Judaism – like everything else – is sexist

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In a Sept. 7  column, “Marriage in the me generation,” Rabbi Yisroel Bernath responded to a question from a young Jewish reader uncomfortable with traditional marriage. “How do I cultivate a meaningful, monogamous, long-term relationship without reinforcing an institution that has historically been terrible to women?” “Conflicted in Calgary” wrote.

“Should we even bother with marriage any more, civil or religious? Is there a way to rehabilitate the good parts without bringing the patriarchy along for the ride? Can a young Jewish person ever speak truth to power and make parents happy at the same time?”

The letter writer’s discomfort stems from the historic and oppressive influence of the patriarchy, which infuses much of the institution of marriage. And while Rabbi Bernath’s response was both thoughtful and compassionate, from my view he missed a key point; which is that patriarchy exists. It exists in our governments. It exists in our schools. And it exists in Judaism.

‘Whether or not two people can thrive in a historically sexist institution is not an argument in its favour’

I want to offer a useful nugget of insight for those who worry about the decline in Jewish practices among young people: We don’t want to perpetuate oppression. If we start from a place of recognition of our sexist past (a past in which we are decidedly not alone), modern Jewish practice can thrive. But if we can’t start there, then young Jews will turn away in droves, because we don’t want to prop up an institution that is complicit in sexism.

Indeed, Rabbi Bernath illustrates this complicity in his column, suggesting that the letter-writer’s contention that marriage has historically not been good to women be left “for the historians to argue about.” Conveniently, we don’t have to. We can look at the astronomic rates of domestic violence that men commit against women. We can look at the overwhelming evidence that suggests that men – even young men – perform well under 50 per cent of most household chores.

Rabbi Bernath also argues that “‘patriarchy’ means that only one party is doing the selfless stuff, while the other is benefiting happily.” With all due respect, that is not what the patriarchy is. It is the systematic consolidation of power by a small number of (usually white, straight, male) individuals, to create institutions and social practices which empower men and silence women. After all, how many Jewish laws and customs were developed by women? 

‘When Jewish leaders express an unwillingness to engage in the question of institutional patriarchy, that makes Jewish millennials angry’

“At the end of the day, it’s about you and your partner,” Rabbi Bernath writes. But it is not. It is about more than two people. As a religious community, even existing in the rich pluralities that make Judaism so special, we are responsible for ensuring that our modern day practices do not exclude and cause pain. Whether or not two people can thrive in a historically sexist institution is not an argument in its favour.

Contrary to Rabbi Bernath’s suggestion that millennials are a “me” generation, we are in fact trying to think about ways to fix a world that is breaking apart under the unbearable strain of historic and continuing oppressive practices. Judaism – like everything else – is sexist. So is Jewish marriage. So is Jewish divorce. Invoking tradition in defence of sexist practices puts us in the same category as the American apologists who want to maintain monuments to Civil War generals. Young people do not want to be linked with them. Full stop.

So what can we do about it? There are, in my view, two options: we can either get angry and engage, or we can detach. We will either recognize our history, learn from it, evolve and thrive, or pull away.

When Jewish leaders express, unwittingly or not, an unwillingness to really engage in the question of institutional patriarchy, that makes Jewish millennials angry. Which means, in a weird way, that we still have a chance to affect change in our community. You can bet that we intend to use it. 

Hannah Bernstein is a lawyer and occasional writer based in Winnipeg.