What about the menz gets religion

I came across an article in the Boston Globe today decrying the “gender problem” that has emerged in liberal Judaism. What’s the emergency?  There are more women than men entering leadership positions.

“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.”

No, not that! Anything but “feminized!”

Here’s the thing: religion has been primarily a female pursuit for a long time. Women make up the majority of church-goers, sangha-goers, and synagogue-goers. The only religious meeting where I have seen more men than women was at a conservative-leaning mosque, where they were holding the evening prayer (women aren’t expected to show up for this). Women are the ones who tend to take responsibility for teaching children about religion and molding their spiritual belief system, for good or ill. In our current cultural context, women tend to be more interested in spirituality. That makes a lot of sense, because many men in our culture are socialized in ways that tend not to be conducive to the kinds of deep emotional experiences that create religious commitment for its own sake.

Women have played a bigger part in attending church, baking the cookies for the bake sale, running the Sunday school, and pretty much every aspect of religious life. Except, of course, holding positions of power. The “feminized” nature of religion wasn’t a problem for anyone until women started moving into these positions. It’s the power thing that has everyone’s jockstrap in a twist.

As the cultural power of religion (and hence, the appeal of a religious vocation for ambitious men interested in political influence) has decreased and feminism has seeped into religious life, women have begun to enter positions of leadership in unprecedented ways. Liberal Judaism is the first denomination to flip to a majority of women as leaders, but they won’t be the last. My denomination (Unitarian Universalist) is currently at 50/50. Others are getting close. And there are a lot of women in seminary now. The response, from virtually every denomination, has been to increase barriers to ordination, create new professionalized (but lower paying and lower status) positions for “people” holding a Master of Divinity, and finally to lower the wages of ministers. As you probably know, the lowering of wages is a time-honored way to say, “this profession has a lot of women in it now!”

The problem, as I see it, is that no one seems to view adjusting religious leadership to accomodate an increase in women’s participation (making sure that feminization of the workforce doesn’t lead to decreased wages, having decent maternity leave policies, etc.) to be an issue. Instead, they’re worried about getting more men to show up. From where I sit, the only way to increase male interest in spirituality would be to fundamentally change the way we socialize men and boys, or to take the spirituality out of liberal religion and turn it back into what religion has often served as through history—a means of consolidating and exerting political power. In other words, feminist revolution or fundamentalist revolution.

Unfortunately, it seems a lot of people are leaning toward the latter.

“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.

I’m not sure how to approach the issue of wages, hours and conditions for religious professionals, which I see as the real “gender problem” facing many denominations. But what I do know is that thousands of years of recorded history shows that creating segregated structures within religious institutions specifically for the purpose of allowing men to be part of the faith “on their own terms” is a dangerous practice that tends to end with me getting burned at the stake.

But maybe they’re right. We should be careful about allowing women to be spiritual leaders.  Otherwise we might end up with hysterical psychos like this giving us advice:

Man, she is nuts


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22 Responses to What about the menz gets religion

  1. arielariel says:

    I just wanted to say this post is right on. I will comment again at more length, but as a Jew and as someone with a lot of friends in seminary, I am excited to see writing like this. I’m glad you’re guesting!

  2. William says:

    I’m just thinking out loud here, but could part of the concern here be less about the faith becoming feminized and more about demographic imbalance? I know that the Jewish faith is matrilineal, but might there be a concern about family structure going on here? It seems to me that if you have more liberal Jewish women than liberal Jewish men, you might then begin to see some social strains when it comes to finding a partner. I would see this as being especially true for people who hold a strong faith, as the issue of marrying someone of a differing faith (or a different sect) is likely more important than for someone who only shows up on high holy days.

    I’m not saying that this is or isn’t the case, or even if its the primary issue, but if anyone with more specialized knowledge in this area than me would like to chime in I’d certainly appreciate it.

  3. oh MY GOD!!! Lock up your children!!! There are Feminazi’s roaming inside the churches and synagogues!!!!

