01/13/2012 01:41 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2012

Gender Discrimination: Religious vs. Secular

The Israeli daily Haaretz reported Jan. 5 that female medical professionals in Israel were excluded from speaking at a conference on fertility and Jewish law. The conference is run by Pu'ah, a Jerusalem-based organization that offers gynecological and fertility counseling. Without citing any Jewish law, Pu'ah commented that the stated purpose of the exclusion was to ensure that all "sectors in the religious and haredi society come to the conference." Exclude women from speaking so sexist men feel comfortable attending. This exclusion of course has no basis in Jewish law and is particularly disturbing and creepy given that women are being excluded on a subject related to their bodies.

Excluding women or men in a secular context is generally not accepted practice in mainstream Orthodox Judaism. However, gender divisions are accepted practice in the religious context such as at synagogue or for other religions at a church or mosque. There is a seeming dichotomy in a modern religious society that adopts gender roles. No gender roles in modern contexts, but yes gender roles in religious contexts.

For instance, Orthodox Judaism does not generally restrict a women or man in the secular space. Women and men pursue careers, engage in politics, community activities and everything else secular. Except for a few select professions such as working at Hooters or strip clubs, women and men are not generally restricted. Sure, there may be a social expectation that a woman with young children be a stay-at-home mom, but at the end of the day even young mothers are not discouraged from fully integrating into modern society on equal footing as their male counterparts.

In contrast to the secular space, when it comes to religious ritualistic life there are clearly defined gender roles in the mainstream Jewish-Orthodox tradition (and of course other religions), precluding a women from becoming an ordained rabbi or reading publicly from the Torah. Of course, there are equal obligations on men, precluding them from praying with a women, dancing with a women in public and requiring they adhere to certain dress codes.

This seeming contradiction contemplates a division and balance between ones deeply held personal beliefs and life and ones engagement with the outside world. The microcosmic version of the separation of church and state. If gender roles were the ideal universal model, then why shouldn't they apply in the secular context? The reality is that even in religious circles gender roles are not the universal model -- but the model for individual choices pertaining to religious ritual and belief not modern secular society.

The danger is when the extreme fringe Jewish-Orthodox groups like Pu'ah and the radical ones in Beit Shemesh, Israel, or other extremist religious societies, attempt to blur the line and impose religious gender standards to a secular environment. For example, forbidding women (or men) from speaking at a medical conference despite there being no Jewish law rationale for it. Requiring women to sit in the back of the bus despite there being no Jewish law rationale for such segregation. Restricting where women or men can walk on the street despite there being no Jewish law rationale for such segregation. Restricting a woman or man's right to vote despite there being no Jewish law rationale from excluding women or men from exercising their civic rights and responsibilities. Restricting women or men from entering the workforce despite no Jewish legal rationale for such exclusion.

Excluding women or men in the secular context is the sign of a truly oppressive society because gender divisions are no longer based on personal choices within the confines of ritual practice, but are based on coercion in a completely secular context having no basis in Jewish law and relating to nonreligious secular activities (i.e., like riding in the front of a bus, going to college or participating in a medical conference).

Author's note: While I'm certainly condemning the oppressive nature of select non-mainstream Jewish-Orthodox groups and other religions that restrict women in a secular context, I'm not promoting gender roles in a religious context either. I'm simply posing a question and pointing out what I believe to be a vital distinction between the religious rituals and practices people choose to embrace as a private matter vs. oppressive gender roles imposed in a secular context. Conflating the two is unfair and lacks subtlety because it paints all Jewish-Orthodox and other religions in a broad brush as carte blanche promoting gender roles, when in reality, by and large, they are only promoting gender roles in a private religious context not in the secular public sphere.