The Person Behind The Posts

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Unconscious Jewish Misogyny

For weeks now, I've been trying to come to a place of peace regarding a sensitive issue that erupted close to home. I've been racking my brain, trying to understand how an otherwise relatively progressive community can accept what appears to me to be a reactionary position. And I'm trying to find a way to judge all parties favorably.

The fundamentals of the backstory are quite simple. The issue concerns whether or not women may be invited to teach Torah to a mixed audience on the night of Shavuot. One rabbi ruled that she may, but only in the first time slot of the all-night learning. One rabbi ruled that she may not teach in the shul itself but may teach in an auxiliary location.

In both cases, we have to appreciate that neither rabbi ruled that a woman teaching Torah to both men and women is forbidden according to Jewish law. If that were the case, they would not permit it at all. So we have to look more closely at the conditions imposed. 

Women are permitted to teach, but only at a certain time, or only in a certain location. Why might that be?

In both cases, the reason given was the same. These time and place restrictions were placed upon women teaching Torah because a man might not want to listen to a shiur given by a woman, even though it is halachically permissible. (In fact, shiurim are taught in this community by women at other times of the year.)

Take away all the rhetoric and you're left with this central point: the "right" of a man whose personal standard is to avoid attending shiurim taught by women is the most single important consideration for the night of Shavuot.

How so? In the first case, a woman is permitted to teach, but only in the first time slot. The rationale? This way, a man who does not want to hear or see a woman giving a shiur may come to the all-night learning sessions an hour later, after she has finished. 

In the second case, where a woman is not permitted to teach in the shul at all, but only in an auxiliary location, a man who wishes to avoid hearing or seeing a woman teach Torah can easily do so by staying in the shul and avoiding the upper floor. The shul itself remains femalerein.

Again, in the event that there is a man who prefers not to listen to a woman teach Torah, his "right" to a learning environment free of women teachers trumps all other concerns. This is the ruling, despite the fact that there are simultaneous shiurim being taught in multiple locations in the neighborhood, affording everyone the ability to switch among locations to attend the shiurim they most wish to attend.

It makes the gender of the teacher's body, rather than her level of scholarship, or her skill in transmitting Torah, the most important criterion. 

It makes the dignity of women scholars less important than the "right" of a man to avoid what is halachically permissible, if his personal preference dictates otherwise. 

Lacking the correctly gendered body, these conditions make it impossible for any woman, regardless of her level of Torah scholarship, even Nechama Leibowitz a"h, the revered teacher who passed away in 1997 after a lifetime of renewing a love of the Bible for many thousands of men and women, to be issued a dignified, unconditional invitation to teach in these locations on Shavuot night.
Admittedly, there are communities where it's unheard of for women to teach to a mixed audience. And there are women teachers who would consider doing so immodest. I am not speaking here of these communities, nor am I addressing myself to women who hold this perspective.

It is my contention that the rabbis who made these rulings are neither fools nor intentionally misogynist. Rather, they are operating from a deep, wholly unconscious place of male-centered Judaism. Such a mindset is rampant in halachic thinking. Witness these three textual examples, out of dozens, if not hundreds, that reinforce the categorization of woman as other.

Women, slaves and minors are exempt... - Mishnah Brachot 3:3
Women, slaves and minors – are excluded... - Mishnah Brachot 7:2
Women, slaves and children are not obligated... - Mishnah Sukkot 2:8 (see also Sukkah 28b)

Alas, the male-centered, unconscious Jewish misogyny is a fact of life in the not-yet redeemed world in which we live. This unconsciousness causes otherwise decent men to build shuls where women have to walk past dumpsters to enter the building through a side or back door while men walk through the main entrance. It causes otherwise honorable men to speak and write as if all Jews are men. It causes otherwise virtuous men to behave as if they own every Sefer Torah and have the power to decide if and when a woman may see it, kiss it, hold it or dance with it on Simchat Torah

And it causes rabbis to prioritize the "right" of men to not attend a shiur taught by a woman over the dignity of women scholars and Torah teachers in the community.

Like the portion of an iceberg submerged underwater, it may well be wholly unconscious.

It offends nonetheless.


Anonymous said...

The strange thing is that this is not a neighborhood or population that follows Haredi segregation in any other respect. Most of the men here would see nothing amiss in attending a class or lecture given by a woman in the workplace, or indeed, in the university. It is out if place, and therefore, all the more offensive, to behave as though a woman teaching Torah is somehow over the line or even obscene. As though the lecturer might perhaps appear in Playboy bunny costume, or do a bit of twerking while handing out her mareh makomot.

