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Letters

SPEAKING OF WOMEN
Re your piece on the Lions of Judah (Winter ’95-’96): I think you missed a golden opportunity to comment on the fact that the UJA and Federation Women’s Division events (including the Women’s Institute at the annual General Assembly) invariably have men as their keynote speakers at major meetings such as the one you described rather than inviting women. Like other women’s organizations (e.g. Hadassah) they also pay men higher fees than they offer women. In the context of what you are doing to try and raise women’s consciousness regarding the need to devote their philanthropic efforts to helping women, this is an issue that should be addressed.
by Alice Shalvi, Jerusalem, Israel

A FEMINIST CRITIQUE OF THE PRIMACY OF COUPLEHOOD
This is in response to LILITH’s recent coverage of issues around Jewish lesbian and gay marriage ceremonies [Spring 1996]. This June, Hawaii is expected to become the first state to legalize lesbian and gay marriage. Anticipating this, state legislatures in other parts of the country have been rushing to deny legal recognition of such marriages.

Feminist analysis of the institution of marriage has become invisible in the debate, leaving many who advocate both feminism and gay rights deeply uncomfortable with the choices we face: either to support lesbian and gay marriage at the expense of our feminist principles or vice versa. For many the issues are much more complicated. Moreover, the stakes of this choice are high: failing to support lesbian and gay marriage will make it easier for states to pass laws which are designed to deny equal rights to lesbians and gay men.

Granting health insurance and other benefits to lesbian and gay couples is a matter of justice. Yet this would benefit only a small portion of the lesbian and gay community—those who are gainfully employed, property owning members of long-term relationships. In other words, legalizing lesbian and gay marriage will profit those who need it least. At the same time, it will increase the religious, legal and economic disparities between those who are coupled and those who are not. Legalizing marriage will create two different classes of lesbians and gay men in Jewish and American life: those who are accepted because they conform to ideals of middle class heterosexual family life and those who are further marginalized because they challenge these ideals by choice or coincidence.

If supporters of lesbian and gay rights are truly interested in welcoming us into the mainstream of Jewish and American culture, shouldn’t they welcome us as individuals rather than on the basis of our membership in a couple? Shouldn’t they welcome us unconditionally, rather than on the condition that we conform to sexist and heterosexist ideals? Shouldn’t they work to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, rather than creating new laws which will increase the barriers faced by single people, regardless of their sexual orientation? If our supporters are interested in bringing lesbians and gay men into the economic mainstream, shouldn’t they work for measures such as universal health care, rather than for benefits based on marital status? This brings me back to a fundamental feminist question: Shouldn’t we struggle for recognition as individuals rather than as pait of a marital unit?

I believe the consequences of not supporting lesbian and gay marriage are dangerous: we’re liable to end up with a spate of new laws that openly discriminate against lesbians and gay men. For this reason, I’m a reluctant supporter of lesbian and gay marriage. When legislation is introduced in my state, I’ll be out there lobbying for it. I’ll write to elected officials, circulate petitions, march to the state capitol, and do whatever it takes. But in the meantime, I keep hoping we can come up with a strategy to advance lesbian and gay rights which is compatible with basic feminist insights.
by Christie Balka, Philadelphia, PA

ABORTION RIGHTS
I want to respond to LILITH’s articles on abortion and abortion rights [Spring 1996] with some statistics. Women are still our society’s primary care givers. It is they who will be most negatively affected by legislation that eliminates federal support for programs which, for the past 60 years, have strengthened the family by supporting education and care for children, the infirm and the elderly. They also stand to lose the most if their reproductive independence is jeopardized or if their right to chose whether or not to bring a fetus to term is no longer a legally protected right. The elimination of support for these programs, the abolition of a woman’s right to choose, is exactly what the radical right—religious and political—advocates.

In 1992, 55% of all women voting (and more women vote than do men) voted Democrat, a full 10% more than voted Republican. The woman’s vote was a significant factor in Clinton’s narrow victory. His outspoken support of choice attracted many female voters. On this point, he has justified their faith in him. Yet, in 1994 women stayed away from the polls in droves. That year, the year of the Republican ascendance to power in Congress,17.4% fewer women voted. Only 44.9% went to the polls, as compared with 62.3% in 1992. Clearly in 1994 women surrendered their role as significant players in the political process. Will it happen again in 1996?

Let women, through the power of their ballots, remind candidates that the vast majority of Americans are religiously pro-choice and pro-family and that the Christian Right is fundamentally wrong in its distorted views of human sexuality with which it seems to be obsessed.

This year, to be powerful and effective, women need march no further than to their nearest polling station, there to cast a truly pro-family vote.
by Rabbi Balfour Brickner, New York. NY

JEWISH WOMEN/JEWISH MEN
Paula Hyman, in her review of my book Jewish Women/ Jewish Men: The Legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life [Spring ’96], launches scatter-shot attacks on my scholarship based on an anti-classic bias and a misrepresentation of many of my views.

