Gender After Feminism

©Tobaron Waxman

I am a gay Orthodox feminist and, perhaps for this very reason, I am confused by gender. Despite the role delineations of the Orthodox world, I have ingested enough popular feminism to be able to distinguish between sex and gender. I get it that, formally speaking, “sex” refers to biology and “gender” to the characteristics that a culture delineates as masculine or feminine. What I don’t get is how I continue to use the words “masculine” or “feminine” as if they mean something real.

Most of my feminist education began when I started doing the research for a book I wrote about Judaism and homosexuality. I began to understand not only that gender is socially constructed, but that the masculine/feminine divide was more like a continuum. In the process of writing I came to see gender prior to feminism as a compulsory and unforgiving social order that marked women beneath men in terms of power and value, and that marked gay people as direct threats to the system. The notion that men and women as groups are or should be something, and that, by definition, whatever one group is the other isn’t, has proven to be both false and destructive.

And yet, (this is the confusing part) I admit that I succumb to the feeling, be it based on science, ideology or bad faith, that men and women are wired differently, that we are not only different sexually, but that there are differences in the way we think, behave, feel and relate. And because there are differences, there are unique accomplishments, experiences and sensibilities in single-sex communities that cannot be achieved in mixed environments. Which leads me to the paradox of my shul life.

I live in New York City and attend a number of different Orthodox synagogues, from the hip to the hasidic. Two in particular are my regular haunts, and they are polar opposites regarding women. One makes a point of women’s presence and participation; in the other, women are literally invisible. I love them both.

Darkhei Noam is the New York version of Shira Hadasha, the first “partnership minyan,” created in Jerusalem by Tova Hartman and Elie Holzer. It offers an enlivened davening experience and the fuller participation of women with- in an Orthodox framework. The prayer space is divided by a mechitza, a sheer white curtain that separates the men and women. The small shtender (the lectern from which prayer is led), is moved from one side of the veil to the other while the bima is situated on the boundary, at perfect center, breaking the curtain for a short space. From these movable and liminal spaces, men lead maariv, shaharit and musaf (the three traditional daily prayer services), women lead kabbalat Shabbat (the Friday evening service) and pesukei de-zimra (opening morning psalms), and both run a fully egalitarian Torah service.

My first experience of this sort of prayer experience was in 1996. I had just arrived in Israel for a two-year fellowship and, in a fog of jet lag, listened for the first time as a female voice led Lecha Dodi from the other side of the mehitza. I was blown away. It was as if the shekhinah had suddenly shown up at the prayer service that mystically is all about her. At that moment, the Zohar’s notions of exile and reunion within the godhead were no longer ideas. The experience was transformative. The feminine face of God had returned to take us with her in her weekly Sabbath re-union with the Holy One. I was in tearful ecstasy.

To be honest, over time the intensity of this Jerusalem experience has worn off. Still, there is a quality of spiritual expansion that permeates the davening. At Darkhei Noam women always lead those services that (halakhically speaking) they are permitted to lead. This means that women regularly run the service that opens the ark, uncover the Torah and return it to the ark. This may seem like a minor affair, but this shift in ritual practice, the physical movement of the scrolls in the arms of women, affects the very meaning of Torah, its revelation and reception. As women’s voices are added to the male voices during the reading, scripture blossoms into something fresh and new. This more whole ritual frame fits my longing for a community that erases no one; my partner and I are beneficiaries of the minyan because it is one of the few places where we feel totally part of a living shul community.

However, on plenty of Shabbos mornings, instead of heading off to Darkhei Noam, I roll out of bed and end up at the Vorhand shtiebel. Vorhand is not egalitarian in any way. It is a virtual men’s club. Women, when they come, are in a room connected to the main shul by a tiny curtained window; few show up on regular Shabbat mornings. Vorhand is very small prayer space with tables and bookshelves and a wooden ark. The feel is much more like a beis midrash (a yeshiva study hall) than a synagogue. The aesthetic, if one could call it that, is like the one-room schoolhouse from which the Yiddish word “shul’ is derived. No attention is paid to beauty or style or even color. Nothing adorns the walls but shelves of sacred tomes. For anyone in Orthodox culture, such a place reads as male because only men have the duty to learn Torah day and night.

