The Disservice Orthodox Judaism Does
11/12/2012 - 12:18
Michael Snow
Must we check our brains at the kitchen door when we learn how to make challah? Wikimedia Commons
Must we check our brains at the kitchen door when we learn how to make challah? Wikimedia Commons

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associations (apologetics) notwithstanding, the notion of bread-baking as a woman’s act is intimately intertwined with outdated patriarchal values.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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Don't you men have enough mitzvot to do? How about leaving some for us women? BTW I got my challah recipe from a man who bakes every week.

one of my sons is a Hassid and he bakes challa every week. His wife who is also a daughter of a Hassid does not like cooking (how about that) . Challa baking is "womens mitzva) because it is very nice for her to make the bracha on 'taking' challa. When my grandaughter became batmitzvah the first thing she did was to make challa so as to make the bracha.
I think that modern liberal people particularly Americans are obssessed with the fact that there are differnt genders and that their function in life is different. For more information ask to send you his free haggadah and commentary which contains some good stuff and also mentions women in Judaism.

If you look at the big picture, that is over-all life-styles, one CLEARLY sees that women who grow up in an Orthodox community are much more respected than those women growing up in the secular world. This is a fact. I am Orthodox with a 19 year old daughter and 20 year old son. They don't have to deal with being used sexually by their peers. How many non-Orthodox Jewish secular parents can say that? See this link for the rest of this "story" i think you would find it eye-opening...

Agreed. Speaking as someone who converted and is very observant (don't know if I'd go so far as to call myself frum, but observant definitely), I've found that I'm way more respected as a woman now than ever before in my life. Nobody is saying you can't bake bread, light candles, blah blah blah. And anyone who would dare to doesn't know what they're talking about when it comes to halachah. However, the author here is clearly looking at all of this through a much more secular lens regarding gender roles -- read, influenced mostly by Christian, predominantly very old-school Protestant thinkers who have never seen women the same way that more old-school Jewish thinkers have. Different cultural lenses, different assumptions, different belief systems. I'd encourage the author to think deeply about that, keep his mind open, and not be so quick to judge. Pack light, remember that you have two ears and one mouth, and be open to challenging your comfort zones. And if the analogy helps, remember that if you go to China, you can't necessarily expect everyone to automatically hand you forks and knives when they usually use chopsticks.

The article features fashionably contemporaneous nomenclature, a hackneyed narrative of a traditional-modern dialectic, and predictably minimal content. Hope you enjoyed your challah, Michael!

"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."

The rest of the article is loaded with academic jargon disposing of traditional roles with merely a haphazard guess that they must be wrong because they are not gender neutral.

I, myself, am too ignorant to judge something as complicated as an entire society simply because I'm not happy with its traditions. I do respect, however, how successful OJ has been regarding family life in contrast with modernity.

How could the author claim that he does not wish to discard our Halachic tradition and at the same time imply that the opinion of Judith Butler (certaintly NOT a gadol hador in any sense) should hold weight in a serious and intellectually honest Halachic conversation? Let's not blur our emotion with our intellect.

Yawn. Another confused MO boy.

If you want to "feel the tension", try cross-dressing, and see if that is so readily accepted. Nobody looks twice if a woman makes kiddush for a group of women either. Neither men nor women can push boundaries that are HALACHA. As you stated above, challah baking is a "woman's mitzvah" but it is not codified into halacha. That is why nobody seriously questioned you, and why nobody would question you if you also decided to light candles (which you are in fact SUPPOSED to do if you are single).

Please keep in mind that the secular world is also heavily influenced by the notions of gender roles, male and female "fundamental natures", and the like. That's why women still get paid less than men, have yet to be elected as a U.S. president, and are generally raised differently than men are. For society to continue, it is necessary to have a caregiver to nurture young and do more "domestic activities". The fact that women's bodies are more suited to pushing out babies and nursing them does make them a pretty logical choice for this essential role in human life, doesn't it?

This is also indicative of how Orthodoxy (modern and otherwise) has failed to deal with the increasing number of single men and women in its ranks. I'm a single woman; I bake challah, but I also make kiddush. Single men make kiddush, light candles, and bake challah (and I know a number of married men who bake challah as well).
We no longer fit into the narrowly defined gender roles of previous generations. Orthodoxy needs to deal with this.