What Does Judaism Say About Gender?

by Liza Bernstein, Judaic studies teacher

This summer, I’ve gotten the incredibly fun opportunity to teach an elective on Feminism and Judaism to some of our Bogrim (9th) and Machon (10th) campers.  Throughout the sessions we’ve asked: what does Judaism say about gender?  Can Judaism and feminism influence each other? We’ve broken down stereotypes and looked at texts in order to understand how Biblical, halakhic, and other traditional sources discuss gender binaries, the role of women, and sexuality.  From the first two chapters of Breishit to mishnayot in Masechet Kiddushin, we’ve not only enhanced our knowledge of what our tradition has to say about gender, but we’ve also worked to create an empowering and fulfilling relationship between our Judaism and feminism.

After gaining a foundation in these texts, my chanichim (campers) became incredibly interested in topics that pointed out the tensions between our modern western values and our Jewish ones.  We had conversations revolving around gay marriage, God language, and whether or not women are obligated Jewishly the same way men are. Through looking at gay marriage, we were able to study both the Biblical sources on homosexual relations and the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards recent teshuvot (responses) on the topic.  Reading and understanding the teshuvah was especially exciting for the chanichim as they were able to see a real example of the way halakha (Jewish law) has evolved in the modern era. We also spent a class looking at the way God is referred to in our prayers and our stories while asking: does describing God as a man impact the way we think about both God and gender?

Finally, we spent the last couple of days looking at the ways we as a community can change our practices in order to ensure that they reflect our values.  One of my favorite topics to teach in this class is the question of women and the mitzvah of tefillin. Interestingly, tefillin is often seen and accepted as an inherently gendered ritual, and female campers often don’t question the practice. For a lot of the campers in my class, this shiur was the first time they were forced to think deeply about their tefillin practice and the role that gender plays in their decisions about tefillin.  While they giggled and felt awkward trying it for the first time in class, it was also really exciting to walk into tefilah the next day and see many of them taking on the challenge of trying tefillin for the summer. As the first half of camp ends, it’s exciting to know that they will have an opportunity for the rest of the summer to test out their relationships between their Judaism and feminism.

Ariana Hershon