Are Women Really Taking Over Judaism, And Is That So Bad?

The general consensus on these questions appears to be Yes, women are taking over Judaism, and Yes, that is bad. But I’m having trouble working up concern over this supposedly dire state of affairs.

A new study confirms these assertions social-scientifically, reports the Jewish Exponent, showing that among the most liberal strains of Judaism (Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal), significantly more women and girls are actively participating than are men and boys, who, one theory goes, are being alienated by women’s takeover:

Some are calling it the feminization of liberal Judaism, but few say so out loud.
“It’s not politically correct,” says Brandeis University sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman, whose new report “The Growing Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life” gives statistical muscle to anecdotal evidence that’s been piling up for several years in liberal Jewish circles.

Even if Fishman’s report is on-target, as someone who focuses so much on Jewish women’s achievements, I can’t help but find the “feminization of Judaism” a point of pride rather than worry.

And yet, despite what Fishman’s numbers may say, I remain unconvinced of the general takeover. Because when you look at the numbers on various lists of influential Jews, you’d still be hard-pressed to find one that’s dominated by women:
Take the umbrella organization the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, for example. Though it now has a woman at its healm (you go, June Walker), she is one of the few women among the heads of its member organizations. The breakdown is similar in the Forward’s last “Forward Fifty” feature, which included only 17 women (and that’s, given such lists in the past, a decent showing). And even NY Jewish Week’s 2008 list of “36 Under 36,” a measure of the younger generation’s Jewish innovators, includes more men than women (though the numbers are far more equitable than most such lists). So it’s hard to take the claim of women’s domination that seriously.

And anyway, the suggestion that women’s supposed domination is a “crisis” is downright offensive. Rabbi Rona Shapiro put it very well in her 2007 op-ed in the Forward, “The Boy Crisis That Cried Wolf,” excerpted here:

…Thirty-five years ago — when women were not ordained as rabbis, when girls in the Conservative movement celebrated a bat mitzvah on Friday night, when Orthodox girls did not receive an education remotely comparable to that of their brothers, when women were not called to the Torah for aliyot or allowed on the bimah at all — where were the headlines proclaiming a girl crisis?
Given the history of women’s exclusion within the Jewish community, approaching equality should be something to celebrate, not a crisis in the making.
More insidious is the assertion made by some boy-crisis advocates that men are retreating from active engagement in Jewish life because women now dominate it. This characterization simply smacks of backlash.
Women have maintained their involvement in a Judaism dominated for centuries by men, but the minute women get a toehold in leadership, men pick up and leave? Pollack, the boys’ development researcher heading up Moving Traditions’ major new initiative, refutes the inherent sexism of this argument, insisting that women’s leadership is not responsible for boys’ retreat from Jewish life.
“Boys haven’t found a way to” adapt to the sharing of power with girls and women in Judaism, he argued, “because men haven’t found a way to change.” If Jewish men, young or old, are turned off by women’s leadership, then our commitment to justice requires that we call this what it is — sexism — and work to change the attitude instead of accommodating it.
Men and women need to work together to address discrimination against women in the Jewish community, as well as men’s perception of Judaism’s irrelevance to them. We need to prepare our daughters to be both strong leaders who are well armed against the sexism they will face in the media and employment and mothers who are able to raise young men who share an interest in their sisters’ achievements, have full access to their feelings and are engaged by Jewish life.

I agree with Shapiro’s arguments, and think they are extremely important to the discussion of this issue. But, admittedly, she does ignore — as I have been until now — the most practical problem the numbers disparity presents, which is the other “crisis” making headlines, the “singles crisis.”

Fishman sees both as crises of continuity:

Fishman said that as Jewish men outside the Orthodox fold become increasingly estranged from religious and communal life, the more likely they are to marry non-Jewish women, her report suggests. And because women usually set a home’s religious tone — even if non-Jewish women are open to raising Jewish children — they’ll rarely do so because they are not encouraged by husbands who are “ambivalent at best, if not downright hostile to” Jewish tradition, she explained.
She concluded that this crisis is leading to a continuity issue that will not be resolved until liberal Judaism finds a way to engage its boys and men.

But I think Fishman’s concern over continuity is premature, and her spin on the problem, from the male perspective, seems besides the point. Rather than counting the babies who aren’t being born — an unproductive and rather silly task — we should be focusing on the more immediate issue — those Jewishly committed women who are having trouble, right now, finding Jewishly-committed men with whom to partner.
That is a point of concern, not because of the babies they’re not having, but because of the frustration and dissatisfaction they’re feeling.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman

5 comments on “Are Women Really Taking Over Judaism, And Is That So Bad?

  1. Alison Avigayil on

    Yay for the women! It’s great to see that women are becoming more powerful in the institutional part of Judaism. Although we’ve always been a big part of Judaism, especially in the house, this transfer of power is a great sign that liberal Judaism has really come of age.

    Bravo to the Jewish liberal women and the men!

  2. Jan on

    You should read Fishman’s paper itself. It’s different from the summary.

    Be open to reconsidering as you read.

    This is something to worry about, even in Europe.

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