Friday, August 16, 2013

Jewish Gender Roles

I came across this article on Interfaith Family, about the problem with teaching strict Jewish gender roles to children of interfaith families which might not match what they see at home; and then I saw this article, about an engaged interfaith couple struggling with those same gender roles.

According to Judaism, the Torah gives us 613 commandments (in hebrew, mitzvot), not just those first 10. There's plenty of mitzvot everyone is expected to follow, things like eating kosher and not working on Shabbat. There's a group of commandments, the positive time-bound mitzvot, which women are excluded from having to perform (but not forbidden from performing) so they can go raise babies or something. (Positive means you are commanded to do something rather than not do something, not that it's a "good" commandment. A good Jew would say they're all good commandments!) This always makes me think of that scene in A Knights Tale where she's all "Why should everything for a woman be done on a man's schedule?" and he stammers something about men having more demands on their time... only in this case it's the women who have more demands on their time, hence why they don't have to keep to God's prayer schedule.

Aside from that, there are many things traditionally broken up between men and women. For example, women are the ones who light the candles for Shabbat and holidays (except Hanukkah, which everyone lights). When I was growing up I learned this. And I learned it was always two candles, but never really explained why. When I started going to Chabad I learned that you light one for yourself and one for your husband; in fact the mothers also light one for each of their children so my rabbi's wife is up to 15 candles. But even unmarried women light two candles, and girls can start lighting their candles as young as 3, and even they light two. Why is this? For your future soulmate. Judaism, especially Chabad which is heavily based in mysticism, believes in a single soul mate for each person. Even if you aren't yet together, even if you live your whole life without finding each other, when your soulmate lights a candle for you, it counts as if you had fulfilled the commandment yourself.

This is a very romantic and interesting idea that captivated me before I was married. When I was dating my ex and would light a second candle, I would think maybe it was for him. And when I was single after that, I wondered who I was lighting for and felt glad that I was scoring him some brownie points. But my husband doesn't have to fulfill the mitzvah of candle lighting. Jews believe that God is ok with non-Jews as long as they follow a smaller set of commandments which mostly mirror the 10 commandments- don't kill, don't steal, don't commit adultery, etc. Candle lighting isn't in there, so my husband is off the hook and I guess that makes my second candle a waste of wax.

Since orthodox tradition does not accept same-sex marriages or interfaith marriages, there is no conflict. Furthermore, orthodox Judaism enforces all the traditional gender roles- only men are obligated to pray, only men are called to the Torah, only men lead synagogue or home services such as the Passover seder. So there's no problem saying that only women light shabbat candles, one for themselves and one for their soulmate.

However, for conservative and reform traditions, there is a huge disconnect between teaching children that only men can say the blessing over the wine and only women can light candles, and what they teach about other things. Women can be rabbis, both men and women are counted in the required 10 people to have a prayer service and can be called to the Torah. We've already broken down most of the gender rules, so it's odd that these persist.

Conservative and reform movements welcome LGBT couples and interfaith couples* and in this light it makes even less sense to enforce that there are some observances that men do and some that women do. What does a family with two dads do? Who will light the candles, who will bake the bread?! And what does a family where only one partner is Jewish (or only one parent is present) do? Who will bless the wine- the non-Jewish dad or the Jewish mom?

Of course the answer is simple, if you decide it can be. In a movement where already most traditional gender roles have been abolished, dad can light candles and mom can lead the seder. If the goal is children raised with Jewish observance, then the end result is the most important thing. A house with seders and challah and candlelight are more important than who struck the match.

*I maintain that a sect that won't let its clergy officiate your interfaith wedding, but once you're married will allow you into the fold isn't really that welcoming, but that's an argument for another day.

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