By Arthur Harrow
Three things of note this week. First, we read in our Torah portion the story of the
Redemption at the Yam Suf. Second we note the passing of Coretta Scott King, icon of the black Civil Rights movement. Third, we note the passing of Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique and the driving figure behind the “second wave” of American feminism. What is the common thread here?
Let’s talk about Betty Friedan first. I can remember a time, only 20 years ago, when just 25% of my medical school class were women; the figure is now 50% or more. I recall a time when surgical interns would tell their female supervisors, to their faces, “You have no place here” (although usually in far less polite words). I doubt anyone would tell his or her boss that now. On the other hand, I recently was told by an acquaintance, a woman with an advanced degree and a booming career [neither of which would have been easy prior to the efforts of Betty Friedan] that “feminism is the worst thing that could have happened because it gives women the false idea that they can have it all.”
25 years ago, when I was a freshman at a liberal progressive university in Texas, we had a unit on golf. This was because “you are all nice young men and women who are from good families, and you need to learn this game.” The black students were told that they would learn how to carry the bags. That was 1976. We’ve come a long way, in no small part due to Coretta Scott King and the people she worked with. On the other hand, listen to hip-hop music whose values glorify violence, abuse of women, and gaudy jewelry, or talk to a young African-American who rejects the educational opportunities that blacks and Jews, among others, gave their lives for because “it’s a white thing.”
We read this week about how our ancestors were rescued from slavery and redeemed into freedom at the shores of the Sea. And we repeat the story every year at the Passover table. But what is happening in our own community? Synagogue memberships are flat across town, synagogue school enrollment is stable at best; the total number of students enrolled in Dayschools is not rising significantly, and attendance at synagogue services outside of big family celebrations or “draws” such as New Member Shabbats is, to be diplomatic, disappointing. Across the country concerns are rising regarding Jewish continuity. After thousands of years we have achieved the right to be Jews in public without fear of our lives, and large numbers are turning their backs on that hard-earned opportunity.
Civil rights, whether based on gender, race, or religion, are not static things. People take what others have won for them for granted, and a danger exists that ground gained painfully, sometimes at the highest price possible, may be lost. Just because Martin and Coretta King devoted their lives to fighting for equal rights under the law, and just because Betty Friedan and her feminist colleagues faced ridicule and insults to earn entry to the professions for the majority of women as well as an approximation of equal pay for equal work doesn’t mean these things are fixed in stone. And just because God brought us out of Egypt 3000 years ago doesn’t mean we can take anything for granted. As Woody Allen might have said, “the civil rights movement is like a shark; if it doesn’t move forward it dies.” And to paraphrase Bill Cosby, “I am the Lord thy God who brought you out of Egypt with a strong hand, and I can put you back in again.”