Religion gets blamed for gender discrimination, xenophobia, militarism, the inability to find a parking space when it’s raining, halitosis, and the Red Sox 2011 April record. Of course, we might give religion the credit for prompting the best of human compassion and inspiring magnificent art, architecture, and music. But in our current culture wars, it’s easier to dismiss religion entirely than it is to challenge ourselves to follow the best in our own religious teachings.
Yes, some religious traditions suggest distinct roles for women and for men, and yes, we especially in the United States should be wary of any system that purports to be “separate but equal.” We should also be wary both of drawing conclusions based on extreme examples and of imposing our values, whatever they are, on others without first speaking with them.
The Muslim teenager who chooses to wear a hijab, the evangelical wife who agrees to be “subject” to her husband, the Orthodox Jewish woman who sits in behind a mechitza, the partition that separates men and women in worship, may not see themselves as oppressed and marginalized. To the contrary, many see themselves as honored by their tradition even as they honor it. The headscarf conveys personal modesty and religious identity. The wife may be subject to her husband, but the husband must love his wife “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5) – the passage asks much more of the husband than it does of the wife. As for sitting behind the mechitza, it’s a great place to find women’s solidarity.
As a member of an Orthodox synagogue (although the level of my orthodoxy is under some question), I am content to forgo the activities from which I am precluded – reading from the Torah in a mixed setting— for example. I had this privilege in my former Conservative congregation, and I do not find that I miss it. For me, the choice to be in an Orthodox setting works, and how dare anyone tell me—or the woman who has just completed her term as the congregation’s president!— that we are benighted. The issue is not constraint, but choice.
In the U.S., individuals who feel constrained by one religious setting may affiliate elsewhere, or not at all. Some decide to remain in the system, loving much of it and attempting to change the structures that they find troublesome. Certainly, when particular cultural manifestations of religion prevent participants from exercising their gifts, or mandate roles that seem to them unnatural or harmful, then change becomes warranted. In some settings, change has been easily accomplished; in others, it comes with the blood of martyrs.
That blood is usually shed when religion gets into bed with politics. When the state determines on the basis of select religious law that men and women must conform to distinct gender roles, then someone will likely get screwed.
The dominant biblical view is that women and men are both created in the image of the divine, and they are both entrusted with leadership roles and responsibilities. The Tanakh, the bible of Judaism, and the church’s Old and New Testaments depict women as community leaders, teachers, judges, prophets, sages, patrons, and moral exemplars. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim women have and to this day hold major legislative, juridical, and economic positions. In many cases, it was religious teachings that encouraged them to achieve these positions.
The problem is not “religion.” The problem is our tendency to substitute extreme examples for the full panoply that is religious practice. The problem is that most of us do not know the resources of our own religious traditions, let alone those of our neighbors. The problem is coercion substituting for choice. And the problem, finally, is blaming “religion” rather than learning about it and, perhaps, even being inspired by it.
Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies, and Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and College of Arts and Sciences.