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Exploring gender Jewishly

NEW YORK (JTA) – As I’ve been planning a conference on gender and Jewish education, as well as now expecting a son, I’ve been learning a lot about the gender and education debate both within and outside the Jewish world. I’ve also been paying special attention lately to the different ways that adults relate to boys and girls, the way they are raised, the way they act and the way they learn.

While many feminist Jewish scholars talk about content and the importance of introducing students to female heroes and feminist voices, boy advocates seem to be concerned about methodology and designing a learning experience where boys can learn best and men are engaged. A case in point: Gail Twersky Reimer’s article in a journal on Jewish education that I edit focuses on a gendered reading of Matan Torah. She sites a midrash that explains it is not God who speaks in gendered language (“Do not go near a woman”), but the human ear of Moses that listens that way.

Reimer writes, “While the midrash recognizes that the adult will experience Revelation and hear Torah differently from the child, it also suggests the possibility that today’s child (a child growing up in a culture that takes gender issues seriously) is likely to hear Torah differently from his or her own father and mother, and certain to hear it differently than his or her grandparents.”

Rather than moving toward a more universal understanding of Torah and Judaism, we want a more diverse one. In an ironic twist, we are reversing the punishment in the story of the Tower of Babel, and it is not to our benefit.

National Geographic recently completed a study on the rate of extinction of languages in the world. More than 500 languages may be spoken by fewer than 10 people, and more than half of the world’s 7,000 languages are expected to die out by the end of the century. This trend also represents a loss of human knowledge of the natural world, only preserved in the languages of native peoples. We need diversity in order to have complete, or at least more complete, knowledge.

Some in the “Mars and Venus” camp want to emphasize differences between the way men and women think and the minds of boys and girls develop. Others vehemently disagree with this thinking, saying it has never been adequately proven but has great staying power because people want their stereotypes reinforced.

Michael Thompson wrote an article recently about his visit to a summer camp for boys where he found the counselors skilled in reaching the different kinds of kids there. He concludes: “[W]hat worries me is the implication that there is an easy answer to all of this, as if there were one right way to teach the great range of boys (or girls). Nothing is that simple, especially not in teaching, which is a demanding and complex skill.”

As popular as the idea is, I’m not in the “boys will be boys” camp; that is, I’m not finding that most generalizations about boys resonate with all the boys I know. This thinking oversimplifies the issue; having two characterizations of people is not the kind of complex understanding I’m seeking. We need to have an approach to education and to Judaism that responds to the vast diversity between men and women as well as among them.

As we are taught in Sanhedrin 4:5, when a human being makes coins from the same mint, they all come out alike. When God made every person from one initial human being, none was made identical to the other. The emphasis on gender in education will serve us only if it helps to challenge our stereotypes about gender rather than reinforcing them, and to offer diverse content and learning methodologies to our students as we get to know them and honor their individual strengths and differences.

As we learn from the metaphor of the four species of Sukkot, we are stronger when each of the four distinct “types” of people is bound together in one community.

I acknowledge that this is only one woman’s perspective. The “men’s movement” will be shaped and led by men, not by mothers and wives. Men’s voices need to be represented, as they will be in the symposium on gender and Jewish education prior to the Union of Reform Judaism’s biennial in San Diego. The conversation itself is healthy and necessary. The rest of us must be open and ready to listen and learn.

Wendy Grinberg is the associate director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s department of lifelong Jewish learning. For information on the upcoming Reform movement symposium on gender and Jewish education, or to download the most recent issue of Torah at the Center: Gender and Jewish Education, go to www.urj.org/educate/symposium.

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