Anti-classic bias: Hyman criticizes me incorrectly for quoting mainly from the works of “long-dead scholars” such as Dubnow and Abrahams. Her objection to Dubnow et al—that their works have been “superseded” by modern scholarship—is shocking coming from a noted Jewish historian. I am at a loss to comprehend what specifically in the historical accounts by these historians has been “superseded”—what does not hold up? Even more disquieting is the bias that informs this objection: that one should judge a work on the basis of its newness rather than its excellence—its accuracy and authenticity.

Misrepresentation of my views: I attributed the redefinition of Jewish masculinity to the need to reduce male violence and thereby promote communal unity in the Exile (pp.81-84, 91-92), not, as Hyman wrote, to the men’s need to disparage aggression because they could not “protect” their women. I wrote that the woman’s being sole family provider was a common pattern in the shtetl (pp. 111-112),not that it characterized all women. I defined assimilationism—the strategy of advancing Jewish ethnic invisibility(pp. 152,154-157)—and attributed its use by the ruling class to various dynamics obtaining in Modern Western society, not to a “plot” by the “Jewish elite” (a term that never appears anywhere in the book) in “collaboration” with the ruling class. Recognition of the Jewish ambivalence toward sex is implicit in my long discussion of the conflicts around it and their expression in the laws and practices of niddah and mikva (pp. 138-142), a section written three years before I read David Biale’s book.

Finally, Hyman charges that my being a “staunch secularist” causes me to dismiss the accomplishments of Jewish feminists and their impact on synagogue and communal life and to believe that the “religious focus of Jewish feminism in America [has] diverted women from making fundamental social change.”

Let me set the record straight. First, I am not a “secularist” (staunch or otherwise). Constricting labels such as “secularist” or “clericalist” as well as the various denominational tags cannot possibly describe the complex reality of individual Jewish consciousness today. Basically I am a Klal Yisrael’ nik who believes that all authentic forms of the expression of Jewish identity should be encouraged.

Second, even if I did identify as a secularist, I harbor no anti-religious bias that could lead me to regard religious reform as a diversion. Rather than dismiss the accomplishments of Jewish feminists in the religious sphere, I value them and devote considerable discussion in the book to the struggle to attain them.

My critique of many Jewish feminists concerns their tunnel vision preoccupation with writing ritual to the exclusion of other, necessary activities. What I find disappointing is that the 11-year struggle for equal access has not expanded from the religious sphere to the secular sphere (where the real power lies) and that Jewish feminists are content with the (new) status quo rather than passionate about transforming Jewish society. I think it is time that we face the reality that writing ceremonies, rituals, and liturgy will not by itself create the kind of community that will survive and flourish into the 21st century. If expressing this opinion makes me a gadfly rather than a cheerleader, so be it: I wrote Jewish Women/Jewish Men to stimulate debate.
by Aviva Cantor, New York, NY

Reviewer Paula Hyman responds: As my review of Cantor’s book indicated, it is a sprawling and passionate polemic that raises intriguing questions about the nature of Jewish patriarchy. However, Cantor’s speculations about the “female values” incorporated in a Jewish “modified patriarchy” and their role in fostering anti-Semitism remain speculations. Because she does not contend seriously with recent scholarship, she provides inadequate historical grounding for her uncontextualized assertions.

I have no bias against classical historiography. But the field of Jewish history has come far from the work of even our greatest predecessors, such as Graetz and Dubnow. A work of history is not a canonized sacred book like the Torah. We read classical historians primarily to explore how they understood the past in their own time, not as the major sources for our understanding. On the basis of new archival resources and new interpretive approaches, we understand the past differently from our scholarly forbears. No student of the Renaissance would rely primarily on the great nineteenth-century scholar Jacob Burckhardt, and no student of Jewish history should rely primarily on the sources that Cantor cites on virtually every page. The works of the modern scholars that Cantor includes in her bibliography do not inform her reading of the past upon which she builds her argument. This is my central criticism of the book. Most importantly, she seems unaware of the nuanced and complex interpretation of assimilation and the revision of the evaluation of assimilationists that has emerged in recent Jewish historiography.

I did not misrepresent Cantor’s view but gave a few examples of problematic statements. Her references to the inability of Jewish men to protect Jewish women and their consequent guilt may be found on pp. 89-90. Women as the sole provider was never a common pattern in the shtetl but a cultural ideal, found among the families of Talmud scholars. In her discussion of assimilationists Cantor refers to a “con game” in which “rich Jews” or “upper middle class Jews” “colluded with the ruling classes because they saw it as in their interests to get the masses to try to assimilate” (pp.158-159). Her discussion of Jewish attitudes toward sexuality does not take into account David Biale’s (and others’) evidence that sexuality was rigidly constrained, and not just by the laws of niddah.

Whether a secularist or not, Cantor remains unjustly dismissive of the accomplishments of Jewish feminists. Her caricature of Jewish feminists as preoccupied with writing ritual to the exclusion of other activities bears no resemblance to the Jewish feminists I know. We are active as teachers, scholars in our fields, writers, philanthropists, communal activists, and, yes, secular leaders. That Jewish feminism has not transformed Jewish society is not for lack of trying.