“Judaism is sexist!”
It was about 1981. I was a newly ordained rabbi living in Cardiff, Wales. I was the guest speaker at the University Methodist Society and had been given the daunting assignment to speak about Judaism—everything I had been studying for most of my life—in about half an hour. My talk seemed well received when a female student, in a shrill Welsh accent pronounced her judgment: “Judaism is sexist! Is seems so dominated by men!”
I replied that I thought there was some measure of truth to what she asserted—but not just about Judaism. All of society was sexist. My tradition was a very ancient one and I acknowledged that it was certainly patriarchal—with the emphasis on the word “was.” Like most of the Western world, the impact of feminism had been profound. In my denomination, women were ordained and counted in a prayer quorum. In point of fact. I said, Jews were largely urban and university educated, embraced liberal politics and were somewhat ahead of the curve on women’s issues.
That didn’t satisfy my critic. She knew better. I was clearly some sort of an apologist obfuscating the self-evident truth that Judaism was inherently and irredeemably sexist (and therefore bad.) I acknowledged her concerns but marshaled many examples showing that things were changing. She didn’t budge. Judaism was sexist and that was that.
I was making no headway and finally got a bit exasperated. “Look,” I said, “My denomination ordains women. When the Church of England ordains women, we can talk about who is sexist!” The crowd went wild, erupted in applause and I got a standing ovation. I am not sure that this was all because I had scored a blow for women’s rights, so much as I had put down something English – anything English –among some very Welsh people who are not necessarily fond of things English, including the Church of England.
But my critic scowled. She was certain that Judaism was sexist. Nothing I could say would change her preconception. She knew for certain: Judaism was sexist.
Fast forward. Soon after that meeting, the tradition laden C of E started ordaining women. But just today, they rejected a measure to consecrate women as bishops. Even the UK’s Conservative Prime Minister expressed his disappointment, telling the Anglicans to get with the program (or should I say programme). That is pretty powerful coming from a Tory leader to a church which has been called “the Tory Party at Prayer.”
Soon after my experience at the University Methodist Society, I attended a lecture. Somebody asked about Saint Paul’s stricture that women should not speak in churches. The lecturer explained that this was not binding on Christians and needed to be understood in its “Jewish cultural context.”
Was the student an anti-Semite? Was the lecturer? Most likely both didn’t see themselves as prejudiced people and most probably embraced progressive causes, opposed racism and were what we would nowadays call “PC.” It is likely they had Jewish friends. They would probably angrily or tearfully but sincerely deny the accusation of being anti-Semites. I was being “daft.” And, as is fashionable in the UK, I bet that both are simply aghast at just about anything Israel does. Call this anti-Semitism and we would hear the usual reply that “Zionists” throw out that charge any time Israel does anything outrageous, that it is a lame defense and not credible and that we should stick to the subject and not make ad hominem attacks. Israel is also sexist. (I have heard that one from time to time.) Hamas, on the other hand, might be utterly medieval on all “PC” issues, but are given a pass because they are an indigenous people being colonialized. (And British people know a thing or two about colonialism so can make these judgments).
And, yes, it is wrong to pull out the anti-Semitism charge and certainly not effective when addressing very real issues. Stick to the subject. You can’t know the motive. And besides, is it even relevant? Did Israel do or not do whatever it was accused of doing?
And besides, don’t you know, Judaism is sexist. And anything unappealing in early Christianity is attributable to its Jewish origins. And people who are politically progressive can’t possibly have prejudices.