Gott in Himmel part 2

Feministe brings us word of the latest front in the culture war, the feminization of Liberal Judaism. The title is apt, of course, because men not monopolizing the ministerial and boardroom positions of religious institutions constitutes an existential crisis.

Of course, if there is a problem getting men to become more religious, inevitably it’s indicative of feminization and there couldn’t be any other explanations:

At the Reform movement’s seminary, 60 percent of the rabbinical students and 84 percent of those studying to become cantors are female. Girls are outnumbering boys by as much as 2 to 1 among adolescents in youth group programs and summer camps, while women outnumber men at worship and in a variety of congregational leadership roles, according to the Union for Reform Judaism.

The evidence is everywhere. At Temple Sinai in Sharon, nine of the 11 members of this year’s confirmation class were girls. At Temple Beth David in Canton, last Saturday’s Bible study drew 11 women and no men. At Temple Isaiah in Lexington, the executive board for the last year had eight women and one man. And at the Prozdor, an intensive supplementary high school program at Hebrew College in Newton, 59 percent of the students are female.

“After bar mitzvah, the boys just drop out,” said Sylvia Barack Fishman, a professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University and the coauthor of a study on “Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life,” which was publicly released last week.

“American Jewish boys and men have fewer connections to Jews and Judaism in almost every venue and in every age, from school-age children through the adult years,” the study declares. “Contemporary liberal American Judaism, although supposedly egalitarian, is visibly and substantially feminized.”

Now, I certainly am too lazy to confirm/deny this, but taken at face value, why is a slight majority of women a sign of feminization? Possibly the lack of involvement with guys overall speaks to something else in the tradition – could we not celebrate the increased involvement of women while thinking of how to get men more involved at the same time?

To be fair, the article does mention other possibilities to this later in the article:

“Perhaps one factor is that men are devaluing something that is done by women, while another factor may be that men have less free time then they did a generation ago, and they’re choosing to use that free time for child-rearing and family activities,” said Rabbi Joseph Meszler, of Temple Sinai of Sharon. Meszler, the author of the Jewish Lights book on men’s responsibilities coming out this fall, is an advocate of giving men a time to talk apart from women.

He has relaunched his synagogue’s defunct brotherhood, held a men’s barbecue, and started men’s study groups.

“We need to reintroduce men to the synagogue, but on their own terms,” Meszler said.

The bottom line here is that this is most definitely not a zero-sum game: treating the gains of women in religious establishments as necessarily being at the expense of men only serves to exacerbate the problem and drive men further away from religion, instead of treating it like the positive development it actually is.

Finally, the article finishes off by stating that the universality of this phenomenon, America-wide, is maybe a little overblown:

The phenomenon is not universally observed. Several local rabbis, including Shoshana Perry of Congregation Shalom in Chelsmford, Joel Sisenwine, of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, and Jeffrey S. Wildstein of Temple Beth David in Westwood, said they do not see the pattern in their congregations.

Rabbi David S. Wolfman, the director of the Northeast region for the Union for Reform Judaism, cited statistics showing that Massachusetts Reform congregations have 36 men and 17 women rabbis, and 23 men and 22 women presidents. He said gender balance is “a nonissue,” and that “the question of ‘Where have all the men gone’ may be perceived more than it is real.”

The bottom line is that maybe, if this is a problem, some solutions need to be looked for that don’t involve blaming women for wanting to be involved and treating this as zero-sum, winner-takes-all; something that maybe involves talking to these men, perhaps? I noticed very few average men were interviewed for the article about why they never go to synagogue, they’ve just been talked about and theorized about instead.

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2 Responses

  1. Found your blog from Feministe …

    How much does the “feminization” of liberal Judaism reflect assimilation of (liberal) Judaism into American mores regarding the church as a women’s space? Perhaps I should base my understanding of American (Protestant) Christianity on something more than stereotypes I’ve gleaned from TeeVee, but, other than the minister, and the deacans and Jesus, isn’t the (stereotypical) American Protestant church considered a “woman’s space”?

  2. Not that I’m an expert on such matters at all, but I’d say that it might very well be in large part due to assimilation into American culture, but also I think reflects the general trend towards equality after the civil rights movement.

    I tend to also think, though, that it’s taken hold because (believe it or not) there’s precedent for it in Judaism, even if not much.

    The pre-eminent Biblical exegete in Judaism, pretty much all time, was Rabbi Shlomo ben Itzak from France, or Rashi for short, who lived in France in the 1000s. In those days it was forbidden to teach Torah to women, but Rashi ended up with four daughters.

    Did he, pre-eminent scholar and to this day near-universally revered and respected, forbid his children from learning Torah? No, he taught all his daughters.

    In Judaism, most of the precedent gets set usually by a trail-blazing rabbi or two down the line – the simple pine box, for example, was an innovation of Rabbi Gamaliel in Judea who wanted to set an example by not spending his considerable wealth on a funeral, so as to spare the poor the humiliation of not having the money to have an equivalent funeral.

    I went off on a tangent, I realize, but to answer your question more simply – I think it reflects more than one thing overall. Assimilation, yes, civil rights, yes, but also some small rabbinic precedent as well.

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