Sisterhood Blog

From Bench to Bimah, Women Rule

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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This article, looking at whether women rule differently as judges than men do, ran recently in the New York Times.

Renowned female judges – who happen to be Jewish – have themselves struggled with the question.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, in ruling over a case involving the strip search of an adolescent girl, said of her eight male colleagues “they have never been a 13-year-old girl.”

Judge Judith Kaye, who until her recent retirement was the chief judge of New York State, told The Times that she struggled with this question for the 25 years she served on the bench.

It is a vexing question. In some way, I think, most of us intuitively feel that men and women respond to life experience – and perhaps Supreme Court cases – in some essentially different ways. But bifurcated notions of gender and how it influences our responses to issues and events are even more troubling.

Blanket statements that men and women judge (or run corporations or congregations or families) differently because of gender are an invitation to discrimination.

I personally find gender-based excuses for men not being emotionally tuned-in offensive (and unfairly limiting to men), as I do the idea that women can’t do one job or another.

There is no blanket statement to be made about all men or all women, as there isn’t about any other group.

Yet, in my experience (even as a woman married to an incredibly nurturing man), we do tend to be more sensitive to the moods of our children and others, and I’m not sure it can be attributed just to socialization.

And truth be told, when we built a new house it was my husband who was excited to learn about heating and plumbing and so got to be the “tech director,” while I was better at sourcing finishes and was dubbed “design director.” Was this because of our respective genders? I don’t know. It feels slightly dangerous to say yes.

On the other hand, my husband is the main cook in our family, while I take care of the paperwork, opposite the stereotyped gender roles.

Unfortunately, in religion as elsewhere, separate has never successfully meant equal. Egalitarian Judaism refutes the idea that men and women are inherently different, while traditional Judaism is structured around the very opposite of that notion.

Traditional Judaism dictates that men and women do and must behave in discrete ways to the point of many Orthodox men not wearing wedding rings because it is considered jewelry, for women only. When I placed a ring on my husband’s finger during our wedding, the Orthodox rabbi stepped off the bimah to distance himself from this minor heresy.

Among the earliest to seriously explore “women’s ways of knowing” was Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan, who brought the idea into the mainstream with her 1982 book “In a Different Voice.”

In the early 1990s, women were becoming more common leaders in churches and (non-Orthodox) synagogues as ministers and rabbis. Using Gilligan’s work as a launching point, I took a look at whether women minister differently than men.

It was a several-part series that ran in major metropolitan dailies around the country through the New York Times syndicate before archiving journalism digitally was commonplace. The first part of the series, however, can be read here.

The conclusion of church and synagogue members who were experiencing a female pastor for the first time was that yes, women do minister differently, and in more emotionally related ways.

If confirmed, will Sotomayer judge cases that in any way relate to gender differently than her male colleagues on the Supreme Court because she is a woman?

I hope we’ll get to find out.

Sarah Mon. Jun 8, 2009

Is it so bad to say that there might indeed be differences, and is it so bad if they do affect how we perform different jobs?

Yes, it is a generalization to say "men are more practical/technically minded" or however you want to put it, and "women are more emotional/nurturing/etc." But that doesn't mean there's no truth to it. Where did these ideas come from, if there's no truth to them at all? The danger, I think, exists more in assuming that every man will fit into the Man Box in every attribute on an imaginary questionaire, and that every woman will exactly match the Woman Box - or that there's something wrong if they don't. Can't we be sophisticated enough thinkers to realize that a generalization may have some general truth - and use it as such in our perspectives on the world - and at the same time acknowledge and welcome individual differences?

Because the other danger exists in the extreme rejection of these generalizations, to the point of thinking there's something wrong with those who do fit the aspects of their Gender Box. Of course the female justice felt differently about the strip search of a 13-year-old girl than her male counterparts. Is there something wrong with that? Does it make her a bad judge? Every member of the Court was once a child, and grew up with different experiences and influences. Some are men, and some are women. Some are also taller or shorter than others, some grew up in one city and some in another, they are different ages... Gender happens to be one obvious, emotionally charged distinction between them (especially in the strip-search case) - but it's not any more threatening to the judicial system than any other differences between decision-making individuals.

helene Aylon Mon. Jun 8, 2009

Debra, you ask: " IF confirmed, will Sotomayer judge cases that in any way relate to gender differently than her male colleagues on the Supreme Court because she is a woman?

I hope we’ll get to find out."

However Debra, we will never get to find out how it would be if women were allowed to judge n a Beit din. they are simply not allowed to serve along with "idiots and beggars." That is why i thought the finale of my "G-d Project" of 20 years should be a petition to allow women to judge on the Beit Din. This ar installation will be shown in the Jewish museum. it resemblles a courtroom and is called "All Rise." opening Sept. 13. perhpas it could be used as a focal point to address this issue. at least we can debate about women rabbis, women on the supreme court. is it not time to address women on the beit din? the token allowing women to "paskin" on stained underwear is an insult to women's potential. I need your input. the installation travels afterward to the contemporary jewish museum in SF on april 22. the group context is "Reinventing Ritual."

Helene Aylon

Rebecca H. Friedman Wed. Jun 10, 2009

Debra, I don't see how Sotomayer's gender could not play a role in her decisions, in so much as her gender is a part of her experience. All judges bring their own experiences to bear on the judgments they make, consciously or not. If they didn't, all judges would reach the same decisions.

Helene, I believe that women can serve on a beit din in the Conservative movement. And in case you haven't heard about it, an Orthodox woman has been given authority to pasken on a host of issues beyond stained underwear. She's not called "rabbi," but according to the terms of her conferral, Mahara"t Sara Hurwitz can make halachic decisions regarding kashrut, shabbat, etc., like any rabbi (watch the story here: Still no serving on a beit din for her, though.

Alana Suskin Thu. Jun 25, 2009

Just a technical comment. You say, "Traditional Judaism dictates ..many Orthodox men not wearing wedding rings because it is considered jewelry, for women only. When I placed a ring on my husband’s finger during our wedding, the Orthodox rabbi stepped off the bimah to distance himself from this minor heresy."

But actually that's NOT the reason. The reason that men don't wear wedding rings, and that the rabbi turned away is because the act of marriage is an acquisition of the woman by the man via her acceptance of a gift from him. If he accepts a gift from her, it throws the validity of the marriage into doubt. If the witnesses turn away during the woman giving the man a ring, that means that act is not, let's say, admitted into evidence, and so doesn't cast doubt on whether or not you are married.

Pharma784 Thu. Sep 17, 2009

Very nice site!

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