Gender construction is a phrase that sounds obtuse to many ears. Isn’t gender something you’re born with? That’s true, but only in part. There is also something we call culture. Culture is a code which channels biology and hormones, sets up boundaries, and shapes expectations.
During excavations of the acropolis of Tell Qarqur in Syria, among my helpers from the nearby village, it was the youngest, 12 or 13 years of age that I cottoned to the most. She was an imp, and, being an imp myself, we enjoyed teasing each other. You don’t even need to have a common language to tease if that is who you are. One day, that all changed.
Overnight, my 12 or 13 year old became a woman. She had her first period, put on a headscarf, and would no longer tease or be teased in turn. Talk about gender construction. She knew what was expected of her. There was mostly sadness in her eyes, but also a hint of pride and a sense of worth.
Traditional cultures embroider natural rhythms and imbue them with significance. Cultures like ours have a lost a vital connection with biology. We synch instead with the rhythms of the market and of the workplace. Western capitalism is gender-blind, another way of saying that it squeezes out and penalizes people who focus on the three Ks (Kinder, Küche, Kirche: children, kitchen, church). According to a reasonable hermeneutics of suspicion, it might be estimated that 90% of what passes for feminism is ideological cover for market forces.
No one notices. People argue about the degree to which the principles of Adam Smith and those of Karl Marx are compatible, but with few exceptions compromises are worked out. It is not hard to do, since Smith and Marx agreed on the essentials: economics rule.
Put another way, the followers of Smith and Marx are Sabbath-haters: Throughout the Bible, the subordination of the things of God to Mammon is hotly repudiated. Take Neh 13:15-18:
בַּיָּמִים הָהֵמָּה רָאִיתִי בִיהוּדָה דֹּרְכִים־גִּתּוֹת בַּשַּׁבָּת
וּמְבִיאִים הָעֲרֵמוֹת וְעֹמְסִים עַל־הַחֲמֹרִים
וְאַף־יַיִן עֲנָבִים וּתְאֵנִים וְכָל־מַשָּׂא
וּמְבִיאִים יְרוּשָׁלִַם בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת
וָאָעִיד בְּיוֹם מִכְרָם צָיִד
וְהַצֹּרִים יָשְׁבוּ בָהּ מְבִיאִים דָּאג וְכָל־מֶכֶר
וּמֹכְרִים בַּשַּׁבָּת לִבְנֵי יְהוּדָה וּבִירוּשָׁלִָם
וָאָרִיבָה אֵת חֹרֵי יְהוּדָה וָאֹמְרָה לָהֶם
מָה־הַדָּבָר הָרָע הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹשִׂים
וּמְחַלְּלִים אֶת־יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת
הֲלוֹא כֹה עָשׂוּ אֲבֹתֵיכֶם
וַיָּבֵא אֱלֹהֵינוּ עָלֵינוּ אֵת כָּל־הָרָעָה הַזֹּאת וְעַל הָעִיר הַזֹּאת
וְאַתֶּם מוֹסִיפִים חָרוֹן עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵל לְחַלֵּל אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּת
In those days I saw men in Judah treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on asses, as well as wine, grapes, figs, and every other kind of burden, bringing them to Jerusalem on the sabbath day. I warned them against the selling of food on that day.
Tyrians living in the city were bringing in fish and all kinds of wares and were selling them on the sabbath to the people of Judah, and in Jerusalem.
I reprimanded the nobles of Judah and said to them, "What evil you do by profaning the sabbath day! Did not your fathers do likewise, and did not our God bring evil on us, and on this city, evil we continue to endure? You bring further wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath."
Nehemiah censured and contended with marketeers who did not respect the Sabbath. Modern-day capitalism and socialism balk at the notion of a weekly pause from economic activity. According to both, life is about buying and selling. If you really must have a place where people gather to pray on a regular basis, make it be, none the less, a place where goods are bought and sold.
Against this, kesef ‘money’ and the Sabbath are not to mix (cf. Zechariah 14:20-21). But the rule has been forgotten except by orthodox Jews and traditional Christians.
In today’s world, we sell our time and buy the time of others, and we do it 24/7, 7 days a week. We even try to buy love and attention. And we buy stuff, gaudy stuff, lots of it. The Sabbath, a menstrual period: neither fits into an efficient, economic scheme.
In the old way of seeing things, a menstrual period, a Sabbath, are rhythms which are accorded significance. When the rhythm of the marketplace is the only one we observe, our loss is incalculable.
Traditional culture and traditional gender construction create difference by the establishment of symbolically charged dichotomies, and by creating Sabbath, that is, by establishing a retreat from the buying and selling of the daily grind. The age-old project is now snubbed based on the observation that difference is created by way of unequal role distributions. We fixed that, didn’t we? Now everyone gets to win bread unceasingly - if gainful employment is available - and shop until you drop. No difference at all.
Traditional gender construction creates an inside space for, in the case of a mater familias, the three Ks; an outside space, in the case of a pater familias, for the practice of what the Romans called pietas (devotion to the gods, the tribe, and the state). Women also contribute to the outside sphere, most often in distinct ways. Gender complementation carves out a space in which homo economicus does not rule the roost. Homo reciprocans, realization through reciprocal gift-giving, is the chief positive result of traditional gender construction.
Reciprocal gift-giving, a Shabbat from the usual, is the essence of the system of ritual the Bible upholds. The giving and receiving of gifts, symbolic and real; a time and place for sharing those gifts with a transcendent being, one’s extended family, a priest or Levite, and the resident alien: these things are at the heart of the system of sacrifice described in the Torah.
Creating difference insofar as difference carves out a space for reciprocal gift-giving might be seen as a positive. The root notion is like and unlike Luce Irigaray’s feminist philosophy. Her aim is to acknowledge two sexes, not one, and to create two equally positive and autonomous terms. She constructs an ethics of difference. Her emphasis on autonomy is nonsense if taken too far, but it is doubtless important to construct a gendered society in which relationships create not only dependence but freedom. Autonomy and solidarity deserve to have a place, and reinforce each other.
What might a positively gendered culture look like? Perhaps it already exists. I know of a number of families in which the three Ks and pietas are central to a common life. Families characterized by strains and stresses, but also, by mutuality in the giving and receiving of honor and respect.
What many long for is within their reach. But the dominant culture makes it hard for them to name and claim it for themselves.
Tel Qarqur series:
 Adam Smith himself, unlike his latter-day disciples falsely so-called, defended the strict style of Sabbath observance of the Scotland of his day over the objections of innovators. The contempt in which Karl Marx held “Sabbath Judaism,” on the other hand, is well-known.