I was at a panel discussion tonight on the topic of Chevrah Meurevet, mixed groups, Co- education, or co-ed socializing. The panel clearly missed the mark on several accounts. Mainly they could not define the value of having young men and women mix, but rather just assumed that it was a given that they couldn’t do away with even if they wanted to. Secondly they vaguely referred to the costs of having mixing at all, without defining what we are so afraid of: Men and women touching? Premarital sex? A level of friendship that might lead to adultery? This vagueness, which skirted around the issue, left the audience feeling that even the formula laid out by the panelists - separate sex education side by side with serious content based programming from time to time for mixed groups- did not address how the sexes are meant to interact with each other, (friendship, love, collegiality) or what values are actually being embodied with by this approach.
Here are a few more specific things that really upset me.
Despite a couple attempts, for the most part the perspective was male (even from the one woman on the on the 4 person panel). The discourse was what should we do with the women, should we let the women in. I wanted Malka Bina- the head of Matan, who had already expressed a rather conservative position -to say, ‘we women have to decide whether we want to let the men in!’ or ‘Women’s only education is good for women.’ I think she was trying to express similar sentiments; but, instead a powerful feminist statement, she told a story of a strong woman who desired to learn with the men, until she was beaten down and rejected enough that she finally discovered that she could be a good meek Jewish he women and learn Gemarah with the women.
Then, in an attempt to fill in the women’s perspective, Rav Bigman posited that women feel more subjective Kedusha when they pray in women’s tefilot than when they are called to the torah in progressive minyanim that include women in a limited fashion. I suppose he didn’t poll me before he made such a blanket statement. I don’t want to get rid of all single sex spiritual expression- but I don’t want men making an argument for sex segregation in the synagogue based on the excuse that they are protecting women from loosing out on women’s tefila- most of which are dying, dead, or at the very least infrequent!
Lastly the pink elephant in the room as I mentioned above was sexuality. These questions I don’t have answers to but were blatantly absent from the discussion. What are the actual dangers of mixing the sexes? Is there a way to increase respect on both sides of the gender divide and yet to prevent premarital sex? Is premarital sexual experiences- lets take touch- something that teenagers can actually be asked to avoid completely? If we emphasize exclusively intelligence and serious conversation, will we deemphasize a natural healthy sense of sexuality? If men and women feel more comfortable together, will there be a rise in successful married relationships or failed ones? If boys are trained to talk and listen to women, will they not naturally fall in love and want sex all the more? But if we think respecting the intellect of a woman is going to curb sex, then won’t sex in marriage turn the woman back into an object?
Ok the last few questions were leading…but I do honestly believe there is a lot to explore, for which I do not yet have the answer. But I want to work on developing some theories, and not simply start wringing my hands at its complexity.