Monday, February 1, 2010

Man At His Best

The axiom “that women’s mass entry into men’s professions will dilute the prestige of that profession” holds true in the haredi world and in the Reform movement. I first became acquainted with this axiom many years ago when I happen to notice that there was an inordinate amount of Russian women physicians in Israel and an enormous percentage of male Russian engineers. Consulting with an old Russian friend and classmate he enlightened me on the dynamics of the equality of sexes in communist Russia. Medicine had been a prestigious profession until women became dominant and once that happened there was a decline in its prestige, resulting in the mass exodus of men from the medical profession. Russian men seeking a profession with a reduced presence of women lending it more prestige, was engineering; thus, the inordinate amount of Russian male engineers exiting the former Soviet Union. I am not a misogynist, nor do I believe that I in any way relegate women to a secondary tier in comparison to men. However, as an observer of Jewish life in the 21st century it would appear that the paradigm of the old Soviet Union is not only still applicable but is the common denominator (and perhaps the link) between the haredi/fervently orthodox community and Reform Judaism.

Apparently there is a ratio of men to women that renders the institution or profession prestigious on a sliding scale of men to women. That would be one of the reasons why teaching on the primary or secondary level is considered one of the lesser prestigious professions; precisely because women dominate it. So it came as no surprise when a few years ago I began reading about the feminization of the Reform movement. The day they decided to open their seminary to women for ordination they signed their death warrant. Within a generation the Reform movement became dominated by women rabbis not only in synagogues but also within the hierarchy of the organizational chart. Fewer men become ordained rabbis resulting in less male rabbis leading congregations with the consequence of less male attendance at synagogues. Attending services in a reform temple is like going to a Hadassah meeting. All women. What man in his right mind would want to attend services where not only the attendees, but also the so-called klei kodesh are all women? So there is a push back, a mild and from what I understand a fairly impotent revolt whereby men within the reform movement are seeking all male services where there can be some spiritual moments as well as male bonding.

The same phenomenon is beginning to affect the haredi / fervently orthodox communities. I have maintained this for a long time and wrote about it not infrequently that the male image in traditional Judaism is defined by his central role in the synagogue / beis medrash, (as well as in performing particular functions such as mohel and shochet) the hub of the traditional community. Diminishing the male role and his influence would effectively render him neutered. So it comes as no surprise that there is so much fuss about women at the wall or the push for separate sex bus service in certain haredi neighborhoods.

The real issue for these 19th century throwbacks isn’t whether women can or cannot don a talis at the wall, or travel with men on the same bus without a mechitza imagined or otherwise (see p’sak of R’Moshe Feinstein). The real issue for these men is the fight for the very heart and soul of how they understand their role within the community. Just as there are sayagim around torah and mitzvot, the “guardians of the faith” have set up there own sayagim as tradition would dictate. For them to renege, to capitulate on seemingly irrelevant issues that do not directly impact on them would suggest that a sayag has been deconstructed, and the threat to their hegemony within the world they understand, live and die by is under attack. Frankly, I sympathize with them and understand where they are coming from, especially when I observe the dwindling relevance of Reform Judaism to the male community and the ensuing backlash.

This mindset is precisely what Har Nof resident and rabble-rouser Zahava Fisher had in mind when she commented on Israel radio Reshet Bet. When asked why the male haredi community established the mehadrin bus line where men and women are separate she replied: “in order to elevate the status of men at the expense of women”. She punctuates this by asserting that on a haredi wedding or Bar Mitzvah invitation the women’s name never appears but is an appendage of her husband; the intent being to “make her disappear”.

It would appear that because haredi men are being harassed and viewed as relics of another age, survivors in a rapidly changing world, they are digging in, intent on demonstrating what the haredi man at his best is capable of and does best: man the barricades; reminding me of Sitting Bull’s final struggle against the onslaught of western man and his culture.