Some Thoughts on Gender Safe Spaces

  • by: Joel B. Wolowelsky

Dr. Joel B. Wolowelsky, Dean of the Faculty at the Yeshivah of Flatbush, is a member of Jewish Educational Leadership’s editorial board.

No book on the Jewish bookshelf has received more attention than the Passover haggadah, and no Jewish ritual is as universally observed as the Seder. Each generation adds its own twist – illuminations, allusions, additions and commentaries. Sixteenth century kabbalists used the model to create a Tu BiShevat seder, and the twentieth century witnessed an explosion of alternative and supplementary haggadah texts. There are haggadot emerging from secular kibbutzim, haggadot trying to re-create Temple service, and special insertions calling for the liberation of Soviet Jewry or the salvation of Gush Katif.

One may well argue that the haggadot of the American Reform Movement reflect a societal zeitgeist rather than a discrete constituency looking to express a parochial concern. They must speak to a wide community deliberately ensconced within the greater American community, and they have the liturgical freedom to address its concerns. Indeed, a glance at the Reform haggadot of the 1920s and 1970s reflect the tremendous shift in attitudes over that half century.

The earlier haggadah opens as an English book, and removes references to returning to Zion. The wise son is not told the halakhot of the Pesah observance but simply to fear God, and bedikat hametz is described as “a quaint ceremony still observed by Orthodox Jews.”

The newer haggadah reflects a renewed interest in traditional rites and a strong commitment to Zionism. Almost the entire traditional text has been reinstated, the book, bursting with color on its cover and within, and opens like a Hebrew book. It has an egalitarian bent and speaks of four children – not sons. In this edition, bedikat hametz “signifies that the home has been made into a Passover sanctuary.”

It is therefore worth taking note of the latest Reform haggadah,The Men’s Seder” published by Men of Reform Judaism (formerly the North American Federation of Temple Brotherhoods) – actually a guide for a model seder – for men.

The gender gap in Jewish life, particularly in the liberal movements, has grown greater in recent years. Outside the Orthodox movement, boys’ participation in Jewish life is significantly less than girls’. The JTA news report (12/18/2007) on The Men’s Seder explained its purpose and background. “Within the Reform movement, we’ve confused gender stratification with gender differentiation,” said Doug Barden, executive director of the Men of Reform Judaism and a major proponent of the separate-but-equal approach. “We need to reverse the disaffiliation of men without setting the egalitarian clock back 30 years.”

One of the experiments being tried, however tentatively, is separating the sexes, a technique used by several of the more successful boys’ groups. If women have healing circles and Rosh Hodesh groups, why shouldn’t there also be men’s services, father-son retreats and other all-male gatherings? Barden calls these “a safe space” for men to talk with other men.

What’s in the space carved out by this “Haggadah-based exploration of contemporary men’s issues”? Here are the new four questions:

  1. Why is it that because I am a Man I have to be the bread winner?
  2. Why was it so much easier to make friends when I was growing up?
  3. Why is it so important to me that I am still able to compete athletically at the same level I did when I was a teenager, even though my doctors and body tell me I can’t?
  4. Why is it that no matter how old I get, I don’t understand women?” We are told: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, not in control of our time or our labor, not masters of our destiny. And we are slaves even now to our modern day Pharaohs.”

The seder leader is instructed to ask the participants: “What enslaves you most as a man? What would need to change your life to move you closer to freedom?” Indeed, the goal of the seder is to “strive to free ourselves from the thoughts and practices that enslave us and to embody the blessing ‘Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has made me to be a free man.’”

I shall leave it to sociologists and contemporary feminists to address the major issues raised by this new haggadah. But, at the least, it should make educators pause and think about gender issues in our schools. Outside of the Orthodox community – and surely throughout American education – uncompromising egalitarianism is the order of the day. Co-ed classes, even for sex education and gym courses, are de rigueur. Does this now merit reevaluation?

There are very cogent arguments to be made for egalitarianism in education. The assertion that “men and women have different distinctive traits” – an observation of Carl Jung quoted in the introduction to The Men’s Seder – may be true on the general level, but such logic has been used to exclude specific women from entering the professions in the secular and Jewish communities, regardless of their individual talents and gifts. Needless to say, no one should suggest that the great strives for equal opportunities should be risked, let alone sacrificed. We must remain vigilant in not reverting to that time and mind-place. If all professions and careers are to open to all who would qualify, how can we not provide equal educational experiences to all our students, male and female?

But perhaps the current appreciation of differentiated instruction should be applied to gender issues. If, indeed, there are gender differences with regard to spirituality and religion, should we be seeking differentiated religious instruction in co-ed classes? Should those schools which track their students based on ability rather than provide integrated classrooms explore separate religious studies for boys and girls? Does it make sense to consciously ensure that there are both male and female role models for religious studies, or that boys have male teachers and girls have female ones? Or should we simply be concerned with giving our students “safe spaces” for boys to talk with boys and girls with girls?

If we are not ready to fully address these questions, perhaps we should simply pause to rethink the gusto with which we approach this issue. We certainly have to ensure, for example, that boys and girls have equal access to advanced math, science and Talmud classes. And surely we should fight any subtle messages that girls should avoid these classes. But should we view it as failure if the gender split does not wind up as 50/50 in our math and Talmud and art classes? Should we be uncompromisingly resistant to the idea that men and women may not have identical synagogue experiences?

It is easier to raise these questions than to answer them. We should grateful to The Men’s Seder for raising the issue for us to contemplate.

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