At Vorhand, I have my makom kavuah, my seat that, if I come on time, is always there for me. I open my siddur and find myself in another world of intentional prayer. It is a place where I can wander in and out of psalms, rock to my own rhythm, sing out when I feel it, dwell on a word when it stops me. It offers a very sweet private encounter with the Divine, and yet it is a very intense communal engagement too. Men of different ages, in very different religious modes, rub shoulders, shmooze, make jokes, share interpretive glosses of the Torah reading, and hang out over the davening experience. It is also a very sparse service. It starts at 9:50 a.m. and is usually over before noon, roughly two hours, plus or minus. There is a macho feel to this clip that might seem to work against feeling. Sometimes it does, but most often it creates instead a sense of sleek religious competence.

A huge part of the experience at Vorhand is the kiddush. Cake and schnapps arrive on the tables (delivered by a group of designated men) moments before the end of the service, followed by kiddush and a geshmak potato kugel and a cholent. Typically there is some jockeying between the bourbon and the Scotch lovers — to the disdain of a hardened few hasidim who cannot imagine anything better than vodka.

Vorhand and other minyanim like it are a mix between a sports team and a priestly brotherhood. The prayer space has qualities of a locker room, a ball field and the Temple court in Jerusalem. Skills in execution are rarely taught formally; one learns by listening and watching those who know what to do. It is a brotherhood that mentors the young and that honors commitment, grit and competence. The culture of this sort of shtiebel mentality grows out of a sense of personal duty that is a sort of noblesse oblige: Men pay the price of showing up unfailingly to serve God for the benefit of the whole community community; by doing so, they lay claim to their various male privileges. A number of the hasidim use the mikvah in the basement (a locker room of sorts) not after but before the game, coming into the prayer space with wet hair like ancient priests ready for the daily sacrifice. In the mix of elements, the Vorhand shul is its own, quite athletic male-centered spiritual world.

As a gay man I am only a bit askew in this guy’s haven. From my early days at yeshiva I discovered a community of men who in my secular upbringing did not exist. In this environment, the competition is intellectual and the desired female is the holy Torah. The common absence of wives in this shtiebel setting (I’ve only once met the rabbi’s wife) makes the differences between married and single men, or between gay and straight men, much less apparent. I am not quite “out” in Vorhand. (My partner doesn’t find the service satisfying so he doesn’t come along.) Some members of the congregation are aware, but most are completely oblivious. In my conversations with the regulars around my table it has come up obliquely without any obvious shock or horror. However, I heard through the grapevine that a key member of the shul challenged the rabbi about my presence and he stilled the complaint with “if we demanded tzidkus [perfect righteousness] here, then who would make the minyan?”

When I daven at Vorhand I often do feel like I have left my principles at the door. If Vorhand would admit that the shul does not represent the whole community in prayer but just the men, it would make a huge difference. Were that the case, a separate woman’s shtiebel might be conceivable. Then the women I discourage from joining me at the Vorhand shul would have their own rich, gendered prayer world to belong to.

Is it possible that there could be a female Vorhand? There are now many Orthodox women, trained in day schools, who are unbearably frustrated with audience status and are fully competent to take on the challenges of elite duty. But many of the original Orthodox women’s prayer groups that began some 20 years ago could not sustain themselves. Could it be that this particular form of community is tied to the needs of men? Perhaps I am deluding myself, blithely enjoying the fruits grown in what can only be described as patriarchal soil and innocently attempting to claim to be a feminist nonetheless.

So here are my two prayer worlds in all their incongruence. When it comes to gender after feminism, I am ambivalent. I want it both ways, equality and difference. I admit that I may well be stuck in the transition between two social worlds as a casualty of my biography. My friends who have created Hadar, a fully egalitarian alternative prayer service in New York City, gently chide me in just this way. For them, being egalitarian is like being pregnant: there are no half measures.

