by Jill Hammer
David Kelsey asks us to regard Jewish women doctors’ participation in circumcision as “mohelet culture,” a castrating theology that hopes to change men into women (David Kelsey, “Misandry,” Jewschool,” May 14, 2006). Further, Kelsey wants Jewish feminists to change their attitude, as he believes they are turning off Jewish men like him. As a former Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project staff member, who has written material for ritualwell when it used to belong to Ma’yan, I’d like to point out that while Kelsey’s critique of “circumcision as femininization” has merit, his logic about Jewish feminists as a whole is flawed.
Kelsey accuses Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, the author of an article on circumcision posted on Ritualwell, of bigotry because she argues that circumcision is meant to “soften” men and make them like women. I am sympathetic to the argument that Goldstein has erred here. Making men become like women is not my goal as a Jewish feminist, nor is it the goal of most feminists I know. However, Kelsey then complains that his parents were forced without warning to witness a circumcision performed by a mohelet, as if this spectacle arose directly from Goldstein’s article. This is not a fair move for Kelsey to make, as Israelites adopted the practice of circumcision thousands of years ago, and Jewish doctors, male and female (at least in the liberal community), have been trained to perform the ritual because the Jewish community requires it, not because Jewish feminists are out to turn men into women. (Tziporah, the biblical and female circumciser, certainly didn’t know anything about Elyse Goldstein.) Feminists did not invent circumcision, nor did they invent the rationale that it makes men more docile (see Maimonides on this), though you’d never guess this from Kelsey’s writing. Accusing all mohalot of subscribing to a female-supremacist philosophy is simply wrong. Many mohalot are Jewish women doctors who already perform circumcisions as part of their routine as American medical professionals. They want to do a mitzvah and don’t see a good reason why women should not perform this mitzvah. As far as I can tell, many more of them are influenced by traditionally positive Jewish attitudes toward circumcision than by feminism. If David Kelsey disagrees with their decision, and thinks that in the hands of a woman, circumcision suddenly becomes a hate crime (or if, as it appears, he disagrees with circumcision entirely), it would be helpful for him to explain his thoughts without reference to a Jewish theologian who I’m sure many mohalot haven’t read, and without reference to the Jewish women he’s dated, unless some of them are pediatricians. And I’d like to see him talk about his relationship to mohalim as well, so we can compare how he sees men in this role with how he sees women.
But, as far as I can tell, this article is not about circumcision or about theologies justifying or condemning it. Nor is it a thorough review of the varieties of feminism that ritualwell promotes (basically, Kelsey condemns not only the site but an entire religious movement for a single article, without any real discussion of what the site is trying to do or an acknowledgement of the ways it supports both men and women). Kelsey takes Goldstein’s comments as an excuse to claim that Jewish feminists in general are angry sorts who blame individual Jewish men for patriarchy, and are simply undateable. I hear that Kelsey feels that the rush to overturn the legacy of patriarchy is like being on a 5:00 pm train out of Grand Central (though I have to say that in most areas that hasn’t been my experience), but I’d like to see him recognize that this issue isn’t easy for women either, to significantly understate the case. It makes it harder to name real, painful and damaging exclusions when some Jewish men resent us for it and lump all of us in with the opinions of any feminist they don’t happen to like. Kelsey may be right that some Jewish men are in flight from this issue and from Jewish women, but if so, I wonder if it’s partly that their own feelings about the legacy of sexism (and about women’s feelings about that legacy) are painful and confusing. I don’t think it is because most Jewish feminists hate men.
I encourage Kelsey to go on naming bigotry when he sees it, and I appreciate his reminder to not tolerate or promote theology that elevates one gender over another. I do want him to consider how often I come across a Jewish website with material, biblical, traditional, mystical, or otherwise, that theorizes about the meaning of my gender with no reference to my actual experience. The feeling Kelsey had when reading Goldstein’s comments is one that I share on a daily basis, in shul, on the web, in my Torah classes. Every day I have to confront, in the Genesis stories that I love, geneaologies that have no women yet are still regarded as sacred by the Jewish people. Every day, I have to face that prominent Jewish conferences still have almost entirely male speaker slates, and if women complain about this, they are often regarded as troublemakers. Sites like ritualwell (which has hundreds of pages I find inspiring) help me feel that some of my experience is being heard. If such sites make Kelsey feel excluded I want to hear about that, but only if my feelings of exclusion are important to him as well. While he is being a watchdog for men’s rights, which is a role I appreciate and hope to share, I’d be glad to hear that Kelsey is willing to be a watchdog for my rights too (since they are still very much under threat around the world, Reconstructionist websites notwithstanding). Then maybe we’d have more to talk about as allies.
But, instead, Kelsey wants me to know that he doesn’t feel like dating me. This is certainly a good thing for both of us, but it’s probably bad for dialogue.