Confronting Patriarchy

The testimony of Christine Blasy Ford to the Senate Judiciary Committee followed by that of Brett Kavanaugh captured the attention of the nation. We know that the surfacing of various accusations against Brett Kavanaugh by several women and the corroboration of his party-going and beer drinking during high school and college was not sufficient to deny him a seat on the Supreme Court. The consequences of Justice Kavanaugh taking the ninth seat will be felt for decades to come. Yet I am more interested in what we learned about our country during the vetting process and what light Judaism can shed on that process.

This article appeared in The New York Jewish Week on October 10, 2018.

There was plenty of outrage to go around. The Me-Too phenomenon has mobilized women across the country in ways we have never seen before. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that one in five women will be raped in their lifetime and that one in four women will experience some form of sexual abuse by the age of 18.  These are shocking numbers and they have not changed much over the last couple of decades. What has changed, however, is the willingness of more and more women to come forward to share their stories. Christine Blasy Ford may go down as the Rosa Parks of the Me-Too movement, paying a heavy personal price to tell her story in the most public forum imaginable. Calls to women resource centers all over the country skyrocketed in the days following Dr. Ford’s testimony. If she could brave such risk to tell her story of abuse, many women concluded, so could they.

The hearings and their aftermath exposed the ugly side of patriarchy, on both sides. We were reminded how often young women suffer sexual abuse, assault and even rape in silence. The feelings of shame, of guilt and fear of what it would take to press charges against a man and how authorities will handle such an investigation, condemn most women to a lifetime of silence. Every one of these barriers to speaking out is a result of a patriarchal society and the assumptions that it plants, not only in the minds of men, but in the minds of women as well.

Similarly, the outing of drinking and party culture in the Senate hearings pulled back the curtain on a pattern of behavior that all too many boys and men are more prepared to boast about than to feel ashamed for. Getting women drunk and engaging in sex against their will is a felony, not a sport. The fact that we have a President who himself boasted of taking liberties with women without their consent, simply reinforces some of the most heinous manifestations of a culture that allows men to set the standard of behavior and makes women into victims.

Confronting patriarchy and its consequences takes work. Those of us who identify with non-Orthodox forms of Judaism should give some thought to the ways we have tried to adapt a patriarchal tradition to the mores of contemporary life. Two examples are sufficient to make the point. For generations the blessings of the morning’s pesukay d-zimrah included this line, “Blessed are You, Sovereign of the universe, who has not made me a woman.” Of course, this line was only to be said by men. In the same place, women were to recite instead, “Blessed are You, Sovereign of the universe who made me according to Your will.” Most non-Orthodox prayer books today offer one blessing, to be said by both men and women, which thanks God for “making us in God’s image”.

While traditionalists will drash the original prayer as acknowledgment of “the special status of women in Judaism”, feminists have helped us realize how, instead, this is simply one of the myriad of ways that a patriarchal culture denies women an equal place in the social order of a community. My “aha” moment in recent weeks is to realize how the original prayer was a way for men to not even attempt to identify with the female experience. The paraphrase of the prayer might as well be: “The woman’s experience: Not my problem, thank God”. Patriarchy rules (double entendre intended).

Second example: Jewish law prohibits a woman from singing in front of men based on the belief that a woman’s voice might stir up erotic thoughts in the minds of the men within earshot. The fear is that a man might act on having been aroused by the voice of a woman. This law is called kol isha, the voice of women. Here too, traditionalists will drash the law as a way to protect women from harm and evidence that men are weaker (in terms of impulse control) than women. But what a classic example of “blame the victim”, having the potential victim be saddled with social constraints because men can’t control their impulses. The ethos behind the law led women to be denied all manner of public roles in Jewish communities. Patriarchy rules (again).

Over the last 50 years, major strides have been made to strip the patriarchy out of Judaism. This is happening even in parts of the Orthodox community today. While we have a long way to go, we are a better community for it. I would argue, it has also allowed Judaism to come closer to a core tenet of Jewish theology: the understanding that every human is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Women’s voices, so long denied, have enriched the spiritual lives of millions of Jews precisely because of their ability to understand Torah in ways that men still can not fully access.

I used to think that Judaism could benefit from adopting social and cultural mores from American society. Perhaps, the modest progress we have made to strip patriarchy out of Judaism, can provide us sorely needed wisdom for the work we must now do to strip patriarchy out of American society.