Jews and Gender: The Challenge to Hierarchy

By Jonathan Frankel | Go to book overview

Jewish Women in Transition: A Comparative
Sociodemographic Perspective Sergio DellaPergola
(THE HEBREW UNIVERSITY)

Over recent decades, extraordinary changes have occurred worldwide with respect to women's role in society. This is true concerning actual transformations in demographic, socioeconomic, and cultural trends; and probably even truer regarding the nature of public discourse. The key issue at stake in the assessment of gender in society concerns the amount of equity, if not equality, achieved by women in comparison with men. In this regard, innovative and sometimes provocative feminist ideas, claims, and strategies that assertively stressed the issue of equality—which were once barely at the margins of acceptance—have become part of mainstream discourse. 1 There is, for example, the establishment of academic programs of women's studies, an intriguing symptom of this legitimacy, as it indicates that the position of women in society can be conceptually equated with that of regional cultures or minorities.

Though inconsistent with the fact that women in all modern societies constitute the majority of the total population, 2 acknowledging the specific character of women as a “minority” with regard to history, social structure, and subculture may be analytically helpful in the process of monitoring their path toward socioeconomic parity with the pacesetting “majority”—men. Since demographic, socioeconomic, and cultural patterns may evolve differently among specific groups relative to the majority, and among single individuals relative to the average of their reference group, the concept of transition may best apply to the social study of women. A transition is the often prolonged process of passage from an initial and rather stable situation to a different one (which may also become stabilized in the long run). From this perspective, assessing the position of women in society requires, among other things, a judgment on whether observed sociodemographic differences are better characterized as lags of variable magnitude over time in the framework of a general process of convergence, or as insurmountable diversity that is bound to persist or even increase.

To the extent that epochal changes are revolutionizing the status of women in the more developed societies, their impact on world Jewry can hardly be more dramatic. Moreover, the analysis of such transitions may have an added urgency in the Jewish context. This is because the debate about the status of Jewish women also involves consideration of their normative role in the transmission of group identity. Since traditional Judaism demarcates different developmental paths for women and men, any

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