Let me start by saying that I am fully in sympathy with the arguments regarding discrimination of women in Orthodox Judaism. I cannot begin to understand what it is like to deal with the various derogatory statements as well as legal handicaps and restrictions on women present in Written and Oral Torah in general and halacha in particular. In my opinion, no matter what your views on this issue, we should all recognize the genuine and legitimate pain and frustration many Orthodox women feel. Many are torn between full commitment to Torah and Mitzvot on the one hand, and gender awareness on the other. While I myself don’t know how far Orthodoxy can or should go to accommodate the issues, they are real and they will not go away.
I wish to speak about something else, something which is addressed precisely to those female (and some male) activists in the vanguard of gender equality among Orthodox Jews. I wish to address that niggling question few if any revolutionaries dedicate much thought to: what happens the day after they succeed.
Let us put on our hypothetical caps for a moment and begin to imagine a world in which all gender discrimination in Orthodoxy has been eliminated. Full equality and integration is the law of the land – the shuls have mixed seating, and women come before the bima, read the Torah and give boring Divrei Torah in between prayers just like men. Moreover, there is full equality among the religious elite as well. Woman now comprise half the religious professional cadre, be it Rabbis, dayanim, shochtim &c. There are no more boundaries on women’s testimony. Even the siddur and other holy books have been purged for offensive passages. Egalitarianism has won the day.
Now let’s go back to the shul for a moment. Notice something odd? There’s far more women there than men at any given time. Much like the student bodies of the universities of today, batei midrash are increasingly female-dominated territory, and men feel increasingly uncomfortable being there. We’re not just talking the die-hard evil chauvinists who don’t come to the Batei Midrash anyway. Even liberal male Jews are having a hard time dealing with a reality in which women dominate everything and they have no ‘religious space’ or function which they can exclusively call their own. Most have just given up, either retreating to the home and sulking, or opting out of Orthodoxy altogether, perhaps joining the few die-hard movements that resisted the egalitarian moment.
The phenomenon I’ve just described to you is known as feminization. It is the social reality of many a religious denomination, Jewish or non-Jewish, which has adopted full, integrative egalitarianism as its policy. The result is quite often one of “male flight” – either from the denomination itself or at least active participation therein. There is every reason to assume that Orthodoxy will suffer the same fate.
This is not a good thing. In much the same way that discrimination drives away or alienates Orthodox women, feminization will alienate many an Orthodox man. The result will be that the feminist Orthodox will have won a Pyrrhic victory – empowering one gender and driving away the other. שכרן תצא בהפסדן.
Perhaps there will be those that argue that I am exaggerating, that things will not be as bad as all that. Maybe commenters will give me stories of how they cope “just fine” with it or mention small communities where it’s not an issue. These exceptions to the general rule, however, are just that – exceptions. They prove nothing with regard to the expected response of your Average Joe. Policies that affect the whole of a given society need to think about the response of the average person (i.e. the majority), not the unique and exceptional. This is the case whether it’s governmental social policy or religious social policy.
Maybe you will retort that “Who cares? Men have been dominating and oppressing us for so long, it’s their turn to suffer”. While I understand this impulse, revenge is at best a destructive, short-sighted policy. Nor does retribution contribute to a healthy society with healthy impulses. There is a reason why wiser leaders (men, BTW; we’re not always war-mongering lunatics) pardoned enemies when it was possible rather than slaughter them wholesale, and it’s not because they sympathized with the losers. Lincoln’s pardon policy towards the Confederates is a good example – rather than hang tens of thousands for treason, he preferred to let them contribute to society so long as they laid down their arms. The alternative would have made healing the already fractured and bleeding American society exponentially more difficult.
So, what’s your solution? Send women back into the kitchen so men can feel good?
Not at all. I meant every word of my preamble. Nor am I presumptuous enough to claim that I have a solution for what is a world-wide issue. I am merely trying to point out that revolutions, no matter how well-intentioned, have at least some negative consequences. I think that it is imperative to discuss this issue seriously before the Bastille falls, not afterwards. Otherwise, we will find ourselves having solved one problem and merely created another.