Berkeley author deconstructs traditional Jewish gender roles

In traditional Jewish culture, the ideal man is not aggressive or macho, but passive and receptive, Daniel Boyarin argues in his new book, "Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man."

"Much of traditional Jewish culture distinguishes gender and gender roles very differently, setting up a passive, receptive male as its ideal, reserving active, aggressive roles, vis-a-vis the world, for women," the U.C. Berkeley professor of Talmudic culture says in an interview.

In traditional Jewish culture, he writes, men pursued passive activities like scholarship.

"While their men were sitting indoors and studying Torah, speaking only a Jewish language, and withdrawn from the world, women of the same class were speaking, reading, and writing the vernacular, maintaining businesses large and small, and dealing with the wide world of tax collectors and irate customers," the Berkeley resident writes.

In contrast, he says, Zionism presented a very different view of Jewish men.

"The new Jewish male was similar to European ideals, big, strong, active as opposed to passive, aggressive, belligerent, aggressively involved in making a living, protecting his women folk, providing for them, self reliant, individualistic."

Though women weren't viewed as passive in traditional Jewish culture, this didn't mean they were better off than women in non-Jewish European culture, says Boyarin.

"In some ways it was better. In some ways it was distinctly worse. It's precisely through the product of a kinder, gentler patriarchy that Rabbinic Judaism was successful in control of women."

Gender issues are of special importance for Boyarin. He identifies himself as having a strong commitment to feminism and gay rights, yet he struggles to reconcile that belief with his Orthodox Judaism.

"That struggle has brought me to take a closer look at traditional Jewish texts," he says.

In the prologue to "Unheroic Conduct," he writes that his commitment to Orthodox Judaism "is generated out of a sense of cultural/religious continuity as a value in itself and of Judaism as a rich, sustaining, and fulfilling way of life."

He goes on to write that his interest in feminism and gay rights "derives from a deeply held conviction…that Jewish practices have been oppressive to people in ways that I cannot stomach."

Growing up in rural New Jersey, Boyarin was the kind of boy who went out for ballet rather than sports, whose mother had to urge him to stop reading and go out and play.

"Within the immediate environment that I was in, the Jewish community, being bookish and not terribly into sports, was highly valued, generally. Later, when I got out into the broader world and I found out that was not such a valued place for a boy, I had a retreat to this place of Jewish identity."

Raised in a secular home, Boyarin looked to Far Eastern mysticism for a sense of spirituality. However, several experiences — a chance encounter with a lulav-wielding Lubavitcher, reading an English translation of the Zohar and meeting a disciple of Zalman Schachter — led him to look more deeply into Judaism.

He spent his junior year in Israel at Hebrew University, where he encountered Talmud for the first time. He was "charmed."

"Here was a world so strange and rich," he writes, "so colorful and exciting, with myths and legends, challenges to the intellect, and, most of all, personalities rendered so vital that they seemed living men."

Today, the Berkeley resident attends Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. "Unheroic Conduct" is his attempt to "justify my love, that is, both to explain it and to make it just," he writes.

He does this by presenting an alternative way of reading the tradition, one "that may help it surmount or expunge — in time — that which I and many others can no longer live with."

In his struggle to bridge feminism and Judaism, he finds inspiration in Bertha Pappenheim, a 19th-century Jewish feminist.

"She was the first traditional Jewish feminist who was explicitly a feminist," says Boyarin. "She remained a traditional Jew all her life and struggled intellectually and in practice to rectify or justify those two very different aspects."