Feminist Challenge Collaboration: Religion and Gender

This post is in collaboration with the 2017 Feminist Challenge.

Go to this link to learn more!

Does your religion address gender in a specific way?

What is a time you felt your gender and your religion being highlighted as important parts of your identity at the same time? What is a time you noticed that the intersection of your gender and your religion was more complex than you had originally thought?


My immediate answer to the first question is, “well, obviously.”

I speak both as an academic in the field of religious studies (with specific focuses on gender and sexuality) and as a Jewish person who was assigned female at birth. I will make an attempt to limit this post strictly to my personal experiences, but these will likely be influenced to some extent by my academic background.

Religion is a social phenomenon. This could potentially be in the Durkheimian sense of being an expression of the cohesion of society, but more broadly it is something humans are involved in (whether or not we created it or if it is something that exists on its own…I’ll leave the quest for origins to others).

Gender is social in the same ambiguous way: perhaps it is something humans created and perhaps it is something innate to humans- we can’t know this. All we can really know in terms of where gender ‘began’ is that at some point humans noticed the fact that most of us are both with one of two potential sets of genitalia. At some point this resulted in distinctions being made between characteristics, roles, and identities. But this is neither here nor there.

What I mean to say here is that I would be hard-pressed to find a modern religious group or tradition that did not deal with gender in one way or another.

So far, this probably seems like an evasion. After all, the question was about my religion and my gender. All of this academic waffling hardly seems entirely relevant. This is likely in part because religious studies scholars don’t like to make broad generalizations, and this question is pretty broad, even if “religion” is narrowed down to “Judaism” and “gender” is narrowed down to “assigned female at birth.”

The most important thing that I would like to emphasize here is that culture, ethnicity, and religion influence concepts of gender. For example, it has been my experience that gender and gender roles in Judaism are not the same as those of non-Jews in the US. It’s true, there are a few things that look similar on the surface: If I think specifically of more Orthodox learning communities, there is definitely an emphasis placed upon women’s place being in the home. What is different here is that the home is traditionally one of the most important parts of Jewish life and culture. Women are not assumed to be relegated to the home because they are inferior; rather, their roles relating to children, the home, and the family are seen as being of utmost importance.

That being said, as most feminist studies scholars know placing women upon a pedestal still does harm. Even though I have witnessed places in which women, womanhood, and femininity are celebrated, there is still often an element of essentialism in female identities. I don’t want to erase or dismiss places in which this has caused people pain. After all, I recall my panic and discomfort my first time walking into a synagogue in which a mechitza separated the men’s side from the women’s. But it is also important to note that it is not just men advocating for women’s modesty or the separation of the sexes. Many Jewish women find comfort and relief in escaping the male gaze while they pray on the women’s side of a synagogue. Many women choose to wear clothing that covers their elbows and knees- not because men tell them they have to, but because they feel that they are fighting against a larger societal force that tells them they only have value if they are sexy and show off their bodies.     

What is distinctly masculine or feminine for Jews is often extremely different from that of wider American culture, and has often historically resulted in negative stereotypes. I’m sure many have heard about Jewish women are loud and aggressive while Jewish men are meek, feminine, and submissive.

So why is gender in Judaism so different? I am not going to give you the full answer (nor do I think I could, even if I had more than just a blog post to do so). I will, however, take you back briefly to Late Antiquities – the time in which Christianity (and as a result, Judaism) was being solidified as a major state religion. What would become Christianity and Judaism both make use of Hebrew Bible texts, but each approaches them in a radically different way. The Early Jesus Movement broke off from the Judean ethnos and expanded its scope to include Greek and Roman gentiles.

For anyone familiar with Hebrew Bible texts (and I mean really personally familiar – not just through what other authority figures may have said about these texts), it is clear that women and men often have different roles. Yes, women are often treated as a unique kind of property, as closely tied to their biology, and men clearly form the focus of most of the biblical narratives. However, it is also true that women are not portrayed as innately inferior in these texts. There are no essential character or personality traits that separate men from women. This is extremely different from conceptions of women that were expressed in Greek and Roman philosophy: Plato and Aristotle both describe the innate inferiority of the female gender. In fact, Aristotle goes so far as to describe women as “deformed men” – they are so naturally deficient that there is no possibility that women will ever be able to escape their doomed biology. 

How’s that for a digression? Obviously, I am simplifying a very, very complicated and nuanced topic, but I hope that in doing so I am giving at least some idea that neither religion nor gender is monolithic (like most things in life!).

As I am sure many of the other participants of this collaboration have also found, my own experiences of how my religion addresses gender are neither wholly positive nor wholly negative. I can pinpoint a variety of specific instances in which I felt the pain of exclusion or the joy of empowerment.

There have even been times when I have experienced both at the same time, the two seemingly incompatible feelings warring inside of me. 

