Shifting into Neutral

I think I’ve had it with the gender thing.

No, I’m not making any major lifestyle changes. I’m talking about my role as a cantor and how I interact with and train congregants of all ages.

This piggybacks onto my last post. If we are to be a fully egalitarian movement, then why do we need to differentiate at all between genders? And why does an individual need to identify with one or the other in order to properly fit into Jewish life and ritual?

One significant obstacle is the Hebrew language itself, which like many other languages, assigns a gender to every noun and verb conjugation. This is why, among other things, God is universally referred to as male in each prayer, why we need different texts simply to call various members of the congregation up for an aliyah, and why the traditional Hineni prayer recited by a female cantor during the High Holidays needed an utter transformation in order to make any sense at all.

On a routine basis, both clergy and lay congregants are called upon to instantly impose gender assignments on people. Usually, this is uneventful. But because we maintain a pastiche of Jewish etiquette requirements for males and females–even though we keep on using that e-word–we’re tiptoeing beside an active minefield.

The guy sitting over there without a kippah that you’re about to approach–can you be sure they identify as male?

The person that you assume is female that you’re about to call up for an aliyah–should you definitely use the female grammatical text?

The preteen student sitting in your office for their very first lesson–is it fair to make them choose whether to say she’asani ben chorin or she’asani bat chorin when learning that page of the siddur?

For that matter why do we even have to make any distinction at all between a bar mitzvah and a bat mitzvah? In order to be truly inclusive, we need to make all of our children and families welcome, not just those who fit into what we define as a traditional model.

We as a society are just beginning to take these issues seriously, so it’s only fair that Judaism follow suit. Here are some suggestions–some very easy to do while others might take a little getting used to:

  • Just as we are starting to do in English, let’s substitute the plural tense (they/them) whenever possible. This is actually much easier to do in Hebrew because the change is less jarring to our ears. Therefore, all kids will celebrate a “b’nei mitzvah.”
  • Any prayer that has a male/female grammatical option can similarly use the plural. So that text in the introductory blessings of the morning service becomes she’asani b’nei chorin for everyone.
  • Adjust the way we call up people for aliyot. This could be the easiest change of all to make. Instead of ya’amod or ta’amod, simply substitute the non-gendered na la’amod (“please rise”).
  • Hebrew names are always expressed as ben or bat–son or daughter of their parents’ names. Alternately, use either mi-beit (“from the house of”) or mi-mishpachat (“from the family of”).
  • Put kippot and tallitot on clear display for anyone entering the sanctuary. Have a sign that explains that it is traditional and expected for all those present to cover their heads as a sign of respect and recognition of God’s presence. And then….stop. Don’t do anything more and please stop playing Jewish wardrobe police. It’s not your job to eyeball a crowd and decide who is male and who is female–even if you think it’s obvious.

This needs to be a process. One blog post is not going to transform the Hebrew language and generations of Jewish ritual and prayer. But one tenet of our tradition is how overwhelmingly important and powerful are the very words that we speak–often more than our actions.

Have your or your congregations already instituted some of these or other changes? I’d love to hear about it.

Let’s strive to make our congregations as egalitarian and inclusive as possible by eliminating our constant but ultimately needless use of masculine and feminine words and text. We shouldn’t need to worry about men and women, boys and girls. Really, our congregations are only made up of Jewish people.

1 comment on “Shifting into Neutral

  1. Mark Arnold

    Wonderful, Matt. Great column. I heartily agree! Mark

    Liked by 1 person

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