Anonymous said...

Why is a woman, a neighbor, teaching a neighborhood shiur, somehow suddenly considered lewd? What do the gentlemen who not only choose to avoid this particular dvar Torah, but also prevent others from being able to hear it, think they are "proving", and to whom?

Anonymous said...

I agree that it's ridiculous that a rabbi can rule that women can give shiurim to mixed audiences but limit the locations where those shiurim can take place. However, I do believe this issue goes deeper than what you're making it out to be. The number of female Torah scholar is very low to the number of male Torah scholars. The female Torah scholar you mention in your post has been dead for 17 years! Many of the women who have graduated from the few high-level Torah programs for women have found more suitable jobs in the US than would be available in Israel (with a major reason that some are being hired into assistant rabbi-type roles that don't exist for pay in Israel). Thus, it's far easier for a shul to find male accomplished Torah scholars than female accomplished Torah scholars.

Further, most of the people staying up all night are men. They're not the ones nursing infants in the middle of the night, and in any event, one parent has to stay home with those kids. Not everyone can be empty nesters. I used to stay up all night Shavuot night, and I HATED it. I like sleeping. Staying up all night messes up my internal clock. If my husband wants to stay up all night because it's the thing to do, all the power to him. I know many other men who feel the same way and many women who feel the same way I do. (It's often nice to not have the same expectations thrust upon us that men do while hiding behind the child-rearing guise.) It's not that the guys who are staying up all night DON'T want to hear a women give a shiur, it's that they want the highest-quality shiur in order to stay awake. And, let's face it, the highest-quality shiur is not coming from a women in all but very few dati communities worldwide.

If the shuls are letting people who aren't Torah scholars speak, and just regular laymen who maybe spent a year in yeshiva after high school and attend a couple shuirim per week speak, then this argument is thrown completely out the window and the rabbis making their rulings should be ashamed of themselves. But, if the choice for top billing was between "Rabbi Cohen" who has written 10 books on Torah and halacha, serves as a dayan, and is generally highly respected in the community versus anyone - male or female - whose Torah knowledge primarily comes from day school, a gap year in Israel, Stern/YU/Touro, and then weekly shiurim, I'm sure everyone will want to choose Rabbi Cohen for top billing.

I'm equally offended, btw, when women come to shul and don't help with anything. At our shul, the chairs need to be stacked in the Social Hall after the minyan meets there. I'm the only woman who ever stacks chairs in that minyan. Everyone else who does it is male. And, no, not every woman is pregnant or holding a baby, so they're perfectly capable of lifting a chair to stack it. I know you're not one of those women, Rivka, but it drives me crazy (and I'm sure it doesn't help men's images of women in shul) when women who are perfectly capable of participating in shul life leave it to the men to do everything.

fayge said...

Rivkah, I think you are being very restrained and DLKZ here.

IMHO it's all about social constructs and the slippery slope. I may not like certain halachot but I can accept them. Decisions based on non-halachic grounds, as these seem to be, are a different story.

Anonymous said...

I think that once again, Rivkah, you have hit the nail on the head. Your title says it all, and we have to bring it to the forefront. I don't believe most men are "out to" make us feel the way we do, but I think they just do things and say things without being sensitive to how it affects us. They do exist in a world where Judaism = male Judaism. For example, we belonged to a shul that sent out a weekly Halacha to the congregation. One of the first ones talked about "When you put on Tefillin in the morning". So, I ask you: is that a heter for me to put on tefillin? Or was the author meaning that only the male members of the family should read the emails? Neither I think. It is just that he did not consider that the OTHER 50% of Jews in the congregation would consider it an affront. I did call to complain, and I was brushed off as if it were nothing. I bet there wouldn't have been the same reaction if ALL the women in the shul had called to complain! On another note.. I would like to introduce your readers to Beit Hillel if they have not already become familiar with it. Many of the founders of the organization are female and, in fact, when I lived in Raanana, one of these amazing women, (Rabbanit Penina Neuwirth) would give the Shabbat Hagadol Drasha from the bima in the main shul. I encourage everyone who cares about this issue to check out and support this amazing organization:

Chaya said...

Anonymous: Your quotes make me think of the saying, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

"Further, most of the people staying up all night are men. They're not the ones nursing infants in the middle of the night, and in any event, one parent has to stay home with those kids. Not everyone can be empty nesters."

