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A Rosh Hashanah Sermon on Gender Equality

"Man and woman were created in the Divine image. Male and female God created them." Each year we reread the story of creation. We return to our story of origin as a signal that Rosh Hashanah is all about returning to our truest selves -- or as we say in Hebrew,.
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This year, I felt called to give a sermon on gender equality and the harm we do through oppressive gender norms. The text is below, and you are also welcome to watch the video of it .

"Man and woman were created in the Divine image. Male and female God created them." Each year we reread the story of creation. We return to our story of origin as a signal that Rosh Hashanah is all about returning to our truest selves - or as we say in Hebrew, tshuvah. It is about rediscovering the human potential with which we are all imbued and reflecting on how that potential has waxed or waned in the past year. In what ways have we remained true to our inner purpose, and in what ways have we been led astray?

Our tradition teaches that we all have an inner humanity, spirit, and essence - what some call a soul - that exists irrespective of our physical form. If we do indeed believe in this inner essence, then it is our religious obligation to allow it free expression, regardless of our male or female attributes. We must move beyond constrictive gender norms and allow our inner lives to flourish and outward actions to speak for who we truly are.

Yet in our midst there is a crisis that curtails our potential as men and women. One so deep, so pervasive, so consistent that we often lose sight of it. One that arises when we act as though men and women are different not only in physical form, but also in human purpose. One that keeps us from fully engaging in tshuvah by causing us to overlook important parts of our innermost selves. One that has gone on for far too long.

This crisis manifests itself most visibly in some startling statistics about men and women in our society:

  • There have been 71 mass shootings since 1982. Only one of the perpetrators was a woman.

  • Males comprised over 90 percent of convicted murderers between 1980 and 2008.
  • One in six American women has been the victim of sexual assault in her lifetime, but 98 percent of perpetrators never spend a day in jail.
  • Domestic Violence is the most common cause of injury for women ages 18 - 44.
  • There are fewer female CEO's in the S&P 1500 than there are male CEO's named John.
  • 81% of adolescent suicides are boys.
  • As many as one quarter of college-aged women engage in the binging and purging of food.
  • As we engage in the process of tshuvah, of behavioral turning and spiritual return, we can't afford to overlook the role of gender anymore. We reduce our freedom of self-expression and ability to return to our truest selves when we tell others or ourselves that we should act a particular way simply because we are men or women.

    It has become increasingly clear to me that the ways we are socialized to think about our gender play a central role in many social ills. Gender norms lead us astray and cause us to engage in harmful behaviors that we would not otherwise - even behaviors that on the surface seem relatively innocuous.

    Just think of the number of ways that people label us and set norms for us based on our sexual attributes. We first encounter these labels surprisingly early in life, and it makes me wonder about what we inadvertently model for children.

    "Girls don't get messy," but "boys don't cry"; "walk like a lady," but don't "throw like a girl"; "he's such a good leader," but she's "too bossy"; "girls can't be selfish," but "boys can't be caring" - or my absolute least favorite, "You're being such a girl." Why is it that the worst insult for a young boy is to be called a girl? What does that teach him about women? What does that teach girls about themselves?

    In our adult lives, gender is just as constraining. In an office, a woman might be complimented for what she is wearing, while a man might be complimented for his ideas. In a home, a woman might be complimented for the behavior of her children, while a man might be complimented for finding such a beautiful wife. A woman might be shamed for working too much, while her husband is shamed for working too little.

    I chafe at these assumptions, as well. Guests who come over for dinner often compliment [my wife] Mirah on a meal that I cooked. I like rom-coms, while Mirah likes action movies. She makes more money than I do. And part of me is attracted to the idea of staying home full-time with our future children.

    To be sure, our rabbinic tradition speaks in clear and sometimes strident terms about differences between the sexes and the behavioral norms ascribed to each one. In many instances, the Talmud prizes female beauty and male character. In others, it derides women as distractions to the higher aims of men. But these are unfortunate passages that reflect the sexism of the era in which they were written. They do not speak for modern Judaism.

    And as my study partner, Rabbi Joshua Franklin, compellingly argued, these oppressive norms did not go uncontested, even centuries ago. One of our greatest sages, Rabbi Ishmael, decried the gender norms of his day and provides a remarkable example for our own. Rabbi Ishmael and his renowned school of followers contested case after case in which women were treated unfairly.

    It is recorded that Rabbi Ishmael cried out in sorrow because of the plight of Jewish women, saying, "All the daughters of Israel are beautiful, but sometimes their poverty hides their beauty." He was alluding to a cycle of poverty to which many Jewish women were consigned. Women were not the main breadwinners of the day. If unmarried, women could easily become impoverished and therefore unable to get married later on. Rabbi Ishmael cried out for these oppressed women.

