#MeToo Reinterpreting Male Privilege
To this day, I still remember the meeting that took place in February of 2006 between my wife and the former assistant dean of the Rabbinical school. Jodi and I were making our preliminary plans to spend the following academic year in Israel. She and the spouse of another classmate of mine went to speak with the dean about helping them find meaningful ways for spouses to engage while living in Israel. What happened next I still cannot believe. A Jewish educator and a tax attorney were told: “this is really a new problem...female spouses having their own careers and needing professional opportunities while in Israel.” Jaws dropped, they were speechless. 2006? Women having careers? A new problem? And to make matters worse, this dean was a female rabbi! Needless to say both Jodi and her friend both found opportunities on their own but I was, and still am, floored by the conversation.
Here we are a dozen years later and very little seems to have changed. Just two weeks ago, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg left a packed audience of 1400 at Adas Israel Congregation with one wish for the Constitution. Referencing her three granddaughters she pointed to the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech, press, and religion. “I would like,” she said, “to see in the Constitution a statement that men and women are persons of equal citizenship stature” – something to guarantee gender equality. While I will likely not be the one to amend the constitution, I am often asked how Judaism and Jewish ideas can inform the current discourse on power, privilege and #MetToo. On a practical level, these are conversations that need to happen in corporations, with HR personnel, and with elected leaders. I don’t need the response to #MeToo to be Jewish. I want #MeToo to be responded to by people taking actions to make sure people don’t get harassed in the workplace or anywhere else – woman or men. But as Jews living in 2018, how do we respond to the male privilege that is inscribed in our sacred tradition?
I begin here because no matter how egalitarian a Jewish life we lead we all open the same texts - texts with clear male privilege. This privilege, as defined by the feminist theologian Judith Plaskow, suggests that “Like women in many cultures, Jewish women have been projected as "Other." Named by a male community that perceives itself as normative, women are part of the Jewish tradition without its sources and structures. Women are Jews, but do not define Jewishness. Women live, work, and struggle, but their experiences are not recorded, and what is recorded formulates their experiences in male terms” (Standing at Sinai, 3). To state the obvious, I’m not a woman. There are experiences that I can never experience and I admit I may be treading in uncharted waters. But as a rabbi, as a person of faith, and as an individual, I need our tradition and our sacred texts to be relevant, reflecting the values that can be in dialogue with today’s world. I want our tradition to shape our assumptions and perspectives of the world. And, I want our tradition to address this #MeToo moment.
Tovah Hartman, in her book Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism, posits three different approaches toward male privilege in Jewish tradition. There is affirmation on one side of the spectrum – this is the way it is meant to be – and rejection on the other – we must fight against the tradition. My focus this morning will be on her middle category – reinterpretation. It is here that I offer four different possibilities, four different ways to maintain our relationship with our sacred texts while providing deep conversations around issues that matter to us most. The first approach I call dualism. It is an approach that says God and human beings are different. While God is perfect in God’s desire for equity and fairness, human beings are flawed. This is not the God that affirms the power structures that exist but the God that seeks to help the marginalized and oppressed gain the voice that they need. Perhaps the most famous example is the daughters of Zelophhad. They become dismayed when they realize that without brothers their father’s land could not be inherited. The daughters go to Moses and insist he ask God if they, as women, could inherit the land. What is truly remarkable is that these women ask for something that was not explicitly written in the Torah. Their conviction was: God approves of this, God really wants something that human beings can’t possibly see. This move is bold insofar as it suggests that feminism, like so many other ideological advances, is actually a revelation of the divine will itself. What we see over the course of millennia is our evolution in understanding the divine perspective. This moment of #MeToo is the next chapter of our unfolding narrative. The second approach is a tool from within tradition itself – the midrashic approach.
Midrash enables us to reinterpret or re-appropriate traditional themes and texts in order to continue a conversation between the lines. The feminist Midrash acknowledges that our texts offer a male perspective but then inserts a woman’s voice.
