Gender and Judaism
This article needs attention from an expert in Judaism.March 2017)(
Gender and Judaism is a radical, emerging subfield at the intersection of gender studies and Jewish studies. Gender studies centers on interdisciplinary research on the phenomenon of gender. It focuses on cultural representations of gender and people's lived experience. Jewish studies is a field that looks at Jews and Judaism, through such disciplines as history, anthropology, literary studies, linguistics, and sociology.
Jewish law, or halacha, recognises gender ambiguity, and has done throughout Jewish history. However, unlike the modern concept of gender identity, this ambiguity is defined according to physical presentation (or lack thereof) and primary and secondary sexual characteristics. The concept of a Tumtum being a person of ambiguous gender and/or sex is dealt with, as is the concept of the androgynos, being a person characterised with elements of both genders. These concepts have precedent dating back to the beginning of Jewish thought.
Gender and Judaism has drawn scholarly interest due to the rapid growth of its intersecting fields during the late 20th century, fueled as well by popular and academic attention to Jewish feminism. As universities established women's studies programs, they have linked to Jewish studies as well. For instance, in 1997, Brandeis University established the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, which aims to "develop fresh ways of thinking about Jews and gender worldwide by producing and promoting scholarly research and artistic projects." In addition, controversies over the role of women in Jewish denominations and the gender separation in orthodox judaism has drawn attention to gender roles, as constructed and regulated by religious institutions. For this reason, besides the academic attention, the liberal Jewish movements turn to gender and Judaism to reinforce their own mission and identity. Notably, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has established the Gottesman Chair in Gender and Judaism and operates Kolot — the Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies ", the first such center established at a rabbinical seminary (1996).
With the U.S.-based Association of Jewish Studies, a women's caucus works "to advance the study of gender within the Association for Jewish Studies and within the wider academic community." AJS holds at least one panel on gender every annual meeting, provide funding for presentations on gender and Judaism and published a collection of syllabi pertaining to gender.
- Zachar (זָכָר): This term is derived from the word for memory and refers to the belief that the man carried the name and identity of the family. It is usually translated as "male" in English.
- Nekevah (נְקֵבָה): This term is derived from the word for a crevice and probably refers to a vaginal opening. It is usually translated as "female" in English.
- Androgynos (אנדרוגינוס): A person who has both "male" and "female" physical sexual characteristics. 149 references in Mishna and Talmud (1st – 8th centuries CE); 350 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes (2nd – 16th centuries CE).
- Tumtum (טומטום): A person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured. 181 references in Mishna and Talmud; 335 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.
- Ay’lonit (איילונית): A female who does not develop at puberty and is infertile. 80 references in Mishna and Talmud; 40 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.
- Saris (סָרִיס): A male who does not develop at puberty and/or subsequently has their sexual organs removed. A saris can be “naturally” a saris (saris hamah), or become one through human intervention (saris adam). 156 references in mishna and Talmud; 379 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.
Nonetheless, gender and Jewish studies also investigate the gender phenomena pertaining to men and masculinity. In addition, the subfield encompasses research on homosexuality and queer theory as these pertain to Jews and Judaism.
In historical terms, gender and Jewish studies span a broad range, from Biblical exegesis, research on rabbinic literature, Medieval Jewish culture, the importance of gender in Jewish responses to modernity, and gender identity politics in the contemporary period.
While the male/female dialectic first makes its appearance in the story of creation, the Talmud insists that the idea of male and female extends way beyond sex roles: "Everything that God created, He created as male and female...."(Baba Batra 74b)
This dialectic takes on even greater theological significance in light of the Biblical book, Song of Songs, which has been traditionally interpreted as a metaphor for the relationship between God and the Nation of Israel, where the Nation of Israel is cast as feminine towards God, who is represented in the story by the male lover.
Other examples of topics in which the male/female dynamic is used metaphorically include: the relationship between Shabbat and the days of the week, the relationship between the Oral and Written Law, the relationship between This World and the Next, the interplay between the legal and extra-legal aspects of Talmud (Halacha and Aggada), and the Jewish calendar, which makes use of both the sun (traditionally symbolic of the male force) and the moon (traditionally symbolic of the female force).
Gender polarity is robustly maintained in both the Bible and in the Oral Law, (Deuteronomy, 22:5, even forbids cross-dressing) and upholding this polarity is seen as critical in achieving synthesis between the masculine and feminine.
This exploration of gender-constructs in primary sources reveals surprising valuation of the feminine prototype in Kabbala-based sources which invites inquiry into the social, ethical, ecological, moral and philosophical ramifications of a feminine perspective within Jewish thought.
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- Jewish feminism
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- Devorah Heshelis, Orthodox author about women's status in Judaism
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