Yes, but some of us don't have young children, get a babysitter, or have young children who aren't nursing - yes, a woman might be less likely to come, but why should that matter in the final decision? This is part of the problem.

"I used to stay up all night Shavuot night, and I HATED it. I like sleeping. Staying up all night messes up my internal clock. If my husband wants to stay up all night because it's the thing to do, all the power to him. I know many other men who feel the same way and many women who feel the same way I do."

That's nice for you and your husband and other people like you know who like to go to bed early, but for other people, that's reversed - I'm a woman, and I like staying up late - my hubby doesn't and frequently falls asleep. Why should providing everyone with an equal opportunity to teach and learn be based on your personal preferences?

"It's not that the guys who are staying up all night DON'T want to hear a women give a shiur, it's that they want the highest-quality shiur in order to stay awake. And, let's face it, the highest-quality shiur is not coming from a women in all but very few dati communities worldwide."

Once again, part of the problem - is it possible that you (and many men) have been conditioned to think that women won't give as high-quality shiurim? There are many, many learned women who can give amazing shiurim - of course, if you're staying home sleeping and nursing, you probably wouldn't bump shoulders with them..

Chaya said...

Rivka, I think using the word 'standard' is problematic:

"Take away all the rhetoric and you're left with this central point: the 'right' a man whose personal standard is to avoid attending shiurim taught by women is the most single important consideration for the night of Shavuot."

Since hearing a shiur from a woman is halachically permissible, it's not so much about standards as it is about his personal preferences - and his preference not to hear a woman give a shiur. What about YOUR preferences are less valid than his in your community?

Anonymous said...

Someone brought up to be recently that there is value to women giving shiurim to only women. I think we can all agree that there is a whole different vibe when women teach women than when women or men teach to a mixed crowd. I am all for progress and on this issue I really have no strong feelings either way. However, let's not get into a situation when all shiurim are mixed and we miss out something.

Tamar Weissman said...

to Anonymous 8:54 -- Shiurim offered to a female-only audience should definitely be encouraged! It should be at the discretion of the maggid/at shiur, however, as to whether the tone or content of his/her shiur is best suited to a mixed or single-gendered audience. Most of the shiurim that I present, given as well the style in which I present them, are suitable for a mixed audience (most, but definitely not all, and I give judicious thought to the matter before making a decision).

Anonymous said...

I always say this about the bracha "Shelo asani isha." I feel like thanking God for not making you a woman every day of your life definitely contributes to a person's attitude about women. (Same for shelo asani goy, though that's a different conversation.)

Anonymous said...

I always find it helpful to ask people to substitute the word black for the word woman in any of these situations... The black person can only teach in the first slot so that those who don't want to hear them can come later... the back person can teach upstairs so that those who don't want to see them don't have to... if it sounds racist then it is probably sexist.

Anonymous said...

I think it is important to just keep talking about it and reminding people of the inconsistencies and double standards. If we wait for change to happen it never will. I agree with the article that the misogyny is largely subconscious so it needs to be brought up to a conscious level by being challenged. People are very careful about racism but casual sexism seems to be fine. My pet peeve happened this week in a shiur about Parshat Bamidbar with the teacher talking about EVERYONE being counted, after about the tenth time this statement was repeated I could no longer hold back. In the teacher's head I'm sure he knew he was talking about just the men and I'm sure he knew we knew he was talking about just the men but if you mean just the men then say just the men. excluding more than half the population is not EVERYONE.

Lisa said...

Nechama Leibowitz would not have liked this article.

Bat Aliyah said...


You're almost certainly correct. My issues were not her issues. I reached for the most well-known female Torah teacher only in order to make my point (that even she would not be invited to speak) stronger.

Efraim Davidson said...

You ought not equate male-centeredness with misogyny. In the general world, football fields and cigar lounges are male-centered but not places of women-hating. A beit midrash has historically been a male-oriented place. That does not suggest that it is hostile to women. I think it's reasonable to men and women to have places where they are comfortable being with other men and women, respectively. Mixed locations are fine for those who want them. Separate places are also fine for those who want them, and those folk should not be tarred with nasty labels such as misogynist.

Chaya said...

Why would Nechama Liebowitz not like this article?

Unknown said...


I find your lack of tolerance to be both insensitive and offensive.

I have no problem receiving a shiur from a woman. I also don't have a problem with a woman giving a shiur in a shul. I'm more interested in the quality of the learning and I certainly know a few women that are brilliant in depth and breadth of Torah.

