Several months ago