After the Israeli Supreme Court heard arguments on the issue of mixed-sex prayer at the Western Wall, Jerusalem Chief Rabbi and former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar, attacked the Jewish Reform movement, which advocates for integrated prayer among the sexes, saying, “They [the Reform Movement] are trying to sow sand [in our eyes] and say that [segregated prayer at the Kotel plaza] is something the extreme ultra-Orthodox have invented.”
The Chief Rabbi added an analogy during his weekly class.
“It’s like Holocaust deniers, it’s the same thing,” he said. “They scream about Holocaust deniers in Iran, but they deny more than those who deny the Holocaust. All the [volumes of the Talmud] record that there was a women’s section and [a men’s section] in the Temple. Did we make this up?”
In her pioneer book, Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, Suzanne Pharr describes a series of elements she finds common to the multiple forms of oppression. Such elements include what she refers to as a “defined norm” and a “lack of prior claim,” among many others.
Pharr explains a “defined norm” as “a standard of rightness and often of righteousness wherein all others are judged in relation to it. This norm must be backed up with institutional power, economic power, and both institutional and individual violence.”
Another way “the defined norm manages to maintain its power and control” and keeps exclusive is by what Pharr refers to as the element or system of “lack of prior claim.”
This, according to Pharr, “means that if you weren’t there when the original document [the Torah, the Christian Testaments, the Qur’an, national Constitutions, corporate founding documents, for example] was written, or when the organization was first created, then you have no right to inclusion… Those who seek their rights, who seek inclusion, who seek to control their own lives instead of having their lives controlled are the people who fall outside the norm… They are the Other.”
Most likely, sex-segregated prayer began in Judaism during the time of the First Temple under the reign of King Jehoshaphat. In addition, the three major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) list explicit scriptural imperatives between the sexes.
In Judaism, for example, Genesis 3:16: “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you’.”
But as in Christianity and Islam, Jews pick selectively which scriptural texts they adhere to and which they ignore.
When was the last time any Jew followed Exodus 21:15 & 17: “And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death… And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.”?
Or Exodus 21:2: “If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.”
In Christianity: Ephesians 5:21-24: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. 5:22: Wives, be subject to your own husbands as to the Lord. For the man is the head of the woman, just as Christ also is the head of the church. Christ is, indeed, the Savior of the body, but just as the church is subject to Christ, so must women be subject to their husbands in everything.”
In Islam, 4:34: “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High, Exalted, Great.”
In the original and unamended version of the U.S. Constitution, for example, since only European-heritage male land owners had the right to vote, all Others, including women and people of color (those outside the defined norm and who lacked prior claim) had to fight long and difficult battles against strong forces to gain access to the voting booth, often under the threat of and actual violence inflicted against them.
Some who continue to oppose marriage equality for same-sex couples assert that this is outside the defined norm, lacks prior claim, and would, therefore, undermine the sanctity of marriage possibly leading to the destruction of society using religious sanctions as their justification.
For example, responding to Vermont’s Civil Unions legislation in 2000, Catholic Cardinal Bernard Law expressed the opinion of a number of New England Cardinals and Bishops:
The Legislature of the State of Vermont, by passing the Civil Unions Bill [countering the defined norm and lack of prior claim], has attacked centuries of cultural and religious esteem for marriage between a man and a woman and has prepared the way for an attack on the well-being of society itself [by these Others].”
Similarly, Robert Lewis Dabney, Professor of Theology at Union Seminary in Virginia, warned: “What then, in the next place, will be the effect of this fundamental change [countering a lack of prior claim] when it shall be established? The obvious answer is, that it will destroy Christianity and civilization in America [by these Others who are outside the defined norm].”
Cardinal Law and Professor Dabney engaged in similar dire predictions, but, and here is the key, they are referring to two different events – the Cardinal referred to marriage for same-sex couples, Dabney, who lived from 1820-1898, referred to women’s suffrage — but they forewarned similar consequences: the destruction of the family and civilization as we know it.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints provides an example on the institutional level. LDS President, Brigham Young, instituted a policy on February 13, 1849, emanating from “divine revelation” and continuing until as recently as 1978 forbidding ordination of black men of African descent [outside the defined norm] from the ranks of LDS priesthood.
In addition, this policy prohibited black men and women from participating in the temple endowment and sealings [lacking in prior claim], which the church dictates as essential for the highest degree of salvation. The policy likewise restricted black people from attending or participating in temple marriages.
Young attributed this restriction to the so-called sin of Cain, Adam and Eve’s eldest son, who killed his brother Abel.
“What chance is there for the redemption of the Negro? [lack of prior claim],” stated Young in 1849 following declaration of his restrictive policy. “The Lord had cursed Cain’s seed with blackness and prohibited them [outside the defined norm, the Others] from the Priesthood.”
When patriarchal social and family structures converge with patriarchal religious systems, which reinforce strictly defined gender hierarchies of male domination, women and girl’s oppression and oppression of those who transgress sexuality and gender based boundaries became inevitable.
Polytheism and Monotheism
Many ancient and non-Western cultures – including, for example, Hindu, most Native American, Mayan, and Incan cultures – base their religions on polytheism (multiple deities). In general, these religious views seem to attribute similar characteristics to their gods. Particularly significant is the belief that the gods are actually created, and they age, give birth, and engage in sex. Some of these gods even have sexual relations with mortals.
They view the universe as continuous, ever-changing, and fluid. These spiritual views often lack rigid categories, particularly true of gender categories, which become mixed and often ambiguous and blurred. For example, some male gods give birth, while some female gods possess considerable power.
In contrast, monotheistic Abrahamic religions view the Supreme Being as without origin, for this deity was never born and will never die. This being, viewed as perfect, exists completely independently from human beings and transcends the natural world.
In part, such a being has no sexual desire, because sexual desire, as a kind of need, is incompatible with this concept of perfection. This accounts for the strict separation between the Creator and the created.
Just as the creator is distinct from his creation, so too are divisions between the earthly sexes in the form of strictly-defined gender roles. This distinction provides adherents to monotheistic religions a clear sense of their designated socially constructed roles: the guidelines they need to follow in relation to their god and to other human beings.
Whatever the intended purpose (which seems quite clear) of these texts and multiple others throughout scriptures, individuals, institutions, and entire societies have taken them to justify and rationalize the marginalization, harassment, denial of rights, and persecution of women and girls over the ages.