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The Gender Dynamics of Orthodox Judaism

A project by Shaya Naimi, Gender Studies

How can Los Angeles’s Jewish community move towards approaching gender more inclusively while maintaining Jewish values?

Here is a short video of me introducing my project.

UN SDG #5: Achieving Gender Equality on a Local and Global Scale

Los Angeles is known for its large and diverse Jewish community, which includes Jewish people of all denominations, ages, and genders. In a multicultural, progressive city that constantly evolves and strives towards gender equality, the Orthodox Jewish community holds some beliefs that resist gender equality. Jewish law and tradition call for differences in the responsibilities and roles of men and women in society, creating a rigid social structure surrounding gender. And because tradition and obeying God are so deeply valued in Orthodox practice, the Orthodox community tends to reject or ignore modern-day secular approaches towards gender equality. As a young Jewish woman, I have experienced firsthand the harmful effects of Jewish gender dynamics.

The United Nations’ fifth Sustainable Development Goal, Gender Equality, is sweeping the world. Global feminist movements are stronger today than ever, and large, progressive cities like Los Angeles are home to some of the world’s most vocal and influential activists for gender equality. However, in their efforts to promote cultural change towards gender equality, many of these movements and campaigns overlook the more traditional cultural minority groups. As a result of this exclusion from local cultural shifts and its own reluctance to adapt and reform its cultural beliefs and practices, the Orthodox Jewish community is left behind in the modern world’s efforts towards accomplishing the UN’s fifth SDG.

Background: What are the gender dynamics of Jewish law?

Jewish law as it is observed today is comprised of a combination of the Torah, or the Old Testament, and rabbinical interpretations of the Torah that have been developed over time, like the halacha. Written in the Torah are 613 mitzvot, or commandments, that Jewish people are to follow. These commandments range from diet-related instructions to dress codes and more, and their observance is said to strengthen one’s relationship with God. The global Jewish community is made up of various denominations, or categories of people who interpret and practice Judaism in a similar way. The most observant branch of Judaism is the Orthodox movement, which is comprised of strictly observant and traditional Jewish people. On the other end of the spectrum is Reform Judaism, a movement that is very loosely observant of Jewish law and prioritizes Jewish ethics and values over the law. In between the two is the Conservative movement, which adapts Jewish law to modern society while preserving Jewish values.

While gender roles may not be so explicit in the Torah, the halacha assigns different societal roles to men and women. Legally, many the commandments that men and women are allowed to fulfill are different. For example, only men can read from Torah, become rabbis, and wear a kippa (a Jewish skullcap worn at all times by men), while only women can light the shabbos candles and separate the challah. However, aside from the technicalities of rabbinical law, the traditional primary role of the Jewish woman has always been to care for the home and her children. Because managing the home is a priority for Jewish women, they have been historically discouraged from achieving high levels of education and exempted from mitzvot that hinder their ability to fulfill their at-home duties.

While traditional Judaism has been in practice for thousands of years, gender theories have emerged in the modern era that challenge the societal structure implemented by Jewish law. For example, the societal roles assigned to Jewish men and women are based on the theory of gender essentialism, the belief that men and women possess innately different traits and are naturally more masculine or feminine, independent of cultural conditioning. Gender essentialism can be harmful because it makes assumptions about individuals’ identities that can potentially restrict or suppress people’s true gender identity and expression. Another gender theory that can be applied to Judaism is gender policing, a theory attributed to Judith Butler, a philosopher and gender theorist. Gender policing refers to the “institutional powers” and “informal practices” that use gender essentialism to establish gender norms and police people based on them. Jewish law (an institutional power) and Orthodox Jewish traditions (informal practices) are both forms of gender policing that reinforce the gender norms within the Jewish community.

Torah – Jewish scripture; the Old Testament.

Halacha –Jewish law, comprised of rabbinical interpretations of the Torah.

Mitzvot – Commandments, or good deeds, that Jewish people are obligated to fulfill.

Kippa –a Jewish skullcap worn by men at all times.

Shabbos Candles –Candles lit every Friday night, accompanied by blessings, to welcome the Sabbath.

Challah –Traditional braided bread eaten on Friday night as part of the dinner that welcomes the Sabbath.


Interview #1: Sheva Stolik

Background: Sheva grew up as a strictly observant Orthodox Jew in Crown Heights, a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, New York. She moved to the suburbs of Los Angeles recently with her husband and children and currently is a co-director of a Chabad, a small Jewish community affiliated with a university.

Does Jewish law respect/empower women? Jewish law respects women to the highest degree. There is no greater respect for a woman than some Orthodox men have based on the Torah.

What obstacles do Orthodox women face in society? I’m unaware of obstacles that Jewish women face because I’m very happy with my role as a Jewish woman.

Do you feel like differences in gender roles are essential to having healthy jewish communities?That’s the only way to have healthy Jewish communities: when each person knows their place, is happy with their place, and does their role in the best way possible.

Can and should women be rabbis? That’s not our role. We are not created to be a rabbi. We are the rabbi’s wife, and we are an entity in ourselves. We are in an amazing position, and we are leaders in our community, but rabbis are a male position.

Do you think female rabbis are doing a bad job?They’re doing a lot of harm, unfortunately. Because a rabbi is supposed to connect people to Torah. And if Torah does not want females to be a rabbi, and you’re trying to lead your community, you’re doing them a disservice.

Interview #2: Danya Helperin

Background: Danya is a Modern Orthodox teenager who lives in a primarily Orthodox Jewish community in Los Angeles. She attends a Modern Orthodox Jewish private school, and she self-identifies as a feminist.

