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Talmud for Boys, Challah-Making for Girls—Gender Rules in Orthodox Day Schools

Gender-typing is at work as early as daycare. A new book examines how this inequity plays out and undermines religious classrooms.

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(Christopher Furlong/Getty Images (left) and Shutterstock)

And then of course is the issue of the internalized gaze on the female body. Gaze, G-A-Z-E. Right, so that girls learn from the time they’re 5 that they are being watched and looked at. Their body, their skin, their movement is being watched and looked at. And before they even have the tiniest hormone of puberty entering their body, before they even know what anything about sex is, they’re already learning that men are looking at them sexually. I mean, what does that do? If they are learning when they’re 5 years old that they have to cover their knees in a certain way because adult men might be looking at their knees, what exactly are they learning? You know, that’s really, really troubling.

I mean, what are boys learning? When boys are learning that girls have to cover up from the time that they’re 5 because boys can’t help themselves but look at girls’ knees, what are we teaching boys about their own sexuality, about their own relationships with girls? We’re teaching them that boys can’t control themselves, that boys cannot have a normal relationship with girls, that boys only see girls as sexual objects. That there is no other way. That this is the natural way. And that we just need to accept it. And as a result of this, girls have to constantly be covering and being aware of covering; and boys have to constantly be aware of the girl as a sexual object. And if you don’t, let’s say a boy is sitting and talking to a girl and not sexualizing her, he’s going to be thinking to himself, “What’s wrong with me? What is wrong with me?”

And girls, on the other hand, are taught that they don’t have any sexuality at all. Right, women’s sexual desire is a nonexistent concept in all of Judaism. There is nowhere, you know, where women are taught, oh, well maybe boys should cover up too because when a, you know, when a woman sees a man, you know, she gets all excited and turned on and can’t control herself. Like that is a narrative that is just foreign to Jewish life. It doesn’t exist anywhere. So, there are a lot of messages that come from this. And they’re all troubling. They’re all troubling. And kids are learning this from 5 years old.

IVRY: There might be some people in our audience listening to our conversation and thinking: Look, this isn’t really about education, it’s about religion, and it’s specifically about Orthodoxy. So if, according to Jewish belief, men and women are fundamentally and immutably different, and they have different relationships to text and to ritual and to halakha, Jewish law, does it really make sense to take these day schools to task for replicating those relationships in school and actually trying to reinforce them. What do you say to them?

SZTOKMAN: OK, so there are a few different parts to that answer. So, first of all, this is not necessarily the way that Orthodoxy has to be. And it’s not necessarily what all Orthodox people want. It’s not, a lot of what we’re seeing in schools has less to do with Jewish law, with halakha, and more to do with convention, with the way some people just want it to be or want their worlds to be.

You know, the Orthodox community has seen a lot of changes over the last 20 years in the status of women. There are—30 years even—there are women’s prayer groups, women’s tefillah groups in almost every community. There are something called the partnership minyanim, which are synagogues that try to maximize women’s participation and strive for egalitarianism as much as possible. You have the Maharat revolution of women in these quasi-rabbinical positions. And you have a whole slew of women Talmud scholars. So, it’s not really fair to say that these practices that, let’s say, exclude women from Talmud from the time, you know, that they’re 12 or 13, that these reflect Orthodoxy, because it doesn’t reflect Orthodoxy. It reflects a very old version of what Orthodoxy might once have been. But Orthodoxy has advanced a lot since then. So, the changes that we’ve seen in Orthodoxy aren’t really finding expression in the schools.

You see a lot of educators in schools who are guiding more by politics rather than pedagogy. They’re guiding more by ideas about, “What will people think?” rather than “What is really good for the child?” So, we saw this you know over the past few weeks, there’s been this big controversy about girls wearing tefillin. And it’s caused this huge uproar throughout the Orthodox world: What does it mean that these schools are allowing girls to wear tefillin?

So, now you have all these rabbis, you know, writing all these op-eds and blogs saying, “What do you mean, how could schools do that?” But the fact is, and almost everyone agrees, that there is no real halakhic objection to girls wearing tefillin. Like, so much of the discussion has absolutely nothing to do really with pedagogy. With saying, well let’s think about this person. Let’s think about this girl who’s coming to you. She’s a 12, 13-year-old girl, she just had her bat mitzvah, and she really wants to pray to God in the most sincere way possible, wearing phylacteries. Just like the boys are. That’s what she wants to do. She wants to connect with God. Isn’t that what we want?

So, a pedagogical response would be one which looks at this person, this child, this beautiful creature of God and says, let me help you on this spiritual journey. What a beautiful thing that is that you want to connect with God. That would be what we consider to be a beautiful, pedagogical response. That is what would be in the spirit of our book title, right, Educating in the Divine Image. Where you’re looking at the child and saying, wow, this is a creature of God trying to connect spiritually. But instead, what we’re hearing is, you know, all of this stuff about, what will the neighbors think and what will people think? And, oh my God, we’re going to become Reform, we’re going to become Conservative—all of these considerations that really have nothing to do with pedagogy and everything to do with politics.

And our contention is that we want to get Judaism back to a spiritual core, to its spiritual roots. Where first and foremost, we see one another as human beings created in the divine image. We want to bring the schools back to that. We’re not trying to say religion needs to change. We’re saying, no, this is what it means to be religious. This is fundamentally what it means to be religious. Our goals are religious goals. So, yeah, in that sense we are not challenging Orthodoxy. We’re saying, this is what Orthodoxy is meant to be.

IVRY: Elana Sztokman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SZTOKMAN: My pleasure, thank you for having me. And thank you for all of the interesting questions.

IVRY: Elana Sztokman is the co-author with Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman of Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox and Jewish Day Schools. The book came out in January and was recently named a winner of the National Jewish Book Council Award. Sztokman spoke with us from her home in Modi’in.

What about you? Did you go to a Jewish day school? If so, did it prepare you intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually for the world that you live in today? We want to know what you think. Send us an email at podcast@tabletmag.com or find this episode on our website, tabletmag.com, and post a comment there. You can even post a comment on Facebook. Go for it, be part of the conversation.

Vox Tablet is produced by Julie Subrin. I’m Sara Ivry. As always, we want to thank you for listening, and we hope you’ll join us again next time.

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Talmud for Boys, Challah-Making for Girls—Gender Rules in Orthodox Day Schools

Gender-typing is at work as early as daycare. A new book examines how this inequity plays out and undermines religious classrooms.

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