who don tefillin each morning?
  • Do we introduce the agunah issue? Do our hessed projects include agunot??
  • What messages are conveyed when girls in Orthodox settings are not permitted to sing publicly?
  • What are the implications for self perception in laws allowing a father or husband to nullify vows of his daughter or wife?
  • How do we explain to children the subtle issue of language and gender?
  • Is the hierarchy of school leadership gender imbalanced?
  • What is our overarching paradigm? Does equality mean interchangeable roles or can roles be distinctive yet equal? If distinctive, how can we ensure that such roles engender a sense of equal dignity rather than hierarchy?
  • Can we introduce concepts of gender justice in ways that feel continuous with the tradition rather than a break with it?

If we wait until such questions arise in our classrooms, we will be unprepared. Those in the gender-and-education camp and those skeptical of it must begin a respectful discourse well in advance, articulating all of the promises and fears.

I began with two anecdotes and close with two. Anecdotes ought not be used to draw conclusions but can illustrate a point or range. Two recent Shabbat experiences exemplify the enormous range of today’s challenges and opportunities. The first took place at a West Coast aufruf. The learned rabbi, much beloved by his community, delivered his sermon in a voice inaudible to the women. Because the mehitza dividing front from back was opaque and high, one could not even read his lips. He may have been aware because when he praised the groom’s mother and her communal work, he raised his voice and we all heard. I wanted to know the whole sermon and felt the urge to shout “Hekher, Hekher” (louder), using traditional shul language to sound less abrasive. But I was a guest; if the regulars didn’t object, I’d mind my ‘outsider’ manners. After davening, I heard pockets of women complaining that they couldn’t hear the Rabbi. I was taken aback. Why did they sit there without not calling out? In any other setting, the few teen age girls present would have protested, but not here. What had conditioned them to sit with low self-esteem, as if not worthy of hearing words of Torah? Was it the teaching of kol isha, no-singing transmuted to no-hearing? Was it a text of hierarchy? Who had failed to educate these young women that they have listening rights, even in shul? And did not the denial here of women’s dignity distance them from Torah, God and community?

The second incident took place at a bat mitzvah in a partnership minyan. Elli had been prepared by a learned woman, her Talmud teacher. She layned her parshah flawlessly. Afterwards, she spoke of values she sought as she entered Jewish adulthood. My mind took me to Morah Rivka, for Elli spoke of coming closer to Hashem, following the path of her parents, assuming responsibility for the Jewish people, and taking the responsibility of mitzvot very seriously. Though she did not use the phrase ‘covenantal community’, she clearly conveyed her sense of privilege at being one with it.

Far more than alienation, deepening identification and observance in young Jewish women and developing their self-esteem are what gender education is all about. A little anxiety or fear of risk is real, even healthy. But these should be kept in perspective. They should not compromise our exhilaration as educators and our profound appreciation as Jews of the gifts that gender equality has wrought for our people, for our tradition, now and for all time.

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