Lessons From The Kavanaugh Case: Confronting Patriarchy

Lessons From The Kavanaugh Case: Confronting Patriarchy

Rabbi Sid Schwarz is the director of the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI), a two-year fellowship program for rabbis on visionary leadership, and Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network, a national project to support emerging spiritual communities in North America. He is the author of “Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World” and “Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future.”

Heroes or victims? Brett Kavanaugh was the victim of “a hoax,” according to President Trump. Photos by Getty Images
Heroes or victims? Brett Kavanaugh was the victim of “a hoax,” according to President Trump. Photos by Getty Images

What did we learn from the Brett Kavanaugh nomination process about our country and what light can Judaism shed on this episode?

There was plenty of outrage to go around, coming from both sides. The MeToo phenomenon has mobilized women across the country in ways we have never seen before. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that one in five women will be raped in their lifetime and that one in four women will experience some form of sexual abuse by the age of 18.  These are shocking numbers and they have not changed much over the last couple of decades. What has changed, however, is the willingness of more and more women to come forward to share their stories. Christine Blasey Ford may go down as the Rosa Parks of the MeToo movement, paying a heavy personal price to tell her story in the most public forum imaginable. Calls to women resource centers all over the country skyrocketed in the days following Dr. Ford’s testimony. If she could brave such risk to tell her story of abuse, many women concluded, so could they.

The hearings and their aftermath exposed the ugly side of patriarchy, on both sides. We were reminded how often young women suffer sexual abuse, assault and even rape in silence. The feelings of shame, of guilt and fear of what it would take to press charges against a man and how authorities will handle such an investigation, condemn most women to a lifetime of silence. Every one of these barriers to speaking out is a result of a patriarchal society and the assumptions that it plants, not only in the minds of men, but in the minds of women as well.

Similarly, the outing of drinking and party culture in the Senate hearings pulled back the curtain on a pattern of behavior that all too many boys and men are more prepared to boast about rather than feel ashamed for. Getting women drunk and engaging in sex against their will is a felony, not a sport. The fact that we have a President who himself boasted of taking liberties with women without their consent simply reinforces some of the most heinous manifestations of a culture that allows men to set the standard of behavior and makes women into victims.

Confronting patriarchy and its consequences takes work. Those of us who identify with non-Orthodox forms of Judaism should give some thought to the ways we have tried to adapt a patriarchal tradition to the mores of contemporary life. Two examples are sufficient to make the point. For generations the traditional morning blessings include: “Blessed are You, Sovereign of the universe, who has not made me a woman.” Of course, this line was only to be said by men. In the same place, women were to recite instead, “Blessed are You, Sovereign of the universe who made me according to Your will.” Most non-Orthodox prayer books today offer one blessing, to be said by both men and women, which thanks God for “making us in God’s image”.

While traditionalists will explain the original prayer as acknowledgment of “the special status of women in Judaism,” feminists have helped us realize how, instead, this is simply one of the myriad of ways that a patriarchal culture denies women an equal place in the social order of a community. My “Aha” moment in recent weeks is to realize how the original prayer was a way for men to not even attempt to identify with the female experience. The paraphrase of the prayer might as well be: “The woman’s experience: Not my problem, thank God”. Patriarchy rules (double entendre intended).

Second example: Jewish law prohibits a woman from singing in front of men based on the belief that a woman’s voice might stir up erotic thoughts in the minds of the men within earshot. The fear is that a man might act on having been aroused by the voice of a woman. This law is called kol isha, the voice of women. Here too, traditionalists will interpret the law as a way to protect women from harm, and evidence that men are weaker (in terms of impulse control) than women. But this is a classic example of “blame the victim,” having the potential victim be saddled with social constraints because men can’t control their impulses. The ethos behind the law led women to be denied all manner of public roles in Jewish communities. Patriarchy rules (again).

Over the last 50 years, major strides have been made to strip the patriarchy out of Judaism. This is happening even in parts of the Orthodox community today. While we have a long way to go, we are a better community for it. It has also allowed Judaism to come closer to a core tenet of Jewish theology: the understanding that every human is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Women’s voices, so long denied, have enriched the spiritual lives of millions of Jews precisely because of their ability to understand Torah in ways that men still cannot fully access.

I used to think that Judaism could benefit from adopting social and cultural mores from American society. Perhaps, the modest progress we have made to strip patriarchy out of Judaism, can provide us sorely needed wisdom for the work we must now do to strip patriarchy out of American society.


Rabbi Sid Schwarz is a senior fellow at Hazon. He directs the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI), a two-year fellowship for rabbis and Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network. He is the author of several books including Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World.

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