Friday, October 19, 2012

Sexism, Malala and Multifaith: Dealing with difference


Sexism has been on the agenda. There was the attack on 14 year old Malala and her advocacy for girls’ education. There have been calls to “end the gender wars” in Australia,  following heated discussion about enduring sexism sparked by the Australian Prime Minister’s dramatic and controversial “misogyny speech”. Here are some of my reflections on all of this, with a little inspiration from discussion of the Genesis story in traditional sources.

Some would argue that “patriarchal religion” in general supports sexism and blame religion for the horrible attack on Malala. Clearly various religious ideas have been interpreted to justify restrictions on women and male domination.

Genesis seems to tell us of that females were created because of the needs of a man. “It is not good for man to be alone: I will make a helper opposite him[i]”. Commentary adds, “Man would not be able to reach his true potential implied in his having been created in the image of God if he will need to occupy himself with the needs of his life[ii].  It is fair to infer that the role of women would indeed be to do the ironing, a view our Prime minister strongly objected to it her speech.

This same commentary interprets the phrase about the woman being opposite the man to mean that while she would be similar to him, “as this is necessary for her to know his needs and meeting them in the right time… but it would not be proper for the helper to be completely equal to him because then it would not be proper for one to toil and serve the other”.

We also have writings about a mysterious perhaps demonic[iii] other woman named Lillith that was created before Eve who refused to be a helper, instead she ran away to the Islands[iv]. Presumably Lillith, was replaced by a woman who might be more willing to “submit” to her husband. 

Yet, the same words have other interpretations. The need for Eve to be opposite Adam is related to an interpretation of the seemingly contradictory account of the creation of the first human. “God created the (hu)man in his image, in the image of God He created him (Adam), male and female he created them[v]”. The language is inconsistent, switching from singular to plural. Unless, the first human was both one and two at the same time! This is exactly where this interpretation goes. At first Adam and Eve were a double body with the male facing one way and the female the other[vi]. But this was not what God wanted, because being stuck back to back, they could not face each other. Instead it was important that they be “opposite” each other, “to receive shining face to face…[vii]” This reflects a divine call for loving relationships between men and women.

A contemporary take on it by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks emphasises the need for assertiveness in a marriage, that spouses help and support each  other but don’t lose their own identity, instead they remain opposite or against each other and are prepared to assert their own views and needs at times.  Otherwise the danger is that ‘the mouth is saying yes, while the heart is saying no and eventually the heart breaks from too many unspoken no’s’[viii]

This leaves us with the question about whether sexism practiced by religious people should be attributed to their religion? I think at least some blame can be placed on the individual. Gender relations vary greatly between individuals based on their personal character. Equally, cultural influences are at least as significant as religious guidance and often the main variable that could explain why adherents of the same faith behave differently in different countries.

Still, I will not speculate to what extent the criminals who attacked young Malala were influenced by their culture, faith or merely their own personal characteristics. I do not have the knowledge to make such judgements.  I think that even someone who had such knowledge would only be justified in blaming one or the other if it there was some constructive purpose[ix]. Tact and concern with interfaith/cross-cultural relationships should not restrict any realistic efforts to prevent oppression of women or any other injustice. I don’t accept moral relativism which says ‘you have your way and I have mine and therefore I should ignore what I believe to be an injustice based on cultural difference’ or to maintain relationships. Yet, if I find myself without the ability to influence the result in other countries, it is wrong to pointlessly denigrate people or groups.

What I can and do influence is a secondary issue. Will the crime against Malala be used to further divide people by blaming Muslims generally for it? Some would point to the support for Malala shown in Friday sermons by Muslim religious leaders in Pakistan and school children across the country. But, I publicly defended Muslims in a speech in a Synagogue, not on the basis of the number of “condemnations” but simply by asserting to my audience that the vast majority of Muslims were neither fanatics nor “condemn-ers”. I am sure they don’t agree with the attackers, but mainly they are people like you and me; focused on everyday things, looking after their families, and in some way trying to worship the one God also worshiped by Jews and Christians.    

Going beyond the common ground of Monotheism, I think it might be useful to think of the shared struggle between the nobler and baser ways of being and dealing with differences of opinion and belief.  In the Australian political context, I think it is true that sexism is part of the mix of the offensive, aggressive personal attacks that have become normal practice in the game of politics. While I value the honest and unpretentious tradition of Australian politics, we would probably be better off with more civil debate in our parliament.

To draw some inspiration from Genesis, the first siblings were named Cain, which is related to acquisition or ambition and Abel or Hevel in Hebrew which means air and has been linked to vanity. When Greed and Glory fight, one is murdered and the other is damaged for the rest of his life, condemned to wander. Neither Cain nor Abel, in the end are the ancestors of the human race, both were flawed. Instead it is a third son named Seth, meaning “to put” representing the idea of “foundation” who rejects both vanity and ambition and proves worthy to be the father of the generations that follow[x]. Humility and restraint are so important.

Abuse of strength and positions of power is nothing new. We are taught about the “sons of the powerful[xi] (who) saw the daughters of men that they were good, and they took women from all that they chose[xii]”, this included brides all dressed for their weddings who were abducted and raped[xiii].

In the end, we must oppose all abuses of power and domination, whether it is males seeking to restrict girl’s education, sexist comments, or sexual harassment. While the shooting of Malala was tragic, the silver lining is that those supporting equality have gained the moral high ground while her attackers have lost it. The advocates for justice must hold the moral high ground with less Cain, Abel, Lillit and the indulgent abusive “sons of the powerful” and more “face to face love”, restraint, assertiveness when appropriate, humility and equality.

[i] Genesis 2:18
[ii] Seforno
[iii] Midrash Abachir, see also reference to Lillith in Talmud Shabbat 151a, and Lillin in Talmud Eruvin, cited in Torah Shlaima  part 2, p. 236 note 256
[iv] Zohar Bereshit 34b, and Vayikra 19a, cited in Torah Shlaima,
[v] Genesis 1:27
[vi] Midrash cited in Rashi, later when God is said to have removed a “rib” from Adam, the Hebrew word used is Tzelah, which can be either a rib or a side, the latter meaning is still used in Modern Hebrew.
[vii] Zohar 3, 44b, cited in Torah Shlaima p.236
[viii] I am paraphrasing, I am do not have the source material at hand
[ix] See discussion about this point relating to the Torah talking about impure animals in the story of Noach in an indirect way so as not to unnecessarily denigrate the unkosher animals.
[x] Abarbanel
[xi] Translation follows Unkelus, Jonathan Ben Uziel and Rashi
[xii] Genesis 6:2
[xiii] Genesis Rabba


  1. Well put Zalman. I find it interesting that in the case of Malala the condemnation by Muslims is getting air time. Normally I would expect the proclamations of western feminists, former Muslims and sundry Muslim-baiters to receive the publicity. Perhaps we have reached a turning point.

    I have just started reading Rabbi Sach's book "The Great Partnership" his two recastings of the Genesis creation myth are not what you would expect from someone in his position. They are remarkably contemporary. He would be a great keynote speaker for an Abrahamic Conference Hint Hint!!!

    1. Gary, it is good to have representative voices being heard.

      Sacks' explanations are well within the tradition yet also very accessible and appealing to modern readers. I have not read his creation commentary yet.

      Agree, it would be amazing to have him for the Abrahamic conference. Who knows :)