The Conspiracy

Egalitarian Men: It’s Time to Move Beyond Comfort

 

Women wearing tefilin in Jerusalem. | Photo by Michal Fattal

I read with enthusiasm and appreciation my good friend Amram Altzman’s recent piece on Jewish masculinity and egalitarianism. So much of Amram’s work centers on exploring the significance of egalitarian practice for him and other men, and this is necessary and important. I was deeply disturbed, however, by how little women with egalitarian practice featured in his most recent piece. In my mind and to my experience, egalitarianism matters primarily because it is profoundly just in regard to women’s treatment in the religious sphere.

Amram says,“In the end, I am not egalitarian because of my female counterparts or my feminism: I am egalitarian because it is the right thing for me on a deeply personal and spiritual level.” I and other halakhic egalitarian women don’t have that luxury. I don’t get to choose egalitarianism because it works for me personally, or because it feels good spiritually. Egalitarianism, for me, is not a question of individual preference. I seek out egalitarian communities because if I do not, I will not be treated like a full Jewish adult.

A major feminist debate of 2014 was the issue of “selling” feminism by talking about how the achievement of feminist goals will benefit men. The epitome of this viewpoint was Emma Watson’s UN speech and her introduction of HeForShe; Watson invited men to become active participants in the feminist movement, saying “We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.” She then listed ways in which men are disadvantaged by gender expectations.

Mychal Denzel Smith, writing at Feministing, criticized this approach to feminist public relations, pointing out that the reason men as a group have not embraced feminism is not that they have not been invited to—in fact, feminists have been attempting to make men care about our concerns for decades—but that the status quo of gender inequality does benefit men. As was suggested by other commentators, feminism is a movement primarily to liberate women from sexist oppression; it’s true that gender roles hurt everyone, but who are primarily the victims of societal prejudice and gendered violence? The appropriate way for men to support feminism is to step back from the spotlight, to interrogate their complicity in supporting patriarchy, and to acknowledge that identifying with this movement should not be comfortable.

Now, I hesitate to fully draw a parallel between this and the issue of egalitarian tefillah. Egalitarian davening, after all, has many goals, and it is not and should not be purely the domain of women nor designed solely to benefit us. That said, I do see uncomfortable similarities here. Amram speaks of his comfort in egalitarian settings, but also defends Orthodoxy. He cites Orthodox women feminist writers and Orthodox feminist organizations as evidence that Orthodoxy need not be sexist, but the very existence of these women and organizations points to the truth: Orthodoxy IS sexist and needs reform, which is what Orthodox feminists agitate for. To claim that because Orthodox feminism exists Orthodoxy is not deeply problematic from a gender perspective is to both miss the point and forfeit the opportunity for substantive critique.

It is more difficult, I believe, for egalitarian-aligned men to vocally criticize Orthodoxy, because they can still walk into an Orthodox synagogue and be treated in a similar way to the way they are in their “ideal” egalitarian tefillah settings. Amram says that “reinforcing…a normative masculinity, predicated upon superiority to women and other marginalized religious groups, does not make men more comfortable,” but when comfort is the frame, it’s easy to tolerate Orthodox settings in which an egalitarian man is simply slightly less comfortable, but still acknowledged as a crucial member of the community.

In encountering egalitarianism, men must replace the lens of comfort with the lens of justice. I would be deeply pained to learn that all men who pray with me in egalitarian settings are only there because it makes them feel good. A belief in egalitarianism should entail allyship with egalitarian women, and that includes rejection of, and in some cases, condemnation of, non-egalitarian settings. I regularly refuse to pray in non-egalitarian groups because I will not be treated as a person; for people who can walk into any shul and count, that decision is less obvious.

I challenge egalitarian men: abdicate the privilege you have of approaching these questions from the perspective of your comfort. Consider refusing to participate in minyanim that would not count your female peers, and explain your refusal. Do not apologize for sexism perpetrated in the name of Orthodoxy under the guise of pluralism and tolerance. Pursue justice.

 

 Avigayil Halpern is a student at Midreshet Ein Hanatziv in Israel and will be starting at Yale University in the fall.

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