To accompany the recent debate mentioned here, there is an article in this week's edition of The Tablet, the international Catholic weekly. My contribution follows in the body of the post, and the entire article is below. It had been scheduled for a couple of weeks ago, but it was bumped by the election of the new pope!
An Orthodox Jewish perspective
Rabbi Harvey Belovski
‘We must ensure that we celebrate our differences rather than exploit them, and recognise that even the slightest unexplained gender distinction may seem insensitive and even alienating'
The Jewish world has always included brave and spirited thinkers who promoted equality of opportunity even in the most inequitable of times, reflecting a strong and authentic stream of ancient Jewish wisdom. Yet the same wisdom rejects the notion that we all have the same spiritual needs. Though this is especially unpopular in the realm of gender, failure to recognise difference prevents us from celebrating our innate strengths and risks robbing religious life of much of its subtlety.
The notion that self-awareness and perception of the world commonly differ between men and women is something that every adult experiences and grapples with in day-to-day life, even though it falls outside the ambit of "acceptable" beliefs for contemporary Westerners. These differences are not good or bad, but a reality; acknowledging them strengthens society. Of course, there's no "one size fits all" even within genders; Judaism recognises the uniqueness of each individual both before God and Man, and validates each personal spiritual quest.
From a Jewish perspective, religious practice is less about everyone fulfilling a fixed set of rituals and prayers, and more about gaining personal insight, sensing the magnificent presence of God, celebrating self- and people-hood, building a just society, and, through the holy books, understanding the ways and thoughts of the divine. Prayer, ritual and study are important tools in achieving these life goals, which are identical for both genders. Yet innate gender distinctions mean that men and women experience their relationship with the divine differently.
It is well known that Jewish religious life focuses on the home. It is primarily here, rather than in the synagogue, that traditional practices are properly experienced and Jewish values are transmitted to the next generation. In the home, as in most areas of Jewish life, men and women are afforded complete equality. However, in some aspects of public ritual, there is an obvious gender disparity in traditional Jewish communities. In Orthodox synagogues, most ritual performance, including reading from the Torah, is led by men.
These distinctions are rooted in a profound understanding of the genuinely different spiritual needs of men and women, yet play successfully to their shared need to commune with God; as such, they serve a valuable and timeless function. For example, Jewish worship incorporates the reality that men and women experience the socialising impact of group worship differently. The creation of a traditional prayer quorum (which is defined first by ten men and only then augmented by other men and women) forces competitive, often self-focused males, to regularly function as members of a harmonious co-operative, in ways that women often do intuitively.
However, while it would be a mistake to equate a religion, especially Judaism, with the conduct of its formal prayer services, as the public face of a faith, they are often assumed to characterise its attitude to important issues. In this context, I acknowledge that part of the gender imbalance in religious life may reflect the sharply-defined gender distinctions of the past, which are, perhaps, shaded by a hint of misogyny. The Jewish world, like all traditional faith societies, is innately conservative; this means that change happens slowly and only after much debate and careful reference to time-honoured sources and processes. Yet distinguishing genuine, ageless realities from some of these inequities and ironing them out where possible must be an important aspiration of every vibrant, forward-thinking religious society. It is a privilege to be part of that process in my own community - I have pioneered advanced Jewish scholarship for women for many years and I regularly guide communities on gender boundaries in ritual life - and encourage others to engage with it
So a cautious "yes": it is right, albeit within carefully-defined parameters, for religions to treat men and women differently. We must ensure that we celebrate our differences rather than exploit them, and recognise that even the slightest unexplained gender distinction may seem insensitive and even alienating. Sometimes, the greatest challenge is to struggle with the dissonance between tradition and modernity. Acknowledging nuanced gender distinctions benefits us all and, when treated with sensitivity, remains one of the great strengths of religious life.
Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski is the spiritual leader of Golders Green Synagogue in London. He is an orthodox rabbi, creative educator, organisational consultant and writer. See www.rabbibelovski.co.uk and @belogski