I grew up in a Jewish denomination with egalitarian principles—that is, a man and woman have equal rights under Jewish law, and thus can participate in the same rituals as one another. I’ve always been proud of this aspect of my Judaism, a way to reinterpret millennia-old stories to align with contemporary American values. Leading Rabbis of my denomination, ironically called the Conservative movement, have passed laws grounded in Torah that declare that exemptions and prohibitions historically made for women were no longer valid because our society has progressed to a point where women can fully take part in all activities traditionally performed by men.
But I was always struck by the dichotomy. As a traditional movement, men were expected (read: required) to participate in ritual, and as a progressive movement, women were “allowed.” Only after many years of passively accepting this legal differentiation did I recognize the implication: men and boys were much more likely to read from the Torah, lead prayer services, and take on religious leadership roles. Conversely, unequal requirements and societal pressures forged a culture where women and girls rarely elected to even dawn the prayer shawl or yarmulke. Our microcosm of society had adopted seemingly progressive policy positions, but continued to operate in a strongly patriarchal way.
At the Conservative summer camp where I was a unit head, I pushed back on this, and frankly, I made a scene. I stepped on the toes of some passionate women leaders who were making real progress in the community, and had a valuable learning experience about letting women lead their movement for justice. But I also encountered disturbing resistance on the other end of the spectrum: I discovered that many people who opted into this movement, who claimed to feel comfortable including women “equally,” were still uncomfortable with women rabbis and including the names of our matriarchs along with our patriarchs in prayer because they believed in “preserving tradition.”
In America, we too have won many of the big legal victories for gender equality. Still, many unequal conditions penetrate our society, and the gap between de jure and de facto remains large. Patriarchy exists in our language, art, music, relationships, workplaces, politics, and… well, everywhere.
When thinking about what to write for this piece, I crowdsourced ideas from some of my most passionate feminist friends. Having dedicated the last few years of my life to working in progressive activist spaces, I consider myself decently well-versed in the extensive infiltration of gender inequity in our society. However, while I can name many moments where I witnessed patriarchy affect loved ones, I recognize I cannot fully know its extent because I don’t have that lived experience. I am often reminded of my privilege with a story or perspective that helps me realize a blind spot. This time, we spoke about restaurants, and how waiters will often give more attention to a man, assuming that he’s the one paying (tipping). I never noticed. After all, why would I? I wasn’t the one being ignored.
In fact, patriarchy that I am still struggling to unlearn contributed to my writing this piece at all. When asked, I accepted immediately with enthusiasm and without hesitation. Only later, when staring at the computer screen for the umpteenth hour, did I confront the questions of why I felt empowered to be able to speak for feminist allies, or why my voice can exist in this space at all.
These moments haunt me. Stepping on toes, discovering blind spots, vying for a voice–I continue to encounter areas for growth in my allyship. They serve as a reminder that this work isn’t easy; it’s messy, and we’re bound to miss things. And I am only touching upon a tiny fraction of the issue, not diving into how intersectional identities and gender fluidity complicate this even further! But I am learning to accept the mess, and to not be deterred.
Truthfully, I do believe that feminist allies are vital to the success of the feminist movement. After all, we can only challenge recurring patriarchy when men start to recognize it within ourselves and call it out in others. Crucially, men cannot be leaders in this movement, nor can we have a parallel movement of feminist allied men; that would reinforce our patriarchal instinct to vie for power. Rather, we must work to support women, recognizing the large burden they carry in society and the structural barriers that exist that make it extremely difficult to change the hearts and minds of those implicitly and explicitly reinforcing sexist norms. We must listen to the stories of women to unearth blind spots amongst ourselves. We must lift those stories up to shed light on the blind spots of others, and call out insensitivity wherever we see it. And we must be vulnerable, a trait that patriarchy has often taught men to suppress, as we accept our ignorance, admit our faults, and commit to relearning a new way forward. All the while, we must remember to hold our role in this movement, and consult with leading women thinkers as we navigate it.
There are many days when I struggle with the reality that Judaism, rooted in the value of justice and the tradition of resistance, can be hypocritical. But I’ve come to learn that our people and our God are flawed by design, intending to make us recognize a more just world through our own failings. With this framing, I appreciate my Judaism as both a catalyst for my feminism and a vehicle in which I can identify and understand societal issues of systemic oppression. We should all be grounded in the why of our work. For me, I want to see my Jewish community, the core of who I am, exemplify the very values it taught me to uphold.
– David Bocarsly, Master of Public Policy 2018