HOWEVER, others may feel differently and who am I to judge them? Likewise for you.

As you pointed out, accommodations were made to allow women to teach. This isn't giving women a secondary position. It is just the opposite. The fact that accommodations are being made demonstrates respect.

There is no obligation for an individual to teach, but there is an obligation to learn. These decisions reflect a desire to encourage participation in learning even from those who (for whatever reason) feel that learning from a woman is inappropriate.

One must be careful to tamper with tradition. It is wise and prudent to make accommodations that function for everyone rather than make rulings that change long-standing traditions and potentially create negative (and possibly unforeseen) consequences.

So why do you feel that these decisions are a problem? Seems like a solution to me.

Anonymous said...

Here's my response to the sentiment of "others feel differently, who am I to judge them?" (on this issue particularly): As a community, we should not be encouraging or coddling silliness. Having a woman give a shiur in this day and age to a mixed audience is not tampering with tradition. We are not discussing matters like women getting aliyot, leading parts of tefillah, partnership minyanim. This is a natural, organic development stemming from decades of teaching women advanced Torah studies. If we do not take a stand on something as basic as this, then we are bringing shame on our community's good name.

Bat Aliyah said...


We may well have to agree to disagree on this. However, let me say a few things in response to your comment.

1)I did not judge men who would prefer not to hear a woman saying a shiur. Off the top of my head, I could list half a dozen alternatives for such a man on leil Shavuot that do not involve insulting women scholars.

2)Speaking for myself, the accommodations offered were, in and of themselves, offensive. It's like offering someone crumbs to eat while sitting at a full meal and telling that person she or he should feel grateful. I am well aware that this is a difficult point for many men, who enjoy nearly every privilege in a synagogue setting, to understand.

3) There is no special obligation to learn on leil Shavuot. It is a minhag.

4) I have no tolerance for insensitivity toward women.

Anonymous said...

As someone who was educated in the bais yaakov system, and who has abandoned most of what I learned there, I can share that my frustration at feeling "the other" was a large part of what sent me elsewhere.

Unknown said...

Bat Aliyah,

Activists are always self-righteous with a sense of superiority. Your response sadly did not really address my basic points. You are only rationalizing.

I have no agenda in this and my preferences, in fact, would be for the level of scholarship to dictate the venue. After all, women were created "according to G-d's will" and in this capacity they have a wealth of wisdom and insight which may not be apparent to the typical male Torah scholar.

Regardless, I recognize that these rabbium have other considerations besides the advancement of feminism. This may be a so-called "organic" development, and if so, I certainly encourage it. However, an "organic" development takes a life of it's own and does not need to be pushed. You cannot force dough to rise just because you want it now. There is a process.

Rather than create strife, I think all would be better served to let the "organic" process run its course.

Bat Aliyah said...


I'd like to point out to you that this is now twice that you have turned our difference of opinion personal and have written insulting comments about me personally. That's disappointing to me.

Regarding our difference of opinion itself, if I understand you correctly, you believe women ought to wait until such time as rabbis recognize that increasing numbers of women in our generation are learning and teaching Torah at historically unprecedented levels and make appropriate accommodations. In essence, if I understand you correctly, your advice is to wait for the rabbis to decide what forum is appropriate for women Torah scholars to teach to mixed audiences.

If I've understood you correctly, we simply disagree on strategy, not on the goal.

In this case, and for the past several decades, I take seriously my responsibility, as a woman, to point out when Jewish men are acting in ways that are unnecessarily hurtful and offensive. It's been my experience that they often don't even realize that what they're doing is hurting or offending anyone. That was the exact point of my entire post.

In this particular case, I don't accept your characterization that my actions "create strife". Why do you think I am less entitled to speak about my perspective on this issue than
the rabbis?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
― Margaret Mead

Bat Aliyah said...

Here's the quote I wish I had chosen. It's from Mahatma Gandhi.

It's the action, not the fruit of the action, that's important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there'll be any fruit. But that doesn't mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.

Anonymous said...

