Who’s Afraid of Judy Maccabee?

Who’s Afraid of Judy Maccabee?

Women increasingly are taking leadership roles in Jewish life–and that’s a problem?


Why is it that whenever women start to get anywhere in this fallen world the big question is: what about men? A handful of single women have sperm-bank babies: fatherhood is dead! Girls start taking school seriously and, not surprisingly, get into excellent colleges: there’s a war against boys in education! When women are underrepresented in a desirable field the usual explanation is their personal preferences: women just don’t want to do physics or sell refrigerators, and who are we to question their choices? Maybe it’s genetic! With men, it’s almost the opposite: no one asks why men don’t become kindergarten teachers, and if men eschew an area they formerly dominated, it’s because women are taking over and "feminizing" it–painting the office Seashell Pink, hanging lace curtains and leaving their cooties on the chairs.

Case in point: Judaism. A much discussed study just out from Brandeis University portrays as problematic the fact that women are now prominent in Reform and Conservative Jewish life. According to Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent: The Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life by Sylvia Fishman and Daniel Parmer, girls outnumber boys in denominational youth activities and summer camp and women are increasingly taking on leadership roles in the synagogue. Reform seminaries, which did not ordain women until 1972, are crammed with women studying to become rabbis (60 percent of their students are female) and cantors (84 percent). At the conservative Ziegler School seminary in Los Angeles, twenty-eight of sixty-five students are women. This trend is not surprising. Like American women generally, non-Orthodox Jewish women are more religious than their menfolk and more determined to pass religion on to their children, especially in interfaith marriages. Nothing new in that: American religion is thoroughly entwined with traditional female concerns about community, family, morality and uplift; women have long been the workhorses of Jewish and Christian congregations. Once the formal barriers fell, you would expect a vibrant rush to leadership. Besides, think how exciting it would be to enter the sanctum and transform the old patriarchal understandings. Even an atheist like me can feel the extra layer of meaning at a bat mitzvah: it’s not just religion, it’s human rights.

As its title suggests, the study makes Jewish religious life a zero-sum game: the more women, the fewer men. It’s not so clear why that would be a problem, even if true. Perhaps, as my friend Deirdre English suggests, women are the ones who can take religion into the next phase, which is to transform the image of God from patriarchal to androgynous, and men are stepping back because they don’t want to do that, or can’t. But is Judaism so firmly in women’s control? Men still run the big congregations, get the big salaries and head the important Jewish organizations except those specifically for women, like Hadassah. Take the JCC: women account for 72 percent of Jewish Community Center staff but only 23 percent of executive directors.

What’s troubling about the study is its contention that when women become powerful or even just numerous, men are turned off by the "maternal vibes" of the temple. It quotes one rabbi explaining the preponderance of girls in youth programs: "Before it was always a man high up on a bimah wearing a big robe in a deep voice, a model of leadership that was male-only and top down…. Those synagogues now have everybody sitting in a circle with someone playing a guitar and sharing feelings…. they are styles that women may be more comfortable with than men…[boys] don’t necessarily see themselves there."

For how many thousands of years did Judaism keep women out of any kind of formal religious role, including even counting them as members of the congregation for ritual purposes? Who worried about how girls felt about the rabbi or what the synagogue meant to them? The study is full of unusually frank references to Jewish men’s dislike of Jewish women–too aggressive, demanding, ethnic–but instead of challenging this as sexist and anti-Semitic, it accepts it as a fact of life that women must accommodate for the sake of the community: "For those who find the synagogue’s world of our mothers too overwhelming, it is possible that dating non-Jews becomes a way to escape from the ubiquitous Jewish woman." Cue the "gendered"–i.e., all-male–activities where Jewish boys and men can reconnect to religion away from pesky females and their guitars. If the men-only seder doesn’t work, maybe they could join that Phoenix country club that won’t allow women in the grill room.

What if men are not being driven away by the presence of women but just aren’t so interested for other reasons? Perhaps, for example, women are entering rabbinical schools because men have left them, freeing up space (as the study notes, Jewish male disengagement from Jewish life dates to the 1950s). There are many areas where women have come to the fore because men have moved elsewhere, probably to something more profitable and socially valued. Publishing, art history, English, French, sociology, anthropology, psychotherapy are areas in which women historically were the rank and file but men monopolized the higher echelons. Then the men moved on–to Wall Street, banking, science and technology, IT. Maybe the sort of young man who would have become an art historian in 1950 is designing video games today–for many times the pay–and the sort of young man who would have become a rabbi is running the company. It takes a long time and much study to become a rabbi, after all, and only about a third get pulpits. A man can get a much better return on his educational investment by going to law school, business school or straight into the financial world. For a woman, religious study still has the whiff of the revolutionary; it’s a challenge. For a man, it’s another not very well-paid service job of middling prestige and declining authority.

It’s not as though men are lining up to become Catholic priests, after all, and that is a field men have all to themselves. At least for now.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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