By Alex Kats
Last month in Melbourne, our city was privileged to host one of the world’s best annual sporting events – the Australian Open, one of four international Grand Slam events. Tennis aficionados will know that for a while now the Australian Open, along with the other three Grand Slams, has been offering equal prize money to the men and the women. This has been a long time coming, but in tennis at least, women have not only broken through the glass ceiling, but they have reached out and touched the stars. Critics, including current players at this year’s Australian Open, have been saying that women don’t deserve equal pay because they don’t do equal work. After all, at Grand Slams, men’s matches are best of five sets and often go for three or more hours, while women’s matches are best of three sets and often only have two sets and are done in under an hour.
Women’s matches also often don’t rate as highly on TV, but despite this, it is unlikely anyone can argue that women don’t do as much work and training off the court, and all the critics have been made to look like fringe dwellers stuck in an ancient time. In tennis like in most sports, women are just as professional and just as competitive. Tennis is one field where the powers that be realise that men and women are different but should nonetheless be treated equally, and that is reflected in their pay. This is a lesson that the rest of society should learn too, and I would suggest that Judaism can learn from this lesson as well.
In recent years I have had a lot of friends who have had children. Since most of them have been Jewish, I have been to quite a number of new-born celebrations where I have noticed that there are an inordinate number of ceremonies for boys compared to for girls. The main ceremony for a boy of course is the Bris, or circumcision, which most people know about. It happens on the eighth day and apart from the actual snip, it is also when a boy receives his Hebrew name. For the baby boy, it might be a somewhat traumatic experience, but for everyone else it is an undoubtedly joyous occasion, where everyone comes to celebrate the birth of a new child.
Though for a Jewish boy, it is by no means the only time where family and friends gather to celebrate his arrival. Many traditional families also have a Shalom Zachor on the first Friday night after a boy is born, and before the Bris. According to some of the sources, the purpose for such a gathering is to mourn the fact that while in the womb, the boy was taught the whole Torah, but miraculously forgot it all when he was born. Other sources say that the purpose is to mourn the fact that the child was born a male. Only females can physically reproduce and since the purpose of the world is to keep it going with each generation, we are slightly saddened each time a boy is born because he doesn’t have the physical capacity to bear children.
This second theory is not widely known and may in fact be a modern feminist consolation. Either way, for all intents and purposes, anyone who has ever been to a Shalom Zachor will know that it is a celebration, and often a particularly sloshed celebration for the father of the child and his family. Because people know that it has its origins in mourning, there are often chickpeas on the table, like at a Shiva house, but for the most part people come to rejoice not grieve.
As if two celebrations weren’t enough, if the new-born boy is the first child and the first son in a family from a non-priestly tribe (Kohanim or Levi’im), then a month after the birth there is another ceremony, called the Pidyon HaBen, or redemption of the first born son. This is a ceremony steeped in biblical tradition, and was instigated because traditionally every first born son should have been a Kohen or priest to Hashem, but since that is not possible, the first born son needs to be redeemed by a current Kohen. Like in the case of a Shalom Zachor, the reasons for the ceremony are sometimes lost in the joy that comes with the celebration, for those who partake.
Obviously not everyone has all three ceremonies for their son, and some are precluded from the Pidyon HaBen anyway, but the point is that for a new-born boy, there are potentially three Jewishly sanctioned ceremonies, all of which have become excuses for celebrations, or extending the joy of the arrival of a son. What about for the birth of a girl? When a Jewish daughter is born, the only stipulation is that she is to be named. She is often named in a similar way to a boy at a Bris, but such a naming is performed after just the father gets called to the Torah in the synagogue. There is no fixed time as to when this naming is to take place, and there are no fixed customs or even rules. Sometimes the father goes to the synagogue on the first available Torah day – a Monday or a Thursday – and sometimes the family waits until the first or even second Shabbat in order to invite the whole family and sponsor a Kiddush in order to make it a real celebration. But this is of course ancillary to the ceremonial aspect, which is just a single prayer into which the girl’s Hebrew name is inserted.
Partly because a Bris has become such a joyous and widely accepted occasion for Jews all over the world, the modern concept of a Simchat Bat, or joy of a daughter, has been established to ensure that girls also have equal celebration rights. Of course not every family has such a celebration, and there are no traditions or rules for a Simchat Bat anyway. Sometimes they are fancy affairs with many people and exclusive catering, while sometimes they are small occasions just for family. Sometimes too, if a father has not given a Hebrew name in the synagogue, then this prayer is incorporated as well. Yet with all this, a Simchat Bat is nonetheless just a modern addition to Judaism and not an officially Jewishly sanctioned affair.
This all means that before Jewish children are even a month old, there is already perceived disparity between the sexes, and this continues well into adulthood. It is no surprise that people often say that Judaism is sexist. Of course there are plenty of explanations and interpretations, many of which are valid and credible. Sometimes the explanations are even disparaging against males. But they don’t take away from the fact that there are real and perceived religious distinctions between the genders.
There has also been and continues to be a lot of criticism aimed at communities that decide to adapt religious tradition for the sake of equality. In some cases, when families started having Simchat Bat celebrations for their daughters, they were heavily criticised, taunted and even abused. And equally, when some Orthodox congregations started calling up women to the Torah, or when women decided they wanted to pray at the Kotel for example, they too were lambasted and threatened with ex-communication. I am not for a moment suggesting that that there needs to be more ceremonies for Jewish girls, or that the ceremonies for boys need to be reduced or changed, or that Orthodox communities should do away with their beliefs and practices for sake for the women within their communities. What I am saying is that when communities show signs of advancement, be it in the case of a Simchat Bat or some other element within Judaism, just like in the case of equal pay at Grand Slams, this should be welcomed and encouraged and should not be seen as an affront to the authority of Judaism.
Hopefully one day the critics of such actions will be seen as fringe dwellers as well, while the actions themselves will become part of the mainstream, so that Judaism will also one day legitimately and conclusively recognise that men and women are different but equal in every way.