Girls, Boys and Toys – Happy Chanukkah

A recent surge of interest in a new toy targeted at encouraging girls to discover engineering has made me realise that, this Chanukkah, I may have grown up but the toy manufacturers, retailers and advertising executives have not. I never imagined that in the year 2013, my daughters would effectively be treated as idiots only happy playing with pink, fluffy and largely passive dolls, whilst my friends’ sons would relish the blue, exciting, interactive and occasionally violent toys. This seasonal period, the Archbishop of Canterbury may encourage you to spend less, but I’m going to advise you to spend wisely.

Justin Welby has a point. In a recent page of eight toys advertised as presents for this festive season, only one toy featured cost less than £20. We may be in a period of deep austerity but the toy manufacturers do not really care about your child’s satisfaction – they care about your money. But like the Archbishop of Canterbury I know there is no point in suggesting you do not give presents at all, or solely encourage your children to donate to charitable causes – noble as some people might think this vision to be, I enjoy giving gifts anyway.

What has made me more angry than the vast expense that is embedded in the culture of giving gifts, is the blatant sexism contained within toy ranges (see this campaign against it). That same page featuring eight presents was divided into ‘For Girls’ (read pink) and ‘For Boys’ (read blue). Even my eldest daughter can understand that boys can play with dolls and like pink, whilst she can enjoy assembly toys and holograms and she also knows that the fact they are blue is immaterial. Of course, the manufacturers will bamboozle you with all sorts of research which they suggest shows that girls and boys learn differently, play differently and think differently. Even if some of that bears out as supported by psychological research, which is difficult to ascertain I can assure you, it is not the case that the toy manufacturers want to virtuously assist your child’s learning and play. They are after your money. So my advice, purchase toys which are congruent with your values not with what the aggressive sales pitch tells you.

I am cynical of their intentions, but that is born of an early mistrust of the multitude of options available for new parents; a panoply of choice is stocked on the shelves of superstores and baby fairs, to enhance the first hours, days and months of the life of every new born. As far as I can tell, the manufacturers prey on the vulnerability of parents to want the best for their child and to do or spend whatever they can to ensure their child receives it. This parental vulnerability is more keenly felt as children grow up and can be exploited even more aggressively.

Purchase toys congruent with your values: a pink ball of talking fluff or a pink fairy with wings comes across to me as the grossest exploitation of parents and their children. We’ve spent the early years of our children’s lives encouraging them to try everything, to enjoy playing with all sorts of toys, to rough and tumble and to love books, numbers and even to play with my tablet computer. Our daughters have heard from both their parents, even if they do not yet fully understand, that they can strive to be whatever they want in life.

The problem is that toys being sold to them embed an expectation of difference. They can have toys which are essentially passive, baby dolls and fairies, and preferably the toys should be pink. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with playing at changing a baby’s nappy, in fact it is simply breath taking to see imaginary play with a doll, but at home we also have train sets, cars, tool kits and books. Lots and lots of books.

My children will grow up knowing that rabbis can be women or men. Because Liberal Judaism is part of the constant struggle to have meaningful religious life in the 21st century. We celebrate a commitment to equality and diversity. For a long time, Judaism was part of the system that repressed women and its male followers dictated women’s opportunities to participate in religious life. Thank God, we have begun to overthrow some of the patriarchal discrimination and oppression. If a religion more than 2500 years old can modernise and change, surely it is not too much to ask our toys to do the same. There is not a girl’s toy and boy’s toy. There are toys. That is what I mean by buying presents congruent with your values.

So may the joy of giving and the gift of loving friends and family surround you as we come to celebrate this special time of year.

Chag Urim Sameach – A joyous festival of light to those celebrating.

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NB – for a great response to the aforementioned Engineering Toy, see this blog post by Michelle L. Oyen along with a list of other options for alternatives to gendered toys.

Dinah – unexpurgated: A Davar Torah for Friday Night

In a couple of weeks (in fact on 25th November) it is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Now it might be our second nature to realise that violence against women is wrong.  Well evidently not to everyone, here are some facts from the UN:

  • Up to 70 per cent of women experience violence in their lifetime.
  • Between 500,000 to 2 million people are trafficked annually into situations including prostitution, forced labour, slavery or servitude, according to estimates. Women and girls account for about 80 per cent of the detected victims
  • It is estimated that more than 130 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM/C, mainly in Africa and some Middle Eastern countries.
  • The cost of intimate partner violence in the United States alone exceeds $5.8 billion per year: $4.1 billion is for direct medical and health care services, while productivity losses account for nearly $1.8 billion.