    Rabbi Ishmael's views were not in the majority at the time. But their preservation for the future is testament to their power in the past. The Talmud tells us that upon Rabbi Ishmael's death, the daughters of Israel gave a "cry of sorrow for Rabbi Ishmael."

    The word "cry" is mirrored most intentionally within the earlier segment of text. Rabbi Ishmael cried out in sorrow when he heard of the plight of Jewish women. In turn, they gave a cry of sorrow when they learned of his death.

    But this language of giving voice to an injustice does not originate with Rabbi Ishmael. It originates with God. God says to Cain, who perpetrated the first crime in the Torah, "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood calls out to me from the ground." Cain's brother cannot speak for himself, and but God still hears his voice.

    Today, as we engage in this process of communal reflection, we must heed God's example and hear the cries of the oppressed in our midst, as well as those without the voice to speak for themselves. We too should have the courage to ask, "What have we done? What injustices have we perpetrated upon each other and perpetrated upon ourselves, wittingly or unwittingly?"

    Even as we look to the past for guidance, so too must we look to our collective future. Children are that future, and what they learn of the world often mirrors what they later create.

    This past spring, a photo snapped by a concerned employee at New York University went viral on social media. It showed two baby outfits hanging next to each other in the university bookstore. One was blue and read, "I'm super." The other was purple and read, "I hate my thighs."

    Even infants are exposed to gender-normative and body-shaming language.

    A recent study showed a quantifiable wage gap between boys and girls, before they are even out of grade school. While fewer boys do chores than girls do around the house, boys on average receive a bigger allowance and earn a higher hourly wage. What does that tell them about the value of their time and the roles they should take on at work and at home?

    This socialization starts with the expectations that parents have for their children. Economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz found that parents focus on different questions about boys and girls. Studying data from our Google searches, he found that forevery ten searches that parents did for the question "Is my son overweight?" they did seventeen for their daughters. For every ten searches that parents did for the question "Is my daughter gifted?" they did twenty-five for their sons.

    These disparate Google searches cut across ideological, geographical, and social divisions in our country. As Stephens-Davidowitz put it,

    It's not that parents don't want their daughters to be bright or their sons to be in shape, but they are much more focused on the braininess of their sons and the waistlines of their daughters.

    He then asks, "How would American girls' lives be different if parents were half as concerned with their bodies and twice as intrigued by their minds?"

    The parents who conducted these Google searches were probably good parents in so many ways. These searches were well-meaning, kind-hearted inquiries, intended to improve the well-being of children. But they do reveal the unconscious bias, the pre-conceived frames, the unintentional limits that we place not only on one another but also on our children.

    We should not judge ourselves for our preconceived notions about gender. But neither can we passively accept the biases we have, especially when we might pass them along to the next generation.

    I am not yet a parent and cannot speak from a place of knowledge about parenting. But I am a man, and I was a boy, and I know about the social pressures exerted on boys as they grow up. One of the worst, in my view, is the belief pounded into us that males cannot show emotion - lest we be seen as weak.

    The lowest point in my life came in sixth grade. I was entering a new school, with new classmates, new teachers, and new expectations of academic performance. I felt like a total misfit.

    Within a month of the start of school, I was totally isolated. Teachers were upset by the loudness of my voice. Classmates were put off by my lack of social acumen and inability to say what was nice or polite rather than what I thought to be true. They bullied and ridiculed me, mocked my then-lack of athletic prowess, and even made me feel stupid.

    Worst of all, I had no outlet for my pain. To tell my mother would make me a "mamma's boy." To tell my father would be to get someone else to fight my battles. To tell my brother would be to interact with another teenage boy, who was himself in pain. I was hemmed in on all sides by new expectations for me as an aspiring man.

    I ultimately made it through this time by breaking with gender norms and making new friendships with girls. I came to see that their isolation mirrored my own. They felt objectified by boys and judged by other girls. If I could be a source of good counsel, support, and genuine Platonic friendship, we could help each other find a way out of isolation. I could emote and talk about feelings, and they could talk with pride about their athletic and academic accomplishments.

    Mine was a textbook example of the adolescent male experience. Psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson put it so well in their best-selling book, Raising Cain: "We believe that boys, beginning at a young age, are systematically steered away from their emotional lives toward silence, solitude, and distrust."

    Who among us hasn't been hurt by the expectations we have placed on each other as men and women? How many men have been forbidden to have feelings, and how many women have been forbidden to have thoughts? How many of us have been bullied or limited or criticized based on our gender?

