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.