Posts

Building Gender… So the Neighbors Will Understand

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on spiritual building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

We’re all in the “building” business, but often we don’t think about it. Even when we don’t try, we’re building our world and how we express key aspects of who we are in it.

Take gender. Gender is (and always has been) a cultural “construct.” Gender ideas, roles, identities and norms that we unthinkingly might experience as inherent to our lives and society around us are instead built. We receive gender constructions from the world around us, and we are not passive in this process. By our choices, we ourselves help build and perpetuate these gender constructions – or we tear them down and build new ones.

The double Torah portion of Matot-Masei is all about “constructs” – dividing land, building cities, relating between tribes, relating between enemy peoples and more. Torah’s text goes into great detail on these subjects, offering a “blueprint” for a future Israelite society in the Promised Land. 

This same text also lays a “blueprint” for gender roles in the Israelite society of 3,500 years ago. It affirms women’s autonomy to make vows, but lets fathers (for unmarried women) and husbands (for married women) annul them (Num. 30:2-17). In war between Israelites and Midianites, the text de-values Midianite women who no longer were virgins and condemns them to die, while saving virgins for absorption into Israelite society (Num. 31:15-18).

And for the daughters of Tzelofchad – who previously spoke up for their right to inherit with such directness that God changed the law to redress their exclusion – now Torah made another change. On complaint from men in their tribe, Torah limited whom these heroic women could marry, so that women’s inheritances couldn’t pass beyond the tribe (Num. 36:1-13). That’s how the Book of Numbers ends.

Of course, it was no ending. Whether Torah was diminishing women – or, as many scholars believe, slowly improving the status of women in an ancient context that had little or no sense of gender equality – we’ve been wrestling these gender-constructing words ever since.

Some 3,500 years later, one result was Yentl – the 1983 Barbra Streisand movie adapting the 1975 Broadway play by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who first wrote the 1962 short story, “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy.”

In the opening scene, a bookseller enters the village of a young woman named Yentl passionate to learn. Trying to attract customers, the bookseller calls out, “Picture books for women, holy books for men!” When he catches Yentl reading a holy book (Sefer Yetzirah, a book of Jewish mysticism), the bookseller looks at her disapprovingly and tells her that she is in the wrong place. Not missing a beat, Yentl asks the bookseller to explain “why.” Annoyed, the bookseller quips dismissively, “Because it’s the law!”

Later at home, Yentl begs her scholarly father to study Talmud with her. The father agrees, then goes to close the window shutters – to hide the fact that he teaches his daughter. When Yentl questions him about this, her father answers, “God, I trust will understand. I’m not so sure about the neighbors.”

Gender constructions! Torah (“God,” for Yentl’s father) never banned women from learning or leading – but the “neighbors” were another matter. History took the tone of Matot-Masei, and its underlying societal notions of gender, and relegated women to “picture books.”

Gender constructions! A war in which the Israelites were to kill all Midianites, male and female, instead saved the “pure” (virginal) women and killed the others.

Gender constructions! The daughters of Tzelofchad – Machlah, Tirtzah, Chaglah, Milkah and Noah – weren’t inherently disqualified from inheriting but rather were treated that way by their society. The “law” purporting to state that “fact” wasn’t unchangeable: even the “law” we attribute to God could change.

All of these stories – and countless others in Jewish life – both reflect and respond to the deep truth that gender is built. We learn that we live in gender structures built by history, and we also learn that we participate in this ongoing building project whether we say so or not. 

If we too are builders, we must actively build gender ways that serve now and serve the future.

That means using today’s eyes. Dubious academics aside, we don’t fully know how women were viewed during Torah’s time. We have pieces and clues, but they’re not all clear and none of us were there. Thus, while we know what the Torah text says, we don’t fully know what the text assumes us to know of its context. We think we know what was – but we don’t.

We can’t fully see yesterday – yet often we think we can. Torah, tradition, history, myth, legend and momentum all can seem so sure, so alluring and so powerful that they convince us that we know what was. If we happen to resonate with our (right or wrong) understandings of what was, then all the easier to honor and perpetuate them. If we don’t resonate with them, then all the easier to ditch them and devalue the Jewish context in which we believe they arose. 

But there is a third way, and this third way is critical. The third way is to remember precisely that we don’t fully know what was. When we allow for this un-knowing about the whats and whys of gender constructions we received from history, our questions and critiques can stand alongside history. What’s more, they can become some of our most powerful tools for building the future.

So let’s remove all of those blind assumptions. Let’s drop ideas that don’t have truly clear foundations in spiritual history – that there are only two genders, that any gender should have diminished agency, that any role in spiritual life should be reserved or privileged for just one gender. And then let’s do the really hard work of uprooting those impure ideas from our world, our hearts, our communities – whatever the cost.

God, I trust, will understand. Now let’s work on explaining it to the neighbors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Shoshanna Schechter. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Calling Us To Becoming

IMG_0038

Part of a yearlong series on Torah wisdom about building and builders.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, Moses has an encounter with the bush that burns but is not consumed. A Voice speaks to him from the bush, telling him to go to Pharaoh and demand freedom for the children of Israel.

