Some professors and rabbis are concerned that liberal Judaism is becoming too female. Is this a real crisis?
By Rebecca Tuhus-DubrowPosted Friday, June 24, 2011, at 1:00 PM ET
In 2007, an organization called the Men of Reform Judaism published a Haggadah intended for men-only Passover Seders. It tweaked the familiar rituals. Instead of solemnly intoning the 10 plagues that struck ancient Egypt—frogs, boils, lice, and so on—participants are asked to recite the scourges of manhood: impotence, hair loss, prostate cancer. In the introduction, the authors explain their motives for the enterprise: “Men need the company of men, to be men.”
For the most part, gender segregation in Judaism, like strict Shabbat observance and the renunciation of shellfish, is a practice left to the Orthodox. Egalitarianism is a defining characteristic of the religion’s more liberal wings (Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative, among others). But the men’s Haggadah is one of several recent initiatives designed for men and boys alone. The 2007 Reform biennial convention hosted a men-only prayer service. In 2009, a book titled The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary was released. This year, an organization called Moving Traditions launched a curriculum for teenage boys called “The Brotherhood,” focusing on the “journey to manhood.”
All of these measures come as a response to a perceived “feminization” of liberal Judaism: declining male involvement in both the leadership and laity, among some Reform and Reconstructionist, and to a lesser extent Conservative, Jews. In 2008, Brandeis professor Sylvia Barack Fishman coauthored a monograph, Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent, based on survey data and her own interviews. On a range of metrics, she found Jewish men to be less invested in their religious identity and less active in synagogue life than Jewish women. Women typically wish to marry within the tribe and raise Jewish children, while men often expressed hostility toward Jewish women and religion generally. Fishman declared this disparity a “crisis.” Predictably, spirited debate erupted in the Jewish press and blogosphere. Does liberal Judaism really have a serious gender imbalance?
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