I broke gender norms, and it was delicious.
Last Wednesday, for my first time, I baked two loaves of challah for Shabbat. I participated in an enjoyable event held regularly at my campus Chabad. Baking challah and its accompanying mitzvah, our instructor helpfully explained, is traditionally a “woman’s mitzvah.”
Did I just witness gender formation? Was female identity constructed just there before my eyes and is it really so simple?
Watching the gaggle of freshmen girls nod and take in the “challah baking as a woman’s act” narrative was telling in what it failed to evoke. Where was the more nuanced conversation about women’s and men’s shifting roles in Orthodoxy?
The biblical and mystical associations (apologetics) notwithstanding, the notion of bread-baking as a woman’s act is intimately intertwined with outdated patriarchal values. That is to say, the idea that women’s responsibilities fall within the domestic realm is rooted in historical and sociological male-dominated systems of control. At the very least, the notion of a “woman’s mitzvah” relies on an essentialist understanding of sexuality, wherein biological sex is aligned with certain norms and roles.
That Orthodox Judaism does not look at sexuality the same way as contemporary thinkers is not news. Still, on an empirical level, I was struck by the uneven gender distribution at this challah baking event. About 30 students attended, of which I was one of three guys. One of the other three was there by his own admission to “pick up chicks.”
Judith Butler, a true Gadol HaDor (great one in our generation) in the world of feminist philosophy wants to say that gender is performative, and there is no such things as a woman’s or man’s essential essence. Rather, the way we think of gender is comprised of certain performed patterns of dress and behavior. Butler might say that we ourselves have made, and continue to perpetuate, the notion of challah baking as a woman’s act. If Butler is right, then I suppose in that instance I was constructing for myself a female identity.
Blurring gender lines in Orthodox Judaism is no simple affair. Yet where was the dissonance? My challah baking, acting out a “woman’s mitzvah,” did not yield any tension. Importantly, I didn’t in any way feel marginalized or discriminated against. A few of the guys I live with may have snickered or asked me to clean their bedrooms while I was at it. But if a woman had attempted to blur the rigid gender distinctions with regards to traditional mitzvah performance, I suspect there would have been a noticeably different response.
This could be for a few reasons. The “challah baking as woman’s mitzvah” narrative is both nice and homely, but, no matter how established, not part of halacha, codified Jewish law. Many of the actual laws surrounding women’s obligations and prohibitions, on the other hand, are far more formalized. When women test these boundaries, the consequences are polarizing and vitriolic. Contemporary halachic arbitrators are for the most part hesitant to touch these areas of Jewish law with a ten-foot pole.
Less formally, bringing up issues of sexuality and gender in basic Orthodox social settings is still often stigmatized and tense. But in 2012, where is the nuance and open conversation? We need a broad, comprehensive, communal conversation about women’s and men’s shifting roles in Orthodoxy.
Orthodox Judaism is delivering its thoughtful adherents a disservice by ending the conversation with the notion that men and women have fundamentally different natures or essences, and therefore fundamentally different roles. I can tell you this: Orthodoxy’s ongoing heteronormativity, that is, its alignment of anatomy, sexuality, and roles, is hastening a rupture for young thinking Jews between tradition and today.
I am not suggesting for one second that we haphazardly dispose of our traditions and laws because they no longer jive with what contemporary academics have to say about gender. But does it really matter whether or not Judith Butler is “swimming through Shas,” the Talmud, for what she has to matter?
I know this: for a good amount of thoughtful young Jews from my social circles, from day school, camps, and even yeshivas, issues surrounding gender and sexuality are atop the list of intellectual concessions necessary for an Orthodox life. The very existence of this category of embarrassing intellectual sacrifices young Jews make every day to lead an observant lifestyle belies the success of the day-school system. Further, it endangers the sustainability of Modern Orthodoxy as a movement.
The conversation we need has hardly hit the Orthodox education system. I’m talking about engaging gender and sexuality in honest and open ways which affirm what we believe to be true everywhere outside the four corners of the beit midrash.
We should not need to check our intuitions about gender equality at the door to Orthodox synagogues and schools. I’m aware that in more liberal settings the conversation is increasingly flourishing in depth and inclusion and has been for a while. It’s time traditional Orthodoxy caught up. It’s time to challenge the reign religious heteronormativity still holds, in all its ugly shades.
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