And now the #MeToo moment. Take, for example, the laws of yichud which prohibit an unmarried man and woman to be alone together. These laws were probably rooted in the Talmudic view of women as objects of temptation, laws intended to protect men from sin and a woman’s purity. This explains why the classic details of the laws actually may not prevent assault – for example the law permits two men to be alone with a woman. But what if instead of dismissing these laws as irrelevant and misogynist, we reread them as mandated personal space? Perhaps it is time to reclaim them as acknowledgment of the darkest corners of the human sexual psyche and how they affect our social interactions – something that many Americans today recognize, and that most school and university policies about private student-educator meetings are beginning to reflect. Whatever its original reasoning may have been, yichud today has the potential to serve as a powerful tool for women to cope with the realities of a Weinstein world: Demand that others be present. Protect your personal space (The Forward, Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt). This is the elasticity of midrash.
The third approach I call precedent. This approach encourages us to find examples within our tradition that highlights empowered women, women as active agents, or a woman’s perspective. We can find Jewish institutions all over the country named after Jewish women who were the exception to the rule of male privilege. We can find little Jewish girls named after Deborah, Esther, our matriarchs. There are many examples and they are all wonderful. The challenge with this approach is whether or not it affirms the exception. What if your daughter is never going to reach the level of our matriarchs? Who are the average run-of-the-mill heroes? The danger here is the default continues to be masculine with a few notable women who stand out. #MeToo suggests the default must be everyone.
This leads us to the final approach – redefinition. The Torah throughout history spoke to males as the default human being. Today, the default human being includes women as well. In the words of the Talmudic scholar Ilana Kurshan, “it has become clear to me that by the Talmud’s standards, I am a man rather than a woman – if “man” is defined as an independent, self-sufficient adult, whereas “woman” is a dependent, generally living in either her father’s or her husband’s home” (If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir, 10). In other words, we can regard the Talmud’s gender stereotypes as historical curiosities rather than infuriating provocations. Every woman in this room is defying the Talmud’s classifications through your very engagement with the tradition. So many of our classical interpretations reflect gendered assumptions. Each of these texts has the potential to take on radically new meaning when regarded through feminine eyes. This moment of #MeToo is a moment to redefine our reality. Though plowed by generations before us, our sacred texts and our society bare fertile ground for gleaning new insights and fresh perspectives.
There are, of course, many other approaches but this represents the beginning of an important conversation. I believe it is important that we are explicit about the ways we are thinking about the question of male privilege in our tradition. We cannot wait until our children or our students ask us “what did Dina think, what did Sarah want?” Rather, we must be proactive and bring Dina’s voice into the room. We cannot wait for a #MeToo moment to recognize that we need more women’s voices.
We live in such a disorienting time. On the one hand, we have reached further than any previous generation in terms of gender equity: Women and men are equal people before the law, and a woman won the popular vote for the White House. On the other hand, we continue to be plagued with misogyny and sexism, everywhere: from men holding some of the highest offices in the land to rotten structural support for pregnant women and mothers, to construction workers engaging in catcalling. Each #MeToo post reminds us that we are indeed far from where we need to be (Forward, Mijal Bitton). Justice Ginsburg’s wish will likely require dismantling a socially constructed reality that is thousands of years in the making. However, we are reminded that the most sacred construction project – the building of the mishkan – required the unique and precious gifts of every Israelite – men and women together.
In 2018, it is extremely important that if we want to hold on to our tradition and live that tradition into its future, we have to confront these questions in every single discipline. Everything was dominated by male privilege...forever. But if we are really dedicated to stringing the past into the future, we need to confront these questions as individuals and as a community. What are you going to do to include women’s voices in your life, in Judaism, and in our broader society? What are you going to do? Each of us are ambassadors in making this a more beautiful, a more compelling, and a more just world so that God can finally dwell among us.