A conference of the National Bureau of Economic Research doesn't seem like the kind of gathering to yield a brouhaha, but Lawrence H. Summers, the
president of Harvard University, managed to raise a considerable uproar at the recent symposium with his suggestion that there may be innate
differences between men and women.
He was speculating, it was reported, about why there are so few women on science and engineering faculties at research universities, and put forth
several hypotheses. Among them were: simple discrimination; the likelihood that women with children might not be willing to invest the time and
energy necessary to achieve such academic stature; and the possibility that women's minds were not as geared to advanced mathematics as those of
That latter theory did not find favor with everyone present. Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist Nancy Hopkins, for instance, shut her
laptop in anger after Mr. Summers' remark and stormed out of the conference, later saying "I felt I was going to be sick... My heart was pounding
and my breath was shallow." Her reaction didn't say much for her scientific objectivity, nor, as many a wag noted, did it do much to counter a
common stereotype of women as emotional and rash. It did, though, reflect what emerged as a widespread reaction.
"I am offended and furious about your remarks," read one letter to Mr. Summers, from Maud Lavin, an associate professor at the School of the Art
Institute of Chicago, whose sentiments were echoed by numerous others. "Arguments of innate gender difference in math are hogwash," she continued,
"and indirectly serve to feed virulent prejudices still alas very alive, and now even more so due to your ill-informed remarks."
I do not know if women on average are less capable than men of higher mathematical comprehension (that's certainly not the case in my home). But
what is intriguing, and telling, is the breadth and depth of the negative gut reaction to the very idea that there may in fact be gender differences
beyond the obvious physical ones.
Judaism certainly implies that there are, assigning distinct roles to men and to women. Women, for instance, are exempt from some mitzvot, or
commandments (generally, time-determined positive ones, although there are exceptions); and other mitzvot (like lighting the Shabbat candles or
separating and burning the prescribed portion from a loaf of dough) are preferably to be performed by women.
What is more, the Talmudic tradition considers men to have more of a particular type of human perception (da'at) than women; and considers women to
have more of another type (bina) than men. While the precise meaning of the Hebrew terms are beyond both this writer and the scope of an essay like
this one, both forms of perception are clearly formidable - and different.
That there are deep differences in the respective psychologies of the genders is certainly not news to most parents who have children of both
flavors. A story that Mr. Summers himself was reported to have told, about his own attempt to raise a gender stereotype-neutral daughter, likely
brought a smile of recognition to many a mother and father's face. He recounted how he once bought his little girl two trucks to play with, and she
quickly named them "daddy-truck" and "baby truck."
It would, likewise, take a determined and creative mind indeed to explain the fact that the overwhelming majority of violence in the world is
male-generated, and the overwhelming majority of caregivers are female.
Innate gender differences, of course, should not preclude, or dissuade, women from being engineers or men from being nurses (or women from being
race-car drivers, or men from asking for directions). But neither should they be dismissed as meaningless or insulting.
Such dismissal is, unfortunately, the entrenched attitude of much of the supposedly open-minded contemporary world, even of the Jewish one. And
that is particularly lamentable, because it distracts us from the invaluable Jewish idea that life is about not uniformity but responsibility.
"Da'at," "bina," predilections, aptitudes - all are real and important things, but what should matter most to us is not what cards we
may have been dealt but rather what we choose to do with the hand we hold. That, in the eyes of Judaism, is the great equalizer: We are judged in the
World-to-Come not by the abilities or psychologies or professions we had in this world but by what we did with them.
Whatever particular aptitudes we may possess, as men or women, engineers or artists, scientists or teachers or diggers of ditches, whether we choose
to employ them in the service of our fellows and our Creator is, in the end, what makes all la différence.
The woman stormed out of the room because her extra bina told her this was not righteousness.
And, indeed it is not. Studies show that there is no difference in aptitude between boys and girls in math. The latest studies show less than 1% difference in averages on test scores of high school students; and furthermore, this 1% was erased when the girls and boys were tested in separate rooms. Studies have also shown that when women know their aggressive acts will not be known that they are as aggressive as men. Bottom line, the latest gender studies show that there are only about four or five documentable differences between men and women. The discovery is that men and women are more alike than they are different. Judaism teaches this as well.