You write that Rivkah's comments are offensive, but didn't write to whom. Are you personally offended by what she wrote, and if so, why did you get personally offended? And if it's not you, then who is offended, and why are you defending the offended? There is some under-current in your personal attack and perhaps you should be more honest about where it comes from.
Rivkah, from everything I read, did not create the strife. Rather, it was created by rabbinic opinions that were shortsighted and indefensible. To say that a woman may teach men in the afternoon but disqualified a few hours later is not based on any halacha. The gender of the teacher not being an issue one time and then being an issue at another time suggests a random reason for the disqualification. If you, Akiva, were not permitted any aliyah because of some random detail, would you not raise your voice? Would you just sit there and take it as a rabbinic ruling? Would you wait for some organic movement to right was you know is absurd and insulting? Here is the bottom line: in Orthodox shuls, men have EVERY privilege- having an aliyah, opening the ark, holding a Torah, hearing and seeing the rabbi and those who lead the service, etc. Perhaps you need to feel more empathy, as one who has every privilege, for those 50% who don't, and stop asking Jewish women to knock it off.

Unknown said...


I certainly apologize for giving the impression of a personal attack. Certainly not my intent (actually, I'm not sure where it was). Just trying to point out that you are bias and maybe you are not seeing all possible perspectives.

You can vent in what ever way that you want on your blog. The fact that you are encouraging negative views on a neighborhood seems like strife to me. Maybe I am exaggerating a bit.

Regardless, I think people will vote with their feet. A packed "auxiliary venue" and and empty shul would be quite powerful. On the other hand, an "auxiliary venue" with a few women and a crowded shul would also be telling.

I say encourage women to teach in whatever venue is "acceptable" today and see what happens. I don't see a need to force the issue when accommodations are being made for everyone.

Anonymous said...

at a feeling level, I can really feel your feelings of alienation and disgust (if that is too strong a word, then come up with a milder one) regarding the rulings in your neighbourhood. your response is well thought out and correct, vis a vis that community. and I think it is worth your while to point out these lacunae in logic to the rabbinical leadership in both shuls, or more. even if you do not receive the response you would have wished for it is still worth while; it is not off the walls, it is logical, and deserves a response.

somehow, over the years, my feminist side has gotten honed down, and it comes down to this.
any male, or female, who would use male privileges to abuse, rather than protect, needs to be stopped, and if necessary punished. the first thing that comes to mind are agunot. even women are capable of doing this, and it is far more a sign of dishonesty and seeking to harm, than chauvinism.

any male who is behaving in an illogical fashion, as the rabbis you mentioned, who are only a small part of a tsunami, not iceberg, of such male privilege type thinking, deserve to be taught, and allowed to make the changes with impunity, since they are, as you also mention, probably totally oblivious to the illogic of their thought process. and they may, or may not, accept these premises and they may, or may not, change.

but in the end, the thing that I really have a problem with is:
I personally don’t feel much interest in imitating male behaviour, and would prefer women to find women-oriented paradigms, which are totally not like male ones!

why should women imitate male behaviour and thinking, which is very pecking-order, uniform-clad, and competitive, when we are, by nature (at least according to the studies I have read) collaborative, intuitive, and nurturing?

I love listening to women lecturers, and there are probably men who do too. but at the bottom line, I don’t get much out of the kind of communal prayer men do (and I have been in many egalitarian minyans, and do not miss them). and why should a new paradigm be cut out of the old paradigm’s material? why should it be women’s minyanim? I don’t know where it would lead, but I would like to see us less taking umbrage at what men think and do and say (about us), and more putting all that energy into envisioning a blessed and wonderful paradigm which brings out the best in women.

anyway, these are my feelings.
thanks for your writing!

Gil Ronen said...

Your basic precept is wrong and endlessly arrogant. You assume that Judaism is wrong in holding that there are inherent differences between men and women which reflect an order in which men and women have different roles in society and the family. Therefore, if the rabbis direct women and men differently, they must be trying to preserve their own privileges. It can't possibly be that there is a deeper wisdom at work here. It can't possibly be that women and men should not be measured by the same yardstick and are not meant to compete, but to complement each other. It can't possibly be that the innate binary gender role breakup we see in virtually all other fauna around us is continued in the human race, too. No, it must be a conspiracy!

Bat Aliyah said...

I have no idea what blog post you think you read, but it clearly wasn't the one I wrote. You seem to have completely missed the point I made and instead wrote an impassioned protest against what you assumed I feel about the Torah's view on gender differences. We might have been able to discuss the issues if you hadn't started out by calling me names.

Unknown said...

Saying that classes can be taught by women at an auxiliary venue and then not actually providing that venue is the same as saying that women cannot teach. Perhaps it was a logistical problem to arrange the auxiliary venue on short-notice, but I am annoyed that it was not arranged.