By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
In a recent edition of Time magazine (Dec. 16, 2013) an article entitled “Boys Won’t be Boys” details the push in Sweden for “gender neutrality.” A number of Swedish schools are trying to stop using the word “boys” or “girls” altogether, and attempting to make all references and interactions with the children completely neutral, including toys and forms of dress. In every way possible, to attempt to erase the habits which they believe are imprinted upon boys and girls by society from the get-go which cause the differences we normally associate as masculine and feminine. The Swedes have even come up with a gender neutral term “hen” which means neither he nor she, which has become popular in their literature so not to distinguish genders in stories. They claim they are moving toward a gender-neutral society, which they hope will eventually equalize men and women in every way. This societal experiment fascinated me, and I was wondering if there’s a Jewish take on this?
— Shayna T.
It is a core Jewish belief that every physical creation in this world is an external manifestation of a higher, deeper essence. The physical differences, which set apart men from women, are not accidental or incidental mere physical aberrations. They reflect profound spiritual and emotional dissimilarities between males and females, as the Talmud quips “women are like a different nation from men.” This sentiment was later captured in John Gray’s well-known volume “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.”
Our belief is that the differences described in that book, which punctuates the diverse emotional needs and thought patterns separating men and women, are not simply the result of societal conditioning. (Although, without question, society has some impact.) These are distinctions which have their roots in the very essence of the creation of man and woman. Just like they were created differently, (man from the earth, woman from the rib of man) so too their souls are distinctively unique.
The roots of these variations, according to the Kabbalists, are in the upper celestial Sefirot, where the Sefirot of Chachma and Binah are referred to as Aba and Ima, or Father and Mother. It is beyond the scope of this column to explain the meaning of those concepts, but let it suffice to state that those two Sefirot, or spiritual worlds reflecting the Will of God, are two completely different Divine entities which form the roots of femininity and masculinity down in our physical world, both of which are the manifestations of two very diverse and very beautiful reflections of the Divine Will.
To understand these differences more deeply, I refer you to an excellent work, “To Be a Jewish Woman” by my friend Dr. Lisa Aiken, a clinical psychologist and prolific author of Torah content. In Chapter 3, she points out that God found it necessary to create the first man and woman with different characteristics. The Torah underscores the importance of maintaining these differences through laws which maintain the distinction between the sexes. For example, it is prohibited for a man to wear women’s clothing, wear women’s makeup and vice versa. In general, Judaism emphasizes maintaining the differences that God created rather than diminishing them. This is because every creation has a distinct spiritual message to teach us. It cannot convey that message when its distinctiveness is undermined and obliterated.
Dr. Aiken explains how this does not imply inferiority at all to either of the genders, or that one is more powerful than the other. It does imply a different mode of expression for each gender’s unique power and influence, one more internal and the other more external.
Some opine in the article you mention that even from a secular viewpoint, the Swedes have gone too far. Certainly from the viewpoint of Judaism, this societal experiment is doomed to failure as society as a whole cannot uproot God-given differences and expect them to be integrated into civilization successfully. The only question, in my mind, is how much emotional pain it will cause along the way before they realize their failure.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.