Wednesday, March 26, 2008


As I have mentioned before I am privileged to take the class “Exodus and Revolutions” sponsored mainly by AJWS and Avodah and few other cool organizations. We talk about oppression and the Exodus and other such Jewish-lefty-entitled things.

Tonight we focused on the actual freedom that was achieved in act of leaving Egypt. Isaiah Berlin writes that we either have positive liberty (self-realization) or negative liberty (non-interference) - or more simplistically freedom to or freedom from. Are the Israelites free from the oppression of slavery or are they free to take on the commandments? The rabbis (clearly) believe that the positive liberty was what should have come from the liberation from Egypt. Fine. I will give you that.

It may come as no surprise that I talk a lot in classes, especially Jewish studies classes. However I have long tried to wait at least 10 seconds (a lesson I learned from a great teacher) before I talk. Odds are within 10 seconds of silence someone will say something. Yet it is a very rare occasion that I don’t talk at all.

When class ended a man in the back called our attention to the fact that a vast majority of the class is women while a vast majority of the air time (his words) has been dominated by men. I was pissed at first, reviewed the folks who were talking second, realized he was right about the domination of the conversation third and finally was able to come up with the thesis of this post and say his issue comes down to a question of freedoms.

Are women in our class free to engage in the class or are they free from historic sexism to be equal members in class? In that a majority of folks in this class are women, it is pretty clear they are free from the sexism that would have kept them out twenty-five years ago. However they may not yet be free to engage, explained this person in the back of class.

I personally don’t buy it. In any other place I might agree, however the AJWS/Avodah and Co. social justice class is not the place were women are being put down and forced not to speak due to male dominance. Not to mention that an equal number of men and women spoke and there were many times during the class where the room was silent. As the female teacher asked us for comments, no one spoke. Granted there are more women in the class, but there were men who said nothing at all.

Freedom isn’t easy; it is complicated in the Exodus story and remains this way today. The opposite of slavery, explained our teacher, is responsibility. I suppose the ultimate question of this commentary from the man in the back of the room would be who is responsible for the female involvement in the class?

A comment that was made before this male domination observation that our texts, such as Leviticus 19:33-34 (welcome and love the stranger because you a stranger in the Land of Egypt) are condescending and assume we as Jews know how to best welcome and love the stranger. A woman made this comment. Who am I to decide the best way to be involved for others? Or do my values dictate what my response should be?

Perhaps I don’t see this dominance as an issue because my mom was such a strong and willing teacher in my life. She is a driving force behind my view of feminism and social justice. This is not to say that my dad didn’t have an impact my world view, but my mom taught me about responsibilities and that people (not men or women) deserve respect. We are to learn from smart people and respect hard work – regardless of if a man or a woman delivers the education or sets the example to follow.

Tonight’s best, most insightful and most useful comment came from a haveruta of women, one a rabbinical student and one a layperson. Now do I have the obligation and freedom to learn more from the best comment or should I make the extra effort to learn from a woman? Luckily tonight I didn’t have to make that choice.


A California Fan said...

Powerful post. Freedom from and freedom to. Who can attend and who can talk. Who is responsible: them or me or all of us or... Sounds like new lyrics for Dayeinu.

Sure, each person must take responsibility for him/herself. Sure, women have gained seats at many a table. Not all, but so many.

Yet does the woman on the street feel the comfort to open her mouth? Women are often taught to sit back, listen, and only offer a word when necessary. Women are socialized that men need to talk, and that women gain more by listening. Would you rather date someone who listens to you more or talks to you more? Given your self-described background, I suspect you would be totally comfortable with a woman who can hold her own. But take a look around. Most guys aren't... And many women learn that quickly.

I tend to worry more about the Reviving Ophelia problem, in which younger girls begin to subsume their intelligence to win over the boys. Mary Pipher wrote a startling book that still rings true today. The problem starts when girls are so young.

So yes, learn from men and women. Sure, encourage all to speak. If you are in the role of teacher, specifically invite responses from various women/girls in class; sometimes that is the only way to rise above their socialization and thus get them to respond.

One last comment: it seems, from our Torah experience, that it was easier to leave Egypt than it was to enter the Promised Land. Easier to enter the wilderness than to take up the "yoke" of a truly free person. Moses, Miriam and God had to prod us along, and encourage us to rise up to our better selves. Women haven't been sitting at the table for so long that the socialization, that starts so young, has been obviated. So a few words of encouragement or invitation to comment is not such a demeaning step, is it?

A Regular Reader said...

POLJ, this is a great post!

I do agree wiht you that the rabbis believe that the liberty that came with the exodus was the liberty to DO, to take on the commandments. I think this would make an interesting further discussion: if God thinks that we are able to take on the responsibility of the commandments, at what point do we all agree to some degree of ability to also reject or adapt those commandments? This is, certainly, a debate of Orthodox vs. Reform philosophy, but one that would arise in an interesting way from your discussion. Did your class veer in this direction in any way?

I think your second point (or perhaps your real point) is less cut-and-dried. Are the women in your class oppressed? I don't think so. But I do agree with your other commenter who pointed out that women on the whole are socialized to defer to men. This may not have been the overt case in your classroom but I would be curious as to what the women in your class derived from the comments made by your (male) classmate. If the same comments had been made by a woman, how would you (or he) have felt?

Look, I think that women and men have come a long way. I do believe that we have a long way to go as well. Some simple comparisons of political coverage might be evidence of this. I also think, though, that as a woman, it is my responsibility (there's that word again) to make sure that I'm not being "denied" any of my opportunities. It's as much my job to make sure I (as a woman) have the freedom as it is yours. (And for those who don't have the personal power to protect their own freedoms - such as the woman on the street - then we have the joint responsibility to protect it. But that's another discussion, I think.)

Does that mean that you have to shut down your natural inclination to participate in a class? Heck no. But it does mean that when you are in the role of teacher that you need to be aware of what's going on in the classroom to make sure that you are safeguarding all the freedoms -- that is the responsibility. And in your professional life, to be aware of the *potential* for lost freedoms or opportunities, you then have the responsibility.

Shabbat Shalom!

helen shapiro said...

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