IMG_0037When Moses asks who shall he say is sending him, God responds  אהיה אשר אהיה / ehyeh asher ehyeh — sometimes translated “I Am That I Am,” or “I Will Be What I Will Be,” or “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming.” In this name of God there’s a deep message for us as builders.

When Torah names God’s-self as “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming,” Torah teaches us that God is infinite becoming, infinite change, the One Who Is Becoming Itself. And we who are made in the divine image (Genesis 1:27) partake in this divine quality of becoming. We too have the capacity to be creating, and building, and growing, and renewing, and becoming. 

We who seek to build the future of Judaism need to be attuned both to our own becoming (our personal / internal / spiritual growth and change), and to the becoming and change that are part of Judaism’s growth and renewal in every age. An overfocus on our own personal becoming can feed a spiritual narcissism that’s all about “me, me, me” — which is why we need to ensure that our own becoming is in service of that larger becoming to which the Jewish future calls us.

IMG_0035Tradition teaches that in every era “the Voice continues to sound from Horeb.” (1 Kings 19) Revelation wasn’t a singular thing that happened once and then was done. It’s always happening, as God is always becoming, as we are always growing and listening and receiving. Reb Zalman z”l used to say that God broadcasts on all channels — and we receive that broadcast when we attune ourselves to the Voice that continues to sound.

And as we attune to that broadcast, we’ll hear the call to grow and change and build: not for the sake of ego, but for the sake of the future of Judaism itself. In every age, it’s incumbent on us to build a Judaism that’s authentic, balancing ancient with new. In this age, one of the calls we hear is to build a Judaism that embraces all gender expressions. That’s some of our tradition’s “becoming” that couldn’t be fully expressed in earlier eras — but we can build that Judaism now.

We can build a Judaism that truly uplifts all of our various diversities as reflections of the Infinite in Whose image we are made. We can build a Judaism that balances backward-compatibility with innovation, not for innovation’s own sake but for the sake of a Jewish future that’s open to the holy’s renewing flow. And we can build a Judaism that’s profoundly ethical not only in word but in deed, a Judaism that centers the obligation to protect the vulnerable from abuse.

IMG_0036The future of Judaism is always under construction, and we all have a role to play in building it, if we’re willing to listen for the Voice that calls us to integrity and to the hard work that integrity demands. God told Moses (Ex. 3:5) to take off his shoes because the place where he was standing was holy. In the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching, that verse instructs us to remove our habits. What are the old habits we need to shed in order to be ready to build and to become?

Just as God is always-becoming, so must our Judaism be always-becoming. Never static; always growing toward being a greater expression of our highest values. One of the values that animates us at Bayit is radical inclusivity as we seek to build a Judaism that can sustain our hearts and souls even in changing times. When you tune your inner radio to the Voice that continues to sound from Sinai (and from the burning bush), what values call you to build?

What do you want your Judaism to be becoming?

 

By Rachel Barenblat and Shoshanna Schechter. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

Building outward at last: sex, gender, and the toppling of Jewish Jenga

IMG_3373

Part of a yearlong series about builders and building the Jewish future.

As a young girl in Orthodox Jewish elementary school, I vividly remember an educational poster in my classrooms.  The poster displayed a Biblical Moses at the bottom, then Joshua (Moses’ successor) standing on his shoulders, then one leader atop another’s shoulders.  It depicted the judges, the prophets and monarchs, Talmud’s rabbis, Medieval scholars like Maimonides and Rashi, up through history to the present era.

The poster’s message was clear.  We learned that we stand on the shoulders of scholars and sages who preceded us.  We could add our own voices, so long as we accept past beliefs and interpretations.  We learned that anything else would be blasphemous, as if history’s gedolim (great ones) were Judaism’s foundation and, if we’re not careful, we might knock Judaism over.

IMG_3375Today as a career Jewish educator, I’ve discovered that the vertical model of my elementary school poster is wrong.  We needn’t only repeat and extend what came before – like we’re playing Jewish Jenga and any deviation left or right would cause Judaism to fall.  

If modernity teaches any model for building the Jewish future, it’s a horizontal inclusive model, not a vertical one.  A dynamically democratic approach to building the Jewish future, as Dr. Jonathan Krasner of Brandeis University describes about the history of Jewish education in North America, isn’t blasphemously not-Jewish.  Rather, it’s especially Jewish.

This democratic model of building – to keep creating new Jewish ideas, designs and structures – is especially poignant amidst Judaism’s so-called “difficult texts.”  Like magnets to charged metal, “difficult texts” attract interpretations and approaches charged with the socioeconomic and political contexts in which they arose. It’s not blasphemy to say so, any more than it’d be unscientific to call electromagnetism what it is.

So, let’s say so.  Let’s talk about the contexts that embed “difficult texts.”  Let’s talk about this week’s Torah portion (Vayera).  Most of all, let’s talk about sex. Read more