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  5. William-

    Although I’m not Jewish, my fiancé is, so I have some understanding of marriage issues. Basically, it’s a big deal for him to marry a non-Jewish woman. Because the religion is matrilineal, the “Jewish” part can only be passed on through the woman. Meaning our hypothetical children would not be Jewish at birth, which is a moot point, because we’re not having children. Anyway, it’s less of a big deal for a Jewish woman to marry a non-Jewish man, because their children will still be Jewish. I understand that it’s still an issue for a lot of families, though. My fiancé’s father converted from Catholicism to Judaism to marry his mother. So I think you’re partially right, that ideas about intermarriage are driving some of the concern. But because only the mother needs to be Jewish in order to “pass on” the Judaism, I don’t think that’s the entire motivating factor.

    (Jewish people, feel free to correct me if I botched this somehow).

  6. Luna says:

    Women have played a bigger part in attending church, baking the cookies for the bake sale, running the Sunday school, and pretty much every aspect of religious life. Except, of course, holding positions of power.

    See, this is one of the things I like about my church (the United Church of Canada – largest protestant denomination in Canada). Women comprise almost 65% of the clergy. We’ve been able to be ordained since 1936. Also, we ordain gay people, and lobbied the government to allow us to marry them.

    It’s not perfect for women in the UCC, but it’s at least as good, if not better, as general Canadian society.

    Oh and x-thread, I don’t think a single person in my congregation believes in demons. :)

  7. Walker T says:

    Wow, this was pretty spot on. Imagine my amusement when just as I was thinking that maybe the decrease in male attendance has to do with the loss of status for religious figures you bring it up.

    The article got one thing right though, this isn’t a strictly jewish thing at all and IMO, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to attract folks that are growing increasingly apathetic to the whole shindig.

  8. Privileged people always get bent out of shape whenever the playing field gets leveled and things become more fair for everyone.

  9. Chel says:

    I see a solution to the problem from both sides.

    Everyone should become atheists and realize what a fuckwad religion is.

    That way women aren’t being owned and controlled by their faith/men and men aren’t whining about there being women in “too powerful” positions in the church/synogogue.

    Yep, that’s it. Just end religion. Who’s with me?

  10. Amanda in San Jose says:

    Reform Judaism recognizes children born of Jewish fathers and non Jewish mothers as Jewish, I think. Also, a non-Jewish mom could convert before she gives birth, or babies could be raised Jewish.

  11. Ashley says:

    Hey Chel,

    I know yours is a belief held by a lot of progressive people, and I respect it, but personally, I highly doubt that ending religion would do much good. People who want lots of power can always find a belief system that they can use to manipulate people. Patriotism and Naziism come to mind, for example. And religion isn’t always on the wrong side of things. In the case of China’s genocide in Tibet, for example, it’s not religion that’s the problem.

    A little pet peeve of mine–saying that being “atheist” would constitute an “end to religion” is pretty monotheistic religion-centric. Believing in God as traditional Islam, Judaism and Christianity imagine God (in other words, the specific deity known as YHWH or Allah) is not an important aspect of many other traditions. In fact, believing in a deity is completely optional in Buddhism. And God as Hindus imagine God is NOT the same as the bizarre cross between Santa Claus, Zeus and Fred Phelps that conservative Christians tend to imagine God to be.

    You’d have a heck of a time even getting two Christians to agree about what exactly the word “God” means. I’ve heard answers ranging from aforementioned Santa/Zeus/Phelps superbeing to “God is a metaphor for our conscience” and “God is Buddha nature.”

    Religion is a big, big thing. When progressives reject all religion as if it’s exactly the same as fundamentalist (white) Christianity, I think it tends to play right into what fundamentalist Christians want us to believe about religion—that theirs is the only (or at least the only legitimate) one, and you’re either with them or against them.

    And, paradoxically, that makes it so much easier for them to manipulate people.

    I say if you don’t want to believe in God (whatever “God” means), fabulous. But don’t let the fundamentalist Christians that have attempted to define religion get away with it. Religion has been a tremendous source of resistance in the black church, where you’ll often hear a lot more about liberation than you would at some lefty coffee house. It has spurred outright revolt in Burma. It has also led some very cool nuns to do really fun things with nuclear missile silos. Like people, or politics, or just about anything, it’s not one-dimensional… Which is why I think it’s a worthwhile project to offer progressive alternatives within religion instead of insisting that people choose between crazy right-wing Christian and religion-hating progressive.