Perhaps they are right, and yet I have a nagging sense that my ambivalence is much more troublesome than either neurosis or simple bad faith. Studies keep discovering that sexual difference is not only in the morphology of our genitalia, but everywhere in our bodies and most profoundly in our brains. Nature has not made us equal in capacities, and consequently justice can often seem to be at odds with the body.

Of course, even if some of the putative differences between men and women are grounded in biology, it still does not follow that we ought to organize society around such distinctions: Doing so limits even the most normative males and females and brutally oppresses the outliers. But while our obedience to the gender code is much more costly to us and our children than we ordinarily admit, I come back to the sense that the world would be decidedly less nuanced, less beautiful, less gloriously passionate and also less painful without gender. Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, suggests that our belief in “democracy, equality, consensus-building, compromise, fairness, mutual tolerance result[s] in very boring sex.” If she is right, if sexual excitement is politically incorrect, if it thrives on power plays and unfair advantage, then despite the fact that egalitarianism is one of the greatest advances of modern society, maybe we ought to reign in our moral compunctions a bit and live with the irony of it all.

So what is masculinity after feminism? Could the Vorhand minyan survive under the clear skies of full-fledged gender equality? Probably not. And this small question about a small shul gets, in a way, to a much more central question: Is a tribal life of men — and for that matter, of women — worth sustaining, even after we have also found out how sweet wholeness is? Despite the moral dangers, I believe gender difference can demand a place in the life of the spirit and even play a role of some significance in the shaping of a sacred community.

A few weeks before I arrived in Jerusalem and had that 1996 epiphany, I saw the off-Broadway production of “The Vagina Monologues,” Eve Ensler’s onewoman performance of monologues by women about their vaginas. Toward the middle of this sexy, painful, moving and funny work, Ensler describes a 50-yearold woman who had never in her life seen her own vagina. I was frozen in my seat. Numerous times a day a man fiddles with his penis, takes it out to pee, and sees it in its various states. Ensler described this woman, sitting naked in a bath tub with a mirror, looking for the first time. I began to weep. It was a touching and stark picture of a long-delayed experience of female selfdiscovery but in my mind it was a sign of a much larger movement in the world.

The male face of God has become a pedestrian encounter. It is the way we all have been taught to think and speak about God. Many times a day we invoke the King. The female face of God is much harder to get at. We are blessed to be living at a moment when finally, the Shehinah is coming out of hiding. She still cannot be seen directly, but only with mirrors. And if you want to see her well, you might just have to get naked.

In zoharic tradition the higher you rise in the emanations, the more integrated the opposites are; the lower, the more there is conflict and tension between poles. So, perhaps I should make this admission: My retreat into the shtiebel and its malecentered world must ultimately be the lower choice, while the integrated community, where men and women and their different spiritual competences are fully present, must be the higher. This seems right to me. And nonetheless, what makes the whole feel electrically charged and orchestrated rather than homogenized is the mehitza running down the center of the shul. That is what the mehitza means: Men and women are different.

This way of seeing the feminist revolution is then less about equality and not at all about leveling the genders to achieve equality. It is about welcoming the long awaited Feminine Face of God to the spiritual stage to join the King. Women’s voices and power must be raised, not to end gender but to restore balance. Such a feminist revolution might be able to nourish two gendered communities, support men in their various shtieblach, spearhead the recovery or invention of female communities, and celebrate the joining together of everyone into a single community of worship that is by definition, greater that the sum of its parts

Rabbi Steve Greenberg is the author of Wrestling with God and Man: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition (2004). He is a senior teaching fellow at CLAL (National Center for Learning and Leadership), director of the CLAL Diversity Project, and scholar-in-residence for Keshet, an LGBT inclusion organization, and Hazon, a Jewish environmental organization. He can be reached at