Christianity does not believe in an original androgenous individual, a female and male together. Rather they only believe a male existed. A small part of the man was extracted to create the female/woman later. Thus, woman is essentially wholly different than man, and this has permeated western thought. On the other hand, Judaism teaches that there was a male and female from the beginning. There was a separation which took place in which the woman received an extra measure of bina in the process. She is not totally other, but primarily the same with some small differences. This is what the latest scientific research is discovering.
It must be further pointed out that the concept of male chochma or daat and female bina are mystical classifications. Any given man or woman will have a unique mix of these qualities, and so it is impossible to say a given woman has more bina than a given man or that a given man has more chochma than a given woman, al pi R\' A. Tatz.
Yes, there are some differences in men and women based on their tafkid. But the rampant and extensive stereotypes which are propagated in pop psychology are unfounded scientifically and not grounded in Judaism. They lack righteousness and true judgement, distort the truth, and result in great pain. It is our job as a light in the world to abandon such notions and understand true Judaism, which I dare say the author of this article does not accurately depict.
- N. M. -0/8-/2005
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I would not say that there are differences between the genders but rather that we posses specific natural qualities to achieve goodness in this world. We must believe that everyone has the capacity to achieve anything because we are all created in the image of G-D.
Being a French-Canadian, I would like to point out that it should be written “La Différence”. In French, the language is built with a notion of gender and the word “Différence” is “female”. Therefore we cannot address a difference with the definite article “Le” since it is used to represent a “male” word. It is interesting to see the power of the male and female concept in everything surrounding us and how it can lead to true beauty when it is combined and applied to its true meaning.
- P. C. -0/3-/2005
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"the overwhelming majority of violence in the world is male-generated" -
Rabbi Shafran - good essay, but the above point sounds like it could come straight from some feminist radicals.
It is not fair to write something like that without putting into into perspective by saying that females have their own ways of agression - like freezing a girl out of a group - that they practice much more than men.
You make it sound like women are angels and only men have inclinations toward evil.
That is wrong. You should stay away from that just like you hesitate to put down women. -0/3-/2005
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Did Mr. Summers say "on average"? Then, of course, the average man may not score as well as the above average, or even gifted woman. What is the fuss about? I am a woman, and happy to be one too. However, I have always been able to do math as well as the above average man. Engineering, now that is a different animal. I feel that that science requires certain gifts. Spatial and other "seeing" and reasoning is easy to me, always has been. In threedimensional geometry that was very easy, in 8th grade. Men and women are different, it is, in my opinion, a matter of our imaginations, rather than inate intellectual ability. Adding a fourth dimension, say such as direction, or motion, is not difficult at all. What is difficult, in engineering, is application, building something new and useful with it, getting things to work. Understanding dynamics is one thing, finding a new application for it is another. All this does not explain the dearth of female professors in these areas. We all get long before that weeded out. One economics professor, mystified that I was good at mathematics - my major is quantitative economics - asked me point blank, and in class, if I were really a man who had had a sex change. I am NOT making this up! I responded dryly, yes, and I had three children the natural way too. A new procedure! I got a lot of harassment, destroyed research, extra assignments, more assignments, etc. So, if my experience is typical, a few barriers are placed in our way. Oh, well. In the end it is, indeed, not that important. The Summers incident is just a tornado in a very small glass of water. But I am glad that Mr. Summers at this *early* point in his life and career found out that there are differences between men and women. Is not that good? -0/3-/2005
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Well, as a woman in science, I think truth should be verified (when possible) by experience. And what my experience says is: women ARE different from men in the way they think. Not really in being less able to complex mathematical thinking (in several countries, the number of women finishing academic studies of mathematics with great success is already higher than men's), but in priorities. I do find that among academics, women are less likely to sacrifice family life for the sake of academic progress, so women and men of similar talent end up having different success. Put simply: women want to care for a family, and have babies, and academic women are also like that.
(I'm not jewish, and I'm politically left-wing, but I hate politically correct gender-speak.) -0/3-/2005