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.