Mars, Venus, and the Jews
I just came across a fascinating series in Slate, challenging the science of sex differences. (It happens to be written and edited by two brilliant Jewesses - Amanda Schaffer and Emily Bazelon - whom I am privileged to know.) Schaffer and Bazelon take on what they call the new "sex difference evangelists" and offer powerful, data-driven rebuttals to their arguments on sex differences in the brain. Their articles remind us that even texts that present themselves as dealing in "scientific fact" should be read closely and questioned, since scientific data isn't always so clear cut and can be easily misread, misinterpreted, or manipulated.
I was thrilled to see this series because as the mother of boy/girl twins, I'm faced with a lot of comments and questions about what differences I'm witnessing in my "home gender lab." And what I always say is that yes, of course there are differences between my kids, and I ascribe them to individuality, not to sex - I don't see how I could draw any conclusions about "boys" and "girls" in general from a sample of two. When I'm feeling preachy, I also like to point people to the work of biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, whose research on sex differences emphasizes the plasticity of the brain and the false binary of nature/nurture.
But as much as I'm skeptical of essential differences between men and women, I'm also reminded of the challenge of reconciling my beliefs with the basic structure of Judaism, which depends on highly differentiated sex roles in religious life and in the home. As someone who chooses to live within egalitarian Jewish communities, I'm able to avoid this conflict most of the time. I'm quicker to take on the fight against those who argue for essential sex differences in secular society; in a Jewish context, I mostly ignore it as irrelevant to my experience of Judaism. But it lurks, coming to the surface when I encounter classical texts, Jewish legal writing, even some Jewish feminist writing (such as this sensitive piece that I respect but whose conclusion I ultimately disagree with). In some ways, it should be harder to ignore, since I can more easily throw out what I consider to be a flawed secular text than a flawed Jewish one.
So I return to perhaps the most basic Jewish feminist question: what do we do with the sexism entrenched in our tradition? How much do we need to engage the issue of sex roles in a Jewish context, and how much can we move beyond it?