From Bench to Bimah, Women Rule

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.

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From Bench to Bimah, Women Rule

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