Friday, October 20, 2006

A Start

At its base, Judaism is a patriarchal religion. Irrespective of our post-modern insights into the role of women in the Tanakh, in rabbinic literature, in Jewish history, Judaism was constructed on the idea of separate spheres. It's encoded in our ontological literature (heaven from earth, firmament from firmament, light from darkness) and in our rabbinic literature (holy from unholy, sacred from secular, kahal from ki avi). In all of our source material, a clear distinction is made between the spheres in which a man operates and the spheres in which a woman operates, the laws a man is bound to uphold and the laws a woman is bound to uphold. Furthermore, regardless of our history of strong female figures, our religion is patriarchal from its roots. Our God takes exclusively male nouns (I do not buy the neuter argument), the majority of our prophets were male, the priesthood was a male trust, and the rabbis are all men, all dictating the religion. Instead of going into the social, historical, and theological minutiae to explain why our religion and social structure were thus constructed, I'll point you to the brilliant Tikva Frymer-Kensky (z"l), whose prolific work on this subject far outshines any attempt I would make to do the topic justice.

Any conversation we have on women’s roles in Judaism must take the fact of Jewish patriarchy into account. Inserting the emahot (matriarchs) into the Amidah does not actually address the issue of separate spheres, it provides a gloss that makes us feel as if we are addressing the issue.

4 comments:

the BFG said...

In many cases, separation in Judaism is the heart of holiness (kodesh meaning separate), but I cannot see how the separation of women's roles and those traditionally belonging to men serves to bless Judaism. In my opinion, which comes primarily from experience and a drastic dirth of scholarship, the separation of Jewish religious obligation serves only to segregate and not to sanctify. This separation is more like some interpretations of Kashrut than it is like the creation of the world in Genesis. Kashrut stands a reminder to all who experience it that some people are Jewish and some are not. The separation of obligations has similar effects; some people are Jewish because of their actions (men) and others are Jewish because their children are or will be Jews (women). The separation of light and darkness was an act of holy creation. What is created by giving men and women separate roles in Judaism?

Anonymous said...

Well, usually God is referred to in the masculine, but on rare occassions, God is referred to in the feminine, such as after the golden calf incident. This still does bolster the idea that God is really neither perceived specifically as male or female, and that such a concept is not merely apologetics. And of course, there is the whole schina issue, which I don't pretend to understand, so I can't really say exactly what that means.

You wrote,

Furthermore, regardless of our history of strong female figures, our religion is patriarchal from its roots.

This issue of "strong female figures" is quite important, and kudos to you for acknowledging this. No honest discussion of Judaism's patriarchy can exist without this concession, and unfortunately, this is not usually the case in such discussions, or sometimes even when it is, it is presented as if a new perspective.

"Any conversation we have on women’s roles in Judaism must take the fact of Jewish patriarchy into account. Inserting the emahot (matriarchs) into the Amidah does not actually address the issue of separate spheres, it provides a gloss that makes us feel as if we are addressing the issue."

For me, a more troubling issue is the aspect of a particularist God only, though there is a strong hint with "magen Avraham" that there is a nod as well to a more universalist God, something I will expand on in my own post at some point.

What I would say is that since the Amidah was meant specifically for men to say on a regular basis (which by no means disputes your point of patriarchy) the focus on patriarchs instead of matriarchs was a logical extension, which is not to claim that is all it was. Still, I would say that the insertion of matriarchs indeed glosses things over, because it doesn't deal with the time-bound gender division at all, but simply denies its existence.

I should add that I suspect the role of the Amidah changed over time, from one of more purely meditation to replace the sacrifices, to one including other aspects of life, holiday, and other aspects of prayer as well. From my perspective, there may have been a cost with this precedent of additions, as it led to all sorts of editing, such as the extra insertion of lines by the chassidim.

Additionally, the more a prayer is changed by one segment of Klal Yisroel, the less unified we are by this core prayer, second only to the shema, perhaps, in its importance. Sometimes when we take steps to "gloss over" the tension between ancient and modern values, we end up only creating more communal conflict.

This is not to deny there is a problem, or at the very least, a conflict. It is only to suggest there may not be satisfying solutions in communal Jewish life, but instead, deals should be negotiated in our own private lives.

BZ said...

Additionally, the more a prayer is changed by one segment of Klal Yisroel, the less unified we are by this core prayer, second only to the shema, perhaps, in its importance.

1) Look at the 1st perek of the Rambam's Hilchot Tefilah. According to the mythology there, in the state of nature the Amidah had no fixed text, and people improvised their own prayers. The rabbis created a fixed text to adapt when people lost the ability to do this. (Was this a Hobbesian or a Lockeian state of nature? It's up for debate.)

2) Including or excluding the imahot in the Amidah involves a difference of 8 words. Compare the Amidah in an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi siddur, and you'll find the differences are much larger. So go and get all the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Orthodox Jews to harmonize their siddurim (the Ari tried, so you can ask him for tips), and then you can come back and talk to me about a unified text for all of Kelal Yisrael.

(Bonus for Conservative Jews who couch their opposition to imahot in the Amidah in a desire for liturgical uniformity or conservatism: what's up with musaf in Siddur Sim Shalom?)

Anonymous said...

BZ,

The fact that this prayer is not unified, or that the Chassidim edited mysticism into their liturgy, is not a great reason to widen the schism further, which as you note, even the Ari perceived this schism as problematic.

And your difference of only eight words, oh please! Considering the overt politics of the inserted eight words, it is highly dubious that this will ever be accepted by the Orthodox as the nuanced differences between Askenzaim and Sephardim. Do you really deny that, BZ?

Additionally, what of all those references to Yisroel, or "magen avraham?" Will you include Sarah with that? And who, pray tell, will you include as the couterpart for Yisroel? What will knock out complaints and perceptions of Judaism's patriarchy more that a loving, direct nod to our polygamous past? Yup. That should do it. But make sure to mention Jacob's concubines as well. We don't want to leave anybody out. But you must signal somehow the unequal status to those women he chose as wives.

Nothing is solved by your changes. The whole "children of Israel" is a bulwark to any real solution. There is no one woman to place beside him.

It's ineffective and incomplete.

So we're back to square one anyway, which was Harley's point in the first place.