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Lucy Dawidowicz’s Contempt for her Own Sex

The Jewish Presence: Essays in Identity and History, by Lucy Dawidowicz. Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1977), $12.95

It is unclear why Lucy Dawidowicz’s most recent book—The Jewish Presence: Essays on Identity and History—was ever published. The book is a collection of her essays which had already appeared in magazines such as Commentary and Midstream during the 1950’s and ’60’s. While Dawidowicz’s field is Jewish history, these essays show no particular insight into problems of Jewish identity, but are simply vehicles for her own opinions and prejudices. These prejudices are most blatant in the essay “On Being a Woman in Shul,” where she insists that synagogues be the exclusive domain of men. Although she is writing about the struggle for Jewish identity, she fails to recognize that the Jewish women’s movement is an important manifestation of this struggle.

This lack of understanding is especially disturbing because Dawidowicz is one of the first women to become a first-rate scholar of Jewish history. She has won several awards for her major work, The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945, and holds a chair in Holocaust Studies at Yeshiva University. She has also received prestigious fellowships, such as the Guggenheim, to study American Jewish history, and has published an anthology of memoirs on East European Jewish life, The Golden Tradition. Perhaps no other woman in Jewish Studies has achieved such recognition and acclaim.

The essays in her new book range in topic from Yiddish language and culture to Nazism to middle-class American Judaism. The essays vary in quality, but are written in a clear and easy style. The essays on Nazism are brief but interesting footnotes to her lengthy history of the Holocaust. The essay on “Resistance: A Doomed Struggle” outlines the history of Jewish resistance in Eastern Europe during the German occupation. In another essay, “Can Anti-Semitism be Measured?” she criticizes the biases in sociological surveys measuring anti-Semitism and racism. But the lack of objectivity she finds in these studies can be found in Dawidowicz’s own work.

Dawidowicz defines women’s role in the synagogue traditionally, and does not want to see any changes made. She is content to remain behind the mechitzah (the physical barrier between men’s and women’s sections in an Orthodox synagogue) because she believes that men and women “are more intent on the liturgy” when separated. She states explicitly that “Judaism is a man’s religion not only in substance and in practice but also in its symbolic theology” (p. 50). Permitting men and women to sit together was “the classic compromise” in American Jewry that transformed Orthodoxy to Conservative Judaism—a move Dawidowicz scorns and attributes to the weakening of Jewish identity.

Dawidowicz predicts two possible results if women are granted total equality in the synagogue: either “Italianization” or “Hadassahization.” She writes:

Women, when passive, can turn the synagogue into something like a provincial Italian Catholic church. The rabbi assumes all sacerdotal functions: the women become his dutiful parishioners whose religion is part devotion, part ignorance, and part superstition. Religion, then, becomes a womanish thing. Men stay away out of contempt. But even more forbidding—to me at least—is the threat of female power, female usurpation of the synagogue. Women are efficient; they can organize, raise funds, bring order out of chaos. They can turn the shul into a Hadassah chapter. Not that I disapprove of Hadassah, its activities, or its ladies. But I do not like the idea of their taking over the synagogue. To my mind, the assumption by a woman of a rabbinic or priestly function in the synagogue undermines the very essence of Jewish tradition. To say that the “Jewish women’s movement” is inherently anti traditionalist and implicitly antinomian is only to speak tautologically. (Pp. 52-53)

At no time does Dawidowicz consider that women have strong and serious religious commitments. While in other essays she examines all the subtleties of anti-Semitism and its destructiveness, in this essay she is oblivious to the potential damage of her remarks about women. It is no more correct to caricature women as passive peasants or aggressive usurpers than it is to portray Jews as controllers of the world’s economy.

While most arguments against women’s full participation in synagogue services are based on halachah (Jewish law), Dawidowicz’s opposition is perhaps more insidious. Hers is a classic example of prejudice, based entirely on her personal feelings. For example, when she sees women at a Reconstructionist synagogue dancing with a Torah scroll on Simchat Torah:

Watching these women embrace the Torah, I found myself seized by wicked and perverse thoughts. Wicked: how insensible was this movement to the festival’s symbolism, to its music and poetry. Perverse: only here could transvestitism appear as innocent farce, (p. 52)

According to Dawidowicz, women should not embrace a Torah scroll because the Torah is a feminine symbol in the Jewish mystical system. If the Torah is female, she argues, it should be embraced only by men. There is no attempt at historical method in her argument, no recognition that the mystical system was developed by men—and not women—for a small group of followers. Moreover, what rationale can change mystical symbols into laws governing a woman’s role in the synagogue? But the argument is really specious. Men who love a God who is always represented in masculine imagery cannot be accused of homosexuality, so why should a woman who holds a Torah scroll, which is represented in feminine imagery, be accused of transvestism?

It is ironic that Dawidowicz, herself one of the first and foremost female Jewish historians, should be so contemptuous of the potentialities of other women. She writes: “In Judaism, women are assigned primacy at home, not in shul, and despite the reformers, this traditional religious role of women seems appropriate also biologically and sociologically active” (p. 53). Yet Dawidowicz has not limited herself to a role in the home, and would certainly resent any suggestion that women are functionally incapable of academic success.

Susannah Heschel is a graduate student in modern Jewish philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.