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BETWEEN THE LINES

'Ah!-here he comes tuith his button-hole rose. Good God-! must marry him I suppose!'

Thomas Hardy, 'In the Room of the Bride-Elect'

ewish myth has it that women don't have to worry about fulfilling all the mitzvot because they are already perfect. There is a way of interpreting these words as a respectful, loving attitude towards the female sex, but to my cynical-1997-frame of mind they sound deeply condescending and potentially very harmful. Contemporary Jewish leaders could benefit a great deal from listening to women's voices. They might discover that, far from being grateful for their 'easy' status ofbeing exempt from some difficult religious requirements, Jewish women want a choice in the matter, and an active spiritual role to play. Many (especially in the United States and Israel) already do. Jewish biblical history is full of heroic women. More recent centuries and decades are full of examples of Jewish political heroines and leaders. Ours, by contrast, may one day be recognized as the era of female Jewish scholarship, both secular and religious, a revolutionary development by the ancient standards of our patriarchal religion.

Are Jewish men threatened by all this energy and initiative? They shouldn't be. After all these millennia of more or less futile wars and struggles, it seems clear that men should have less power and women more freedom of choice. It's that simple.

Last year, I saw a television documentary featuring Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks interviewing (non-Jewish) single mothers. He listened sympathetically to their accounts of how hard it was to manage family responsibility on their own, and, as I recall, even made a few helpful suggestions, like an enlightened social worker. These images were then juxtaposed with scenes of Jewish children participating in traditional Jewish family rituals, such as lighting Shabbat candles on Friday night. The not-so-subliminal, somewhat selfcongratulatory message was loud and clear: Jewish tradition is a guarantee of healthy family life. According to this dognu, whatever problems the society at large may be facing in the area of disintegrating families and confused gender roles, the Jewish model remains safe and sound. Taking this idea a little further, the implication seemed to be that there is no reason why Jewish family values cannot serve as something of a blueprint for a familybased political agenda.

Even if seen as an abstraction, this train of thought is flawed on several counts. Jewish life does not exist in a vacuum; perhaps it never did. We are not isolated from whatever trends are affecting the society we live in. It makes little sense to talk about the idea of familyJewish or not-without understanding the relations between men and women, which, like everything else these days, are in a state of flux. Is there a Jewish equivalent of the universally raging (or simmering, depending on one's point of view) sex war? Are Jewish sexual politics a variant on the general theme, or in a category of their own? And is there a Jewish version of PC-let's call it JC (as in 'jewishly correct')? These questions are worth contemplating, and cannot be answered without placing traditional Jewish concepts squarely within the context of contemporary cultural, social and communal parameters. Elena Lappin

SPRING 1997 THE JEWISH QUARTERLY 3

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