What obstacles, both explicit in laws and implicit in culture, do Orthodox women face? At school, boys and girls are kept separate. I feel a lot less comfortable around guys than if I had gone to public school. They’re half the people I live with, but I’m not friends with girls and guys equally. There’s also a weird dynamic…different things are expected. I don’t have anything to compare it to, but I assume that in public schools, the clubs are a little more equal in terms of gender or people are more socially aware.

There are certain times where I feel like I’m expected to be more demure, less outspoken, I find myself starting myself starting sentences with “I feel like…” I often feel out of place or like I don’t have a say. I don’t know if it’s a modern teen thing or Judaism thing. Gender roles are slightly more enforced and might have taken more of a toll on me as a Jewish woman.

Does Jewish law respect/empower women? Yes and no. People are quick to call the Torah sexist, and it can be considered sexist because of inequalities, but none of them are meant to be sexist. A lot of practices that women are required to do by law are empowering. For example, lighting the candles is a tradition passed down and men aren’t allowed to do it.

Is some gender inequality necessary for preserving tradition? I’d like to think that there is a way [to achieve full gender equality while preserving tradition], but it really does depend on the community. For some really conservative communities, there is no hope because they are so far behind don’t even want to play catch-up. Reform and conservative movements are working on it, and it’s taking more time in the Modern Orthodox movement because they are considering the more traditional side of the issue more.

Interview #3: Rabbi Keilah Lebell

Background: Rabbi Lebell is a female rabbi in the Conservative movement. She grew up in a liberal Reform Jewish community in Northern California. She was surrounded by an atmosphere that encouraged women to be ordained as rabbis, and she studied in Jerusalem as part of her Jewish education. Rabbi Lebell is now a rabbi at IKAR, a modern Jewish community in Los Angeles.

What obstacles do Jewish women face? “Jewish women just don’t have the kind of access to many aspects of Jewish life that men do. Automatically, if you are a Jewish man, you can access certain communities and Jewish experiences that I will never be able to access. And it took a while to actually make that clear to (my husband).
The kind of community I want to be a part of is a liberal community and an egalitarian community where men and women are both invited to observe Jewish tradition.”

Rabbi Lebell’s response to the question, does applying feminist theory to Jewish laws sacrifice culture and tradition?
A short reflection on my main takeaways from the process of working on this project.

Call to Action: LEARN!

Based on what I have learned in my interview process, gender issues meet cultural issues in a complicated, multi-layered, and often messy way. In order to approach these controversial topics sensitively and knowledgeably, it is essential to remain curious and open-minded and to constantly seek out opportunities to learn and see issues from different perspectives. Thus, I have included a list below (curated by R’Keilah) of books and articles that offer different perspectives of gender and Judaism:

Articles:

6 Genders Described in Classical Rabbinic Texts

Hebrew as a Gendered Language

Books:

Engendering Judaism, Rachel Adler

Daring Daughter of the Covenant – Barnett

And All Your Children Shall Be Learned – Zolty

Standing Again at Sinai – Plaskow

The Secret of Jewish Femininity

Women and Jewish Law – Biale

The Jewish Woman – Koltun

On Being a Jewish Feminist – Heschel

Ask and Answer through Flipgrid

I want to hear what you all think! I invite you to ask questions and share your opinions through videos in my project’s Flipgrid.

Share this project
COMMENTS: 7
  1. April 26, 2019 by Noa.Fay

    Hey Shaya,
    This investigation/research project was so interesting to me. I am also Jewish and live in Brookline, MA so I also have a large Jewish population and community around me. I was actually just in Israel a couple of weeks ago and we stayed in Efrat, Tzfat, and Tel-Aviv, and I have to say that my mother and I were quite discouraged by the amount of gender separation in the Ultra Orthodox community. It’s hard for me to be extremely critical because I feel a deep allegiance to Judaism, but I’m quick to acknowledge that sects of it are not necessarily for me.
    I wasn’t all that surprised by what you found, but it was interesting hearing Rav Keilah speak as well as Sheva.
    Thank you for such a good investigation!! and Chag pesach!

    • April 30, 2019 by Shaya

      Hi Noa! That is awesome – I feel the exact same way. I didn’t know there was a large Jewish community in Brookline, MA. I actually live just outside of LA, in a city called Pasadena where there are not many Jewish people, so I envy the strong community you have around you 🙂 I also went to Israel over the summer and spent time in Tzfat and Tel Aviv! However, I didn’t see much of the Ultra-Orthodox community; I was staying with friends in Tel Aviv mostly, and I was actually really surprised by how liberal many of the people in Tel Aviv are. It’s interesting how large the spectrum of observance and gender separation is in Israel.

  2. April 27, 2019 by Sara.Mirani

    Hey Shaya!
    This project was so interesting to me because many of my friends growing up have been Jewish, and it is nice to be able to learn more about the culture and different aspects through this. I really liked how you included three different aspects or sects (?) of Judaism to have a more complete understanding of gender dynamics in Judaism.

    • April 30, 2019 by Shaya

      Hi Sara! Thank you so much for your comment. I love to see that as a non-Jewish person who is part of a community with many Jewish people, you are making an effort to reach out and learn more about Jewish culture. As a Jewish person, it is always great when the people around me are excited to learn about my culture in a curious and respectful way. I hope this project shed some light on the gender dynamics of Judaism!

  3. April 28, 2019 by Alex.Lepa

    Hey Shaya,
    Your project was very interesting as it related to something very personal to you. Thank you for sharing a bit about your religion with the world.
    Alex

  4. April 28, 2019 by Maisie French

    Hi Sheya, Thank you for sharing this I had never previously heard of the gender dynamics in Judaism. Very Interesting project!

  5. April 30, 2019 by Gianni.Notaro

    What’s up Shaya. Your explanation of the gender dynamics is very eye-opening, as I knew next to nothing about this topic, and it seems to be very complex. Your interviews also contributed to the success of your project in a noticeable way.

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