  12. Jay says:

    “Liberal Judaism” isn’t a movement in the US, but generally is used to refer to the Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, all of which recognize patrilineal descent. I don’t know if it’s an official movement elsewhere in the world (possible in Britain?). In which case, never mind.

    Women have indeed always been the backbone of religious communities, toiling unpaid as volunteers, and now they have a greater share of the (as you point out) poorly paying jobs available. In our community, many of the traditional volunteer organizations are suffering for lack of people do the work. I don’t think that’s due to the entry of women into the rabbinate but the movement of women into the paid workforce.

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  14. mythago says:

    There’s a lot of controversy about the recognition of patrilineal descent, partly because it’s new, and partly because it requires the kids to be raised as Jews – i.e. it’s not really inclusive because it excludes other people who would traditionally have been considered Jews.

    The article itself (not just the summary posted here) is a lot more complex than “OH NOEZ WOMAN RABBI!”

  15. hendo says:

    Hey Ashley,

    I’m still with Chel… You’re trying to retrofit an essentially patriarchal system, and there are plenty of those that we actually need retrofitted already, e.g. workplaces, tax system, universities, the way the Western world deals with developing countries, etc.

    I just don’t see the point of tinkering with religion, wondering whether it’s ok to have this or that change… And as for all the good works that religious organisations do – it’s very nice, but I believe people can also band together without religion in order to do great things.

    And perhaps those of us on the agnostic/athiest/just not particularly religious side wouldn’t feel so frustrated by these kind of debates if religion-in-general didn’t have so much influence on our lives. I don’t need a progressive church: I need a progressive freaking WORLD.

  16. hendo says:

    oops… atheist… not athiest! My bad.

  17. The response, from virtually every denomination, has been to increase barriers to ordination, create new professionalized (but lower paying and lower status) positions for “people” holding a Master of Divinity, and finally to lower the wages of ministers. As you probably know, the lowering of wages is a time-honored way to say, “this profession has a lot of women in it now!”

    Replace “ordination” with “tenure,” “Master of Divinity” with “PhD,” and “ministers” with “professors,” and you’re describing academia. It’s amazing how common these trends are.

  18. Neko Onna says:

    It sounds a whole lot like the old playground “Nah-nah” syndrome: Meanie ol’ wimminz won’t let the menz be the Undisputed Leaders of Everything, so the menz are taking their ball and going home! That’ll show the meanie wimminz!

    And they WANT these guys back in the picture?

    Get real.

  19. Torri says:

    While I’d be more in with the ‘down with monotheistic religion’ crowd I’m not sure this is the thread to debate it in…

  20. Brown Shoes says:

    Ah, I see we’ve started in with the “bigger issues” crowd – tell me, hondo, when somebody comes along and tells you that your pet issue(s) is/aren’t that big or important overall and that you ought to have bigger worries on your mind or fighting for this/that cause, how would you respond?

    Also, if religion isn’t that important to your progressive world, how do you explain the hundreds of millions of Catholics in places like Central/South America, the Phillipines, etc. for whom the Church IS important, and in many of those areas also fights for progressive change?

  21. William says:

    And perhaps those of us on the agnostic/athiest/just not particularly religious side wouldn’t feel so frustrated by these kind of debates if religion-in-general didn’t have so much influence on our lives. I don’t need a progressive church: I need a progressive freaking WORLD.

    You’re taking a subtle paternalistic stance right there. What you’re saying, essentially, is that you don’t see the need for religion and so the discussion shouldn’t ever consider the religious aspects. You’re saying “what is important to me is what really matters.” The response to having religion intruding upon your life is not to have your atheism intrude on the lives of the religious and hope that you end up stalemating somewhere in the middle. All you’re doing there is pitting two decidedly top-down, one-size-fits-all world views against each other. There is absolutely nothing progressive about intellectual authoritarianism.

  22. all_one says:

    I left the church my family attended at age 12 because of sexism. I was agnostic for many years and now
    I am spiritual (quantum physics n all). Generalizations about people who are not atheists makes any atheist spouting generalizations look ignorant and bigoted. Vehement arguments from atheists about non atheists sure come across a lot like religious fanatics arguments.

    In any case, my hope is that more of the organizations that are supported by women are also led by women in the coming years. I’m tired of hearing about the women behind the scenes making the male leaders look good…tired of it in religion, politics, work, academia and family structures.

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