    These are not just academic issues. Lives are at stake. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for Americans age 10 - 24. Four out of five of these suicides are boys. As many as one in ten teenage girls presently suffers from an eating disorder. Children in our country are hurting. These are tangible ways that they are expressing their pain. Imagine the countless who are hurting in ways that are harder to see.

    As much as change is painful, so too is it necessary. We owe it to ourselves, our past, and indeed, our future.

    In some ways, we live in a time of unprecedented change. For the first time, we as a country have let go of the belief that marriage is only between a man and a woman. So too are we letting go of the idea that we are confined to the male or female attributes we have at birth.

    Earlier this year, Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair to formally announce her transformation. The person who had excelled as a male Olympian had found her identity as a woman. Her public change opened the path to greater acceptance for our country's estimated 700,000 transgender people.

    But the media's discourse quickly devolved into conversations about Jenner's appearance. As comedian Jon Stuart said, "Caitlyn, when you were a man, we could talk about your athleticism and your business acumen, but now you're a woman, and your looks are really the only thing we care about."

    Caitlyn Jenner is a particularly apt example because she has shown us how differently we treat the very same person as a man and as a woman. Even when praising her beauty, the media reinforced the message that a woman's beauty is the only thing that matters about her.

    We put Bruce into one box as a man and just as quickly put Caitlyn into another as a woman. Somehow we were less disturbed by her shift from one box to another than we would have been if she had left those boxes altogether. In our continued allegiance to those boxes, we constrained her individuality along one paradigm of her existence alone. Isn't she a formidable athlete? Isn't she a good friend? Isn't she a creative person? Isn't she one human being, both as a man and a woman, with the very same mind and underlying essence?

    Our strong reactions to the story of Caitlyn Jenner illustrate how constrained we all are. Though we might have newfound tolerance for transgender people, our society remains rife with intolerance for people with gender identities that don't fit into neat little boxes.

    The worst part about gender norms is that they reduce us to the sum of our physical parts, rather than allowing our inner lives to guide the existence of our physical beings. They curtail our emotional lives in the name of physical appearance and force us to subvert our intellects for the sake of social comfort.

    We all have cause to cry out like Rabbi Ishmael. We are all oppressed by unrealistic, unhealthy social constructions that pass under the guise of gender. And when one of us cries out in pain, all of us must awaken to the realities of our own suffering.

    Jews have in so many ways led the resistance to oppressive gender roles. We have much to be proud of.

    In the United States, Jewish women are the most educated of any ethnic or religious group. In Israel, women comprise a full half of the officers in the military. Millennia ago, we guaranteed the rights of women in marriage through wedding Ketubahs. Age-old Jewish law affirms the requirement for sexual consent. The Reform Movement champions female rabbis as equal to their male peers and fights wage disparities present in our vocation. Opportunities and freedoms abound in ways unthinkable in other traditions. And yet, we too have room to grow. For gender is lived out person to person.

    Tonight, many of us will sit around our tables, enjoying time with loved ones. As we eat our kugel and dip our apples in honey, let us take the brave step of thinking about who prepared the meal and who will do the dishes. Who took care of the children and who responded to pressing work e-mails. Who spent time getting dressed up and who didn't feel pressed to dress a particular way at all.

    Perhaps some of us are contented with the way we presently live. But too often, we fall passively into uncomfortable roles. Too often we unwittingly consign others to roles that cause them pain. Rabbi Ishmael cries out for us to take action.

    This is not optional. This is not something we can opt out of, ignore, or gloss over. There is no one who can say, "This is not my issue." Our physical forms are but vessels for our sacred purposes. We are all created in God's image - male and female, and everything in between.

    This recognition takes us a step closer to a world in which our spirits are free and our humanity can be unleashed. Or, as poet Judy Chicago so hopefully writes,

    And then all that has divided us will merge.
    And then compassion will be wedded to power
    And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind.
    And then both men and women will be gentle.
    And then both women and men will be strong....
    And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

    The return to Eden begins with the return to our inner selves. It all begins right now. Shanah tovah.

    Citations (with full-form versions and footnotes upon request.)

    Rabbi's Manual, CCAR 1988 edition.

    U.S. Department of Justice (Bureau of Justice Statistics)

    Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (from Bureau of Justice Statistcs)§ion=women&kvcommref=mostpopular

    This argumentation comes from his paper, "Rabbi Ishmael: The Proto-Feminist."

    Tractate Nedarim 9:10

    Translation by Rabbi Joshua Franklin, re-examined and adapted by the author of this sermon.

    Genesis 4:10.

    Introduction, xix.

    Excerpted from "Merger Poem" by Judy Chicago.

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