In the “olden days,” as some of my students call the 1970s and ’80s, women began to gain influence in the creation and understanding of Jewish meaning – as professors and researchers entering the academic field of Jewish studies, as rabbis and Jewish school principals, as synagogue presidents and executives in Jewish organizations. Women were vastly outnumbered in such leadership roles and often wondered how their presence might change things.
“It can’t be just ‘add women and stir,’” many would say. By this, they meant that simply adding a dash of women as an exotic spice to soup cooked from an old recipe would not suffice. All the ingredients – to continue the culinary metaphor – would need to be re-evaluated. The whole menu would have to be recalibrated. In other words, the inclusion of women meant the end of same-old-same-old. It meant new paradigms, systemic changes and unanticipated possibilities.
The debate about what changes the inclusion of women would bring resurfaced with the #MeToo movement and the exposure of sexual improprieties and assaults in the workplace. The Jewish world has not been immune from its repercussions. I don’t mean simply that some of the accused have been Jewish, but that some have been central to contemporary Judaism, Jewish education, the Jewish community and Jewish thought. A number of men whose leadership and influence has been significant to Jewish self-perception and policy have been accused – and then confessed to, or been convicted of – predatory acts against women. Behaviours such as unwanted sexual comments, unwanted sexual touching and surreptitious voyeurism have been perpetrated against female interns, subordinates, job seekers, research assistants, congregants and others. The men who have committed these acts often serve as gatekeepers and disciplinarians, deciding who may enter Judaism and Jewish professions, and how women should think.
And now, in the 21st century, many of my colleagues and students catch the threads of the old debate, asking how the values and control of such influential men – and, especially, their ideas about women – have shaped the way we think about Jewish community and values. It is a call to re-evaluate their research, analyses and conclusions, to determine whether and how their guidance has been compromised by what we now know about their personal attitudes toward women.
For example, several recent articles have pointed to a prominent sociologist and demographer – the mastermind behind the most influential studies of the Jewish community in the late 20th and early 21st centuries – who’s been accused by several women of sexual impropriety. The articles ask probing and discomfiting questions about whether his attitude towards women has shaped the current priorities of North American Jewish organizations.
Would a woman’s strong hand yield something different? I think so. When I was a graduate student, a female Jewish sociologist said that there was one basic solution to the crisis of Jewish continuity: the Jewish community needed to throw its support behind any woman – whether she be single, married, gay, young, old, intermarried – who wanted to raise her child Jewishly. By “support,” she meant financial support for things such as Jewish education, summer camp, synagogue membership and holiday observances, in order to remove the burden of financial pressure, so women can make more space for Jewish practice. But she also meant emotional support, integrating any woman raising a Jewish child into our social circles, making them feel welcome, accepted and valued. And, as time went on and more men began to raise children alone, she advocated supporting them, as well. My conversations with this sociologist took place in the late ’80s, when such ideas were considered radical. She looked at the same data as her male colleagues,
but her analysis was shaped by her sensibilities as a woman and her knowledge of the toll that being marginalized takes.
Jewish organizations are still catching up to her insights. Add women and stir the pot.