So it is with that in mind that I’m drawn to our Torah portion.  First of all, as I always mention.  The text says the 11 sons of Jacob are sent across the river.  Clearly ignoring the presence of his one and only daughter. The midrash, which Rashi (the medieval commentator) quotes – suggests Jacob does not want Dinah to be seen by his brother as a possible wife for one of his children, so he puts her in a box and floats her over the river.  The midrash further suggests Jacob is punished for this. How? – by the rape of Dinah at the hands of Shechem.

The rape of Dinah is a narrative section not often read in a Liberal synagogue. Though tomorrow it will be studied with our scholar in residence, Dr Ellen Umansky. It doesn’t form part of the lectionary, that’s for certain – and it’s certainly not in Claude G Montefiore’s ‘The Bible for Home Reading’ (essentially an expurgated Bible), nor is Dinah mentioned in the notes at the end of this parasha in Montefiore’s list of Jacob’s SONS.   Why isn’t it read?  Well, I suppose we can see many things in the text that would be exceptionally problematic:

1)   Rape

2)   Fierce condemnation of intermarriage

3)   Revenge

These ideas are all created through the figure of a woman in the Torah.  What else is Dinah known for?  Where is she when Jacob crosses the Jabbok?  Absent.  Absent before and absent afterwards.  Dinah is a figure whose mystery dominates this section of our Torah.  Suddenly, from nowhere she becomes the ‘object’ of our attention.  And we know objectifying women is one small step from dismissing their role as equal and respected human beings.

Yet, because we don’t often read or study this text in Liberal Judaism we even further marginalise her from the place in the Torah. All we are left with is the patriarchal prejudices that we so categorically reject – in theory if not always in practice.  We ignore a case of violence against women and therefore ignore the potential lessons we learn.

The evolution of Judaism begins far back in the unknown history of the Torah.  Some texts clearly made it into the canon, others did not.  Yet their placement in the scroll itself leads to an altered perception of how they can be understood.  Helena Zlotnick (a pen name for the academic Hagith Sivan) deftly reads the narrative about the rape of Dinah in relation to the later Midianite/Israelite relationship of Numbers.  Both focus on an illicit sexual relationship, both focus on a relationship between an insider and an outside.  Through this lens of insider/outsider we start to see the place of women brought into focus.

Women, in rabbinic Judaism, are the outsider who is inside.  Though women have their role, if they over step it they become dangerous, threatening and seductive.  The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash, in the misogynistic milieu of late antiquity, begin to locate the place of a woman quite clearly in the home and out of harm’s way.  Why else are they all but banned from the study hall and the prayer hall.  The exceptions only serve to demonstrate the truth of this claim.

As we turn from the rabbinic period to the post-rabbinic period, when the ideals of the Talmud are starting to be realised, the place of women – of the other – becomes entrenched.  Women have the power to seduce men, to turn them away from their study and their only useful purpose is in keeping a home and creating a family.  Once again there are exceptions, but these do not change how the notion of what it means to be a ‘Jewess’ had closeted and removed from active involvement in life 50% of the community.

Then we reach the modern period.  We start to reject that which has become the normative way of practicing Judaism. We, as Liberal Jews, are able to re-evalute law and deed in light of our time – changing, rejecting or embellishing that which seems problematic.  But we still have a problem.

There are texts that we find distasteful, not fitting for the public reading on a Shabbat morning.  Not ennobling, quite the opposite.  So we don’t.  But there’s a problem in that – by not even studying the section that deals specifically with a woman we contribute to the continuing sidelining of women in Judaism.

How many narratives feature women not as a foil to the male character but as a central and significant part of the unfolding story.  Very few.  What is more, as in later rabbinic literature, rape is akin to a social death.  In the Bible, women who have been raped are damaged goods, they can’t fetch the bride price for their father.  They cease to exist.  Dinah is never heard of again.  She does not die but the single act of violence against her causes her to be deleted from the story – there are 12 tribes and she is not one of them.  So what do we do, we expurgate even the very story in which she features. Every time I ask how many children Jacob had the first answer is 12.  No, he had 13 (excluding the complexity of Ephraim and Menasheh).  12 sons.  1 daughter.

So in memory of Miss Lily whose legacy we meditate upon this Shabbat – a programme fittingly created by the first senior WOMAN rabbi of the LJS (Rabbi Alexandra Wright) – do not do a disservice to Liberal Judaism by expurgating a central narrative from our Torah which contains one of the few female characters and avoid reading it because you don’t like what it portrays.  So I urge you in remembering that violence against women still persists and must be stopped – reinstate Dinah – go home and read what happens to her and then come back tomorrow morning for the shiur with Dr Umansky.