Culture, Religion, Sex & Gender

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth is: When Language is a Red Herring

No woman who has spent time in Orthodox circles is a stranger to the sting of hearing from the other side of the mechitza, “We need one more person for a minyan!” As a student at an Orthodox high school, I made many a snarky comment to rabbis as they patrolled the hallways before mincha, approaching my male peers and saying, “Come on! We need one more person!”  With a grin and a wave, I would say “Hi! Person over here!” The response I got was never more than a sigh or an “oh, you again” smile and an eye roll, but at the very least I had expressed my frustration with their choice of words.

    In a recent article on the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals blog, Alan Krinsky laments the prevalence of this and similar language, asking “What is the cumulative effect on girls and women of receiving such messages time and time again, day after day, week after week, year after year?” Krinsky is right to be concerned about the consequence of this language on girls and women, and also shares justified concern about “the impact it has on men, and especially young boys. They likewise receive, over and over again, the message that only males are truly people and truly Jews.” This message should, of course, be deeply concerning to anyone who cares about both Judaism and women’s wellbeing. But language really isn’t the root of the problem.

    When I was in tenth grade, a male rabbi at school gave a brief dvar torah about the spiritual significance of tzitzit. Throughout his talk, he discussed the value of “a Jew” wearing tzitzit. After he finished, I turned to a friend — both of us irritated by his assumption that Jewish man was the default Jew in his imagining — and remarked, “How liberal! He thinks all Jews are obligated in tzitzit!” Fast forward two years, and I am a woman in tzitzit who, yes, does believe that all Jews are obligated.

    Therein lies the problem with those who are committed to making halakhic Judaism a place that is inclusive to women critiquing language that treats maleness as the default. Orthodox Judaism, however feminist, does not treat women as full adults within the halakhic structure. Women remain excluded from being counted in and participating as equals in a minyan and are not considered obligated in all mitzvot in the same way men are. In a context where women are still part of the exempted, socially inferior trifecta of “Women, children, and slaves,” language is a red herring.

    Those people who are concerned with the educational impact of girls growing up hearing “We need two more people for a minyan!” must consider, then, the educational impact of girls growing up never being counted for that minyan. Does it matter if a young woman hears “people” or “men” when she is still, on a daily basis, being implicitly taught that she is in fact not “people” enough as a Jew?

    Krinsky calls for men to be sensitive and considerate “whenever we are discussing minyan, tefillin, or other matters referring specifically to male obligations.” Sensitivity in language, while obviously better than callousness, will not solve the fundamental issue of women’s exemption and exclusion from ritual life. The paradigm of “male obligations” is one that inherently disenfranchises women and girls, and no amount of delicate and kind language will change that. Simplistically, if halakhic Jews believe that mitzvot have value, that doing mitzvot is good, and that obligation is a useful and generative paradigm by which to fulfill mitzvot, then the fact that half of adult Jews — who, in their secular lives, function as full, educated, competent members of society — in Orthodox communities today are treated as not obligated in several public and significant mitzvot is a grave problem. If one believes that it is logically and morally wrong, in a context in which adult women are active in society and government, and granted full access to education, for them to be lumped together halakhically with children and slaves, then no phrasing can make our exclusion rankle less. In fact, saying “people” when one needs men to make a minyan might be more honest; women, in that Jewish context, are not being treated as full people.

    Orthodox men concerned with how their behavior affects women need to look deeper than the words they use, and do more serious work to abdicate privilege than simply patting themselves on the back for acknowledging problematic language. The problem with saying “We need two more people to make this minyan!” is not that it ignores the presence of women in the room. The problem is that in that prayer community, women are not people, and that is what enables the wording in the first place. The issue at hand is not the assumption that men are the default; it is that men are the default. Men who are genuinely committed to making the halakhic community a place that treats women according to the standards they expect of the rest of the world must confront and address this unpleasant reality.

3 thoughts on “Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth is: When Language is a Red Herring

  1. I think there are two stages – stage one is getting people to start saying “men” instead of people so they become conscious of the fact that they are excluding women in that hurtful way with language; stage two is after that, recognizing that you might as well say “people” since, as you note, in that context women are *not* being treated as full people, so you should go ahead and say what you mean.
    As an egalitarian person who ran an Orthodox minyan at a college with a small-ish Jewish community, I, though generally sensitive to such issues of language, started davka saying “people” instead of “men” when talking about women for just that reason. When women protested that I meant “men”, I pointed out like you said – we’re talking about minyan, so obviously when I say “people” that term doesn’t include women, right? Kinda hoped it would jar the more feminist-leaning Orthodox folks sensitive enough to hear the people/women language to realize exactly your point – that you can talk however you want, but when it boils down to it, make no mistake: *You don’t count as a person here.*
    (It was also *slightly* less personally offensive point for me to make since anyone who really got upset knew that *I* was egalitarian and perfectly happy to count them as people! I was just playing by *their* rules.)

  2. “Hi! Person over here!” – You knew exactly what he meant; He meant a tenth man! But the words he might have used give you reason to start a whole philosophy lesson on how to better the ways of Torah. Face it – you want to change Judaism to suit your feminist desires and there is the crux of the matter; That you want to change Torah; You want that Torah should be suited for you, instead of wanting yourself suited for Torah.
    No matter how any words you’ll throw at the subject, and how much you’ll elaborate your designs, that is the crux of the matter – you want to reform God’s dictates, as if you know better.
    I don’t mean to be argumentative – I just want you to know that deep down that, and only that, is the problem with all reformists. And the best way to go about that is, first, to deny the Torah’s sanctity, and, then, of course the field is wide open.

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