Of Plumbing and Gender

A few years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in Hartford Seminary’s “Building Abrahamic Partnerships,” an eight-day program offered each summer for a new group of Christians, Jews and Muslims. While there, a plumbing problem accidentally illuminated — for me, anyway — a truth about gendered religious experience and dialogue.

As it happened, a pipe disaster rendered the ladies’ room unusable on the same morning we were discussing gender in Judaism. The program director announced that alternatives were being explored and that perhaps a schedule for sharing the men’s room would have to be arranged. (Things worked out fine, but that’s not the point here.)

“How appropriate,” I remember telling the group. “Because this is how Jewish women live all the time.”

Even if his usual practice is egalitarian, a Jewish man can opt to be counted in an Orthodox minyan and accept honors there, for example. A Jewish woman has no such option, except in women’s and “partnership” settings. Women’s leadership is recognized in many prayer communities and not in others; men have options in this case, while women do not. In Orthodox settings, women might have seating that provides good access to the service; or they might be seated in a distant balcony.

….Maybe men will share the bathroom; maybe women will walk next door….

Maybe there will be time to discuss how women’s experiences of the lifecycle, of sacred text, of leadership and relationship to ritual differ in substantial ways from men’s; maybe not.

Maybe there will be some acknowledgement of the differing power structures experienced by women and men in and across faith communities; probably not.

Gender-related issues are in some sense “optional” for men in interfaith dialogue, while women generally don’t have that choice unless the dialogue has been carefully designed to incorporate their perspectives.

Accidental Analogy

Sometimes a plumbing accident is just a plumbing accident, and I am not sure that my fellow BAP participants found the bathroom situation so educational….

But I do think the accidental analogy is worth some thought:

In interfaith dialogue in the U.S. and some other parts of the world, participants arrive from communities in which gender plays very different roles. In some communities, gender defines many religious obligations and rights; in others, this is no longer the case.

Assuming that, for the sake of getting along, everyone will subscribe to the former view is akin to announcing, “We only have a men’s room. Women will be offered an alternative arrangement.” Assuming, instead, that everyone will subscribe to the latter view, on the other hand, might be likened to a sort of “one bathroom, no rules” approach.

Neither approach is particularly useful or respectful on its own — either in bathroom logistics or in dialogue. What is required, IMO, is a frank discussion, a careful compromise and an acknowledgement that the end practice will probably not suit everyone, even if it does allow peaceful co-existence and further dialogue.


For more on gender and religion, interdenominational and interfaith dialogue, and related issues, please see Gender/Sexuality/Dialogue pages (moving from InterfaithandGender.org)

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

One thought on “Of Plumbing and Gender”

  1. This is serious, fun and appropriate. The world needs a fundamental shift. Not to gender neutral, but gender inclusive.

    I do not know the relevance but The San Antonio Spurs, NBA champions has named a woman coach. This is not a token. She is the best.

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