Monday, September 27, 2010

Is literalistic religion compatible with equality for women? - Bereshit 2

I won't give a definite answer and I won't spin 'to make it ok'.

A Muslim woman speaker at the University of Western Sydney Islamic Awareness week 2010 insisted that Islam and Feminism are not compatible but it did not matter because women in Islam had exactly the right status and respect as is was decreed by God. The Muslim men and women I know seem to be managing equality quite well and I don't have substantial knowledge of Islam to comment beyond that. I am curious about how this plays out in Judaism, particularly in the creation story.

1.      Encouragingly equal language in Genesis states “and God created the man[1], in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female he created them”. This supports the interpretation in the Talmud that Adam and Eve were created as one person with two faces and implies that both were created in the image of God. There is nothing in this verse to suggest anything but equality.
2.      Verse 28 continues with God dealing with “them”.“God blessed them and God said to them, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it”. Rashi, a very respect commentary (1040-1105) points out the unusual spelling of the Hebrew word for conquer which normally is spelled כִּבְשוּהָ but here is spelled  כבשה(note missing letter) which could be translated as “conquer her”. “To teach us that the male conquers the female so that she should not be an “out-goer”, also to teach that the command to procreate is an obligation for the man – but not the woman- because it is the way of the man to conquer.” Rashi's commentary has two points; one is about men being the moral guardians of women which would be hard to reconcile with equality. There are Midrashim about women being the spiritual foundation of the home etc. but it would seem that these are about ‘soft power’ of influence not control. The 2nd aspect is about obligation to bring children into the world beginning with marriage and initiating intimacy. Generally, obligation matches ability and in the male dominated world of 900 years ago men held the cards, they still often do.  There were and often still are obvious observable differences between the behaviour of many or perhaps most men and women. The popular feminist/contemporary argument, I think, would be that these are learned behaviours stemming from a patriarchal society. The Muslim speaker at UWS argued that women are worse off with Feminism in that they are expected to do everything men do and that their differences are not acknowledged. While the nature vs. nurture debate will go on forever, there are times when religion demands we resist the urges of nature or the vices we absorbed as we were nurtured[2]. To what extent should religious law accommodate these differences and allow for them, exempt women from unrealistic obligations and to what extent does the ethical imperative demand that religion subvert these?

These questions and others arising from the foundation account of men and women are important. Equally important is the behaviour of religious people. To the extent that it is consistent with the Talmudic principle that a man must honour his wife more than himself, women in the company of such men live with dignity and their children learn proper conduct.

[1] In Hebrew, language is either masculine or feminine and used the masculine form to refer to a mixed group of men and women.              
[2] The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s commentary on Lech Lcha, go out from your land = you desires, your birthplace and your fathers house refers to those influences from home and environment.

No comments:

Post a Comment