Religion’s Outdated Notion of Gender

When it comes to gender and sexuality, religion has long been outdated.

Treat women as if they live in the 21st century

“Lead, follow, or get out of the way” is attributed to Thomas Paine. When it comes to treating women as prescribed in ancient holy books, I would shorten Paine’s quote to “Get out of the way.”

I’ve long wondered how any 21st century woman (or man) can continue to believe in a religion based on books written some 2000 to 3000 years ago. These texts contain many vile portions affecting women, and they reflect the misogynistic and patriarchal cultures of their times. Even those who take literally their holy books find ways to ignore passages like Exodus 22:18: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” However, some of the faithful still follow passages whose only saving “grace” is that women are not put to death.

According to the Jewish tradition, a woman is unclean for one week after giving birth to a male and two weeks after giving birth to a female (Leviticus 12). A male is unclean for a day if he touches any menstruating woman.

In the Christian tradition, women were made for the sake of man (1 Corinthians 11:9). Furthermore, they should keep silent and have no authority over man (1 Timothy 2:12)), and the head of every woman is a man (1 Corinthians 11:3)

Passages in the Koran say or imply that women must obey men, that a man can beat a woman if she causes him trouble, and that women must be covered in public and never go out alone.

Many religious traditions justify such practices because women are physically different from men. Claims that women are “separate but equal” invariably lead more to separation than equality—whether in race, sex, or religion. And after finally recognizing that outdated passages in holy books have caused incalculable harm to women and others, some religious leaders come up with new interpretations.

Recently, Pope Benedict XVI exonerated Jews from responsibility for the death of Jesus. The pope claims that years of anti-Semitism resulted from a misreading of the New Testament. He spins the passage from Matthew 27:25, “The blood of Jesus is on all Jews and on all their children,” to be a blessing because the blood of Jesus washes away sins. Unfortunately, this breaking news comes 2,000 years too late.

While it’s nice to know that the pope has “exonerated” my fellow Jews and me, I’m disturbed that even today so many people base their understanding of morality on an ancient book with many archaic and untenable beliefs. Ethical codes tend to reflect communal norms. Those who continue to view the Bible or the Koran as their only moral guideline must belatedly look for biblical justifications for socially evolved ethical conclusions. I anxiously await an interpretation on how Jews are put in a favorable light by John 8:44, “The Devil is father of the Jews.”

Then again it would be much easier to apply common sense while reading ancient and modern texts, and on that basis decide what is reasonable and applicable today. Treating women as equals is the right thing to do, and we don’t need to look for justification from holy books. As the Book of Nike says, “Just do it!”

Image via Keoni Cabral.

Herb Silverman
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