Friday, January 6, 2012

The Necessary Exclusivity of Male Jewish Ritual

This post is third in a series on Jewish Men, Women, Ritual and Spirituality. You can read a summary of earlier articles in this series, and visit them directly, by following the previous link. This is strongly encouraged.

There is an entire flip-side to the issue of Jewish women increasingly taking up traditionally male Jewish ritual which never gets addressed. It relates to the frail egos of men. Women don’t really get this, but we men feel inferior to women. It’s true. Actually, we don't just feel it, we are inferior to women! Some, included among them my loyal readers, may take issue with this statement. However, the Torah, Talmud and commentaries are quite clear about the respective spiritual position of men and women. I'll briefly paraphrase a few points to give you an idea - it is not an exhaustive list by any means, and each point could be expounded upon at length:

  1. In the order of creation, women were created after men. G-d created the world from lowest to highest importance: space, time, inanimate matter, plants, fish, birds, beasts, man, woman, shabbat. As woman comes later in creation, she is considered closer to G-d's mind, to perfection, because everything created earlier is primarily a foundation for what came later. 
  2. When men were created, G-d said "it is not good that you are alone..." When women are created, G-d looks at creation and says, "it is very good".
  3. Women were actually created by a different process from men. Men were formed. Women were built - the Hebrew word for build has the same consonants as the word binah, which means understanding. From this we learn that women have greater spiritual intuition/understanding/intelligence than men.
  4. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah are considered greater prophets than their husbands - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
  5. The Jewish people survived Egypt only on account of the women, for several reasons. Go read your Chumash with Rashi for more.
  6. Women did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai.
  7. The men were afraid to conquer the Land of Israel but the women encouraged them, and so on.
  8. And I almost forgot, women are able to give birth to life. In this they resemble G-d more than men do.

I'm only summarizing here, as there is a lot of material on this subject. Of course, men and women are complimentary - they're designed to work together, and men have important duties to perform also. But from the standpoint of spirituality, in Jewish tradition, women are considered elevated to men.This is primarily why they are not obligated in time-bound commandments. Men need to be kept busy. They have set times for prayer and follow very specific rules. They are goal oriented. They need to complete a series of tasks to feel good. If you leave them alone they might start looking at the cows and the clouds and rape camels or something. Women can be trusted to pray whenever they want, for however long they want. They don't need to be constantly monitored with a series of tasks like men. This is why they are not obligated in the time-bound commandments.

Now, Victor, you may say, what you've said is all good and well, but let's get real here. All this is a sweet veneer for a patriarchal faith that oppresses women under cover of exalting them. In truth, one could say, there is no practical expression, no proof to the claim that Jewish women are spiritually superior to men. Aha! You've got me... almost. The proof exists, but to find it and understand it requires a certain level of self-introspection and maturity.

The real proof that men really do feel inferior to women is that we like to do things that are "for men only".  Men love the ego-healing camaraderie of brotherhood, because it's the one place we feel we aren't judged relative to women! By creating our “in” club, from which women are excluded, we create a preferential hierarchy – we elevate ourselves over others, artificially. In truth, we’re merely compensating for our inherent (i.e. built in, and out of our control) sense of inferiority as compared to women. Boys-only clubs are our way of psychologically leveling the playing field. If we men can’t give birth to human life, to give an analogy, then you women can’t play golf on our course.

In an absolute sense, it doesn't seem healthy, and that's precisely right. It’s a reality of imbalance at the core of our being that we men feel a need to redress; enter the boys-only club. When denied it, we will create it in whatever way we can. G-d, as the One responsible for creating us, understands us perfectly. He gave men the mitzvah of tefillin (among others) to heal our bruised egos, to allow us to compensate for our deficiency in a healthy way. If He hadn’t done that, we might have invented our own compensatory mechanisms for our inferiority complex – say, beating women as a matter of course, G-d forbid. (Certainly, that would explain the evolution of other cultures.) And we, well, we like that kind of special attention from G-d. It helps us forget that, you know, (*gulp) women are better.

I’m joking around a little, but this is a serious issue. The consequences of taking away the “boys-club” from Jewish men in divine service are consistently bad, and increasingly studied, if not entirely understood.

So, while the cover of CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, Winter 2011-2012, features a beautiful photograph of two women, their arms wrapped in tefillin, holding hands, the very first editorial, on page 8, by Rabbi Charles Simon, starts off like this, "There have been numerous articles and discussions about the growing disappearance of Jewish men from today's synogogue life." He then offers nothing, nothing even remotely approaching a dress-down of the problem, much less its rectification. The connection, obvious to me, between the front cover and the first editorial, goes entirely unremarked.

Nor is the problem limited to Conservative Jewry, according to the Hadassah-Braindeis Institute:
A new study published by The Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute finds that as the liberal Jewish community empowers its women, its men appear to be losing interest in their Jewishness. 
According to a report in JTA, which published parts of the study, "outside the Orthodox world, men are becoming less and less engaged in every aspect of Jewish life, from the home to the synagogue to communal organizations. Numerous studies show that fewer boys than girls go to non-Orthodox youth groups, religious schools or summer camps, fewer go into the rabbinate and cantorate, and fewer serve on synagogue or federation committees.
In the words of Sylvia Barack Fishman, later on in the study:
Today American Jewish boys and men have fewer connections to Jews and Judaism than girls and women in almost every venue and in every age, from school age children through the adult years. The descent of male interest is evident not only in domestic Judaism, as expected, but also in public Judaism, religious leadership, and secular ethnic attachments.
That terrible sound you hear is fifty years of feminist theory, which did so much to break the filthy iron cage used to enslave women for millenia, now rudderless, running roughshod over the spiritual health of Jewish men. Because once the boys-club of divine service is broken, once the spiritual tools G-d created for men to preserve their self-worth and dignity were misappropriated, there is no longer a reason for men to stay.

This requires some sensitivity and maturity on your part to understand what I’m trying to express: I’m not arguing for keeping women from Jewish ritual to which they are entitled, just so that men can feel better about themselves. But if a ritual, such as tefillin, was designed specifically for the spiritual health of men, and part of its usefulness is that men are obligated in it (made feel special), and women are not obligated in it, we should consider what could happen to the spiritual health of Jewish men, what is happening, when Jewish women insist they are also obligated in it.

Or, to really break this down, do Jewish women care enough about Jewish men to give them a spiritual space they can call their own?

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