At the risk of sounding clichéd, I doubt that any of us could really find a way to express the intersection of our gender and our religion in a concise, coherent manner. Yet it is precisely this impossibility, precisely this desire to negotiate the complex places where there are no easy answers, that make us profoundly aware of our own humanity.

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my students live in an alternate universe

So, it’s the time in the semester when everyone’s mental state begins to crumble, at least a little bit.

I, for one, am certainly no exception to this rule.

The students in the class for which I am a T.A. also do not seem immune.

Recently, we have been talking about medieval European conceptions of Jewishness and sorcery. The professor and I decided that having them read a novel that does a decent historical portrayal of that time (while still being an entertaining read) would be a nice way for them to get a solid grasp on the time period, while not having to struggle through depressing primary source texts.

The novel follows several residents of early 17th century Prague, utilizing many of the examples we have been discussing in class (such as the blood libel, the myth of host desecration, and legends surrounding the creation of golems).

I don’t know about everyone else, but generally speaking I assume novels are fictional. Maybe they don’t teach you this kind of thing in elementary schools anymore, so perhaps I need to stop taking this for granted as common knowledge.

Twice in the past week students have asked me if people can actually make golems. A few weeks ago, a different student asked if rabbis could still make calves (referring to a part of a Talmud passage (b. Sanh. 65b, to be exact, which describes two rabbis studying the Sefer Yetzirah and creating a “thrice grown calf”).

In each of these instances I have been at a slight loss for words, and only barely managed to make a reasonable recovery and save face.

Do they think that we, as Jews, can create living beings out of nothing? Do the very medieval conceptions we are trying to teach them about really still run so deep in our thinking that they assume my professor and I could do these impossible acts?

Do they have so little a grasp on what is physically and humanly possible that they really think it is possible to create life?

I am trying to think of this in a positive light. Maybe they have such a sense of wonder that they want to believe these things are possible.

Or, maybe they have such reverence for us as instructors that anything we say must be unarguably true. Maybe they think we have access to powers they can only dream about.

Because this happened multiple times, and I am also a bit at the end of my ropes as it is, I am starting to doubt myself. What do they know that I don’t know? Maybe it is possible to create a calf, or even a human. After all, I’ve never tried, so I couldn’t say for sure that I can’t do it.

Any maybe I’ve got them all wrong. Maybe they feel a little bit like the Jews from Europe in the 16th through 18th centuries. Maybe they are feeling the effects of a toxic political climate. Maybe they are worried for their friends and family. It might be tempting to give into the idea of being able to create some larger-than-life being who will be able to defend them and the ones they care about. Seeing this as a possibility might make them feel as though they have some semblance of control over their futures and over the world around them.

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Talmudic Drag

In my experience, both liturgical and academic, the phrase “the Rabbis”* is often used rather loosely. Generally speaking, this is used to refer to those scholars who studied and debated oral Torah, and whose thoughts and teachings (when considered especially relevant or profound) were occasionally written down and codified within a massive tome known as the Talmud.

Many of these people are now considered famous Jewish sages. Akiva, Judah haNasi, Rav Nachman, Rashi, Maimonides (aka Rambam), etc., are all examples of scholars from a variety of different time periods that are widely taught and studied to this day.

What interests me most is the way that the Rabbis are taught and engaged with within liturgical spaces. Though they are known to be from radically different times and spaces (for example, Akiva was around in first century Judea, Maimonides lived 1138-1204 in North Africa), they are often taught side by side.

The way that the Talmud operates allows for this easily. A typical page of Talmud will have a section in the center of the page that is devoted to the actual text that is being discussed. Surrounding it are all the commentaries, each written or uttered by a different scholar, many of which arguing with or building upon another scholar’s commentary. Each of these might have been written with decades or centuries in between. The beautiful result is a sort of cross-generational debate, with scholars engaging with their predecessors long after the earlier scholars are gone.

This brings up questions about time. The Rabbis are discussed, especially liturgically, as if they all exist simultaneously, and as if specific arguments and counter-arguments are being examined at the same time. For example, if one Rabbi is responding to a previous Rabbi, it seems as though the previous Rabbi would be able to see the response- though he is long dead.

I think it is interesting to view this as a sort of “temporal drag”, something J. Jack Halberstam discusses in “In a Queer Time and Place”. Though it is known that these individuals existed and wrote at varying periods of history, they are also seen as speaking through history. Time is reorganized and granted a position of lesser importance than it holds in normative life.

The existence of these Rabbis is only in the textual space of the Talmud. The development of what came to be known as Rabbinic Judaism is thought to have originated with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., causing many Judean people to move into exile and diasporic lands. A centralized worship site no longer existed in physical reality, so space was created through text. It could be said that (for this particular strain of Judaism) text is their home, or has been cultivated into a home in a non-normative fashion.  

* Distinct from the modern title “Rabbi”, which refers to an individual who has attended rabbinical school and earned the degree.

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