Sunday, February 18, 2007

Gender roles and religion I

It seems ironic to me that Islam is the focal point for gender inequality in religion. I mean, look at Judaism and Christianity. The most observant families proscribe a particular role to the women and the men. In traditional Jewish circles, women aren't allowed to read Torah and many prayers, aren't counted as part of a minyan (the 10 people required to perform certain prayers), don't where a tallis (prayer shawl) , are separated by a mechitza (curtain or wall) away from the men and usually the service, and are rarely mentioned in any prayer.

Now, the first few of those listed are officially because of the 613 commandments, women are only obligated to observe the negative, non time-bound commandments. This has something to do with a woman's ability to give birth and natural connection to spirituality, that the men can't/don't have, but have to follow a bunch of religious rituals in order to try. Now, I don't necessarily agree with this distinction, but in my opinion men and women's traditional roles should be respected equally, and each woman should be able to decide for herself what obligations she feels she has. Regardless, nowhere in Jewish law is it stated that women should be prohibited from touching the Torah or taking on more commandments than she would naturally be obligated to follow. In fact, there have been women since biblical times recognized for taking on all 613 commandments and being accepted by the community while doing it (as long as she hasn't neglected her wife/motherly duties. Yet lately, especially in Israel, this is viewed as unacceptable and disgraceful.

Additionally, just as women pray behind men in Muslim communities, women pray behind a wall or in a balcony in Jewish circles, so as not to distract the men. And, if you're like me and enjoy prayer, sitting up in a balcony where you can hardly hear the service and women just gossip and care for the kids is not your idea of religious fulfillment. Maybe we're not distracting the guys, but we're not exactly having a deeply spiritual connection ourselves. So where does this idea of women corrupting the spirituality of men come from?

Last week's parsha (Torah reading) involved the receiving of the Decalogue (more commonly known as the 10 commandments). In order to prepare themselves for this event, G-d tells Moses to make sure the people purify and clean themselves and their clothes. In reiterating this to the people, Moses makes one addition: Do not touch your women during these 3 days. This seems like an odd addition to tell the people, but maybe Moses knew the people better than G-d did, and knew they needed to stay separate to be in the right frame of mind. I'll offer a different interpretation that one of my rabbis brought up: Earlier in the parsha, we learn that Moses' father-in-law comes to visit with Moses' wife and kids, who he appears to have forgotten and hasn't seen in years. In the competition between family and leaderships, Moses has chosen leadership. That additional requirement is simply his justification of his neglect of his family duties, claiming that women (including his wife) would be a spiritual distraction for all the men. In doing so, he starts a long tradition of gender inequity within our communities, that is accepted with no questions asked.

Perhaps it's time to start asking questions.

More on this to follow


SikWit said...

I think that if any man wants to be really spiritual, the absence of a woman is pretty good. Women distract men from everything. I think that I'm doing well in school because all the women in my classes are either fat or have horribly bad skin. I could only imagine what it would be like if I was trying to establish a deep internal, spiritual connection with God through prayer. It's not completely the woman's fault.

Besides, if someone's gotta take care of the kids during prayer, it might as well be YOU. LOL You said yourself that the women weren't taking the prayer that seriously. But I'm not Jewish so that is one thing that we don't know about as Lutherans. We just shove our kids in a play area or give them a bag of cheerios and some crayons.

Anonymous said...

I agree with in the inequality of gender roles in religion. Is a woman really a distraction? or is it that we make it a distraction? I beleive that a full participation in religion will be accomplished when both men and women achieve it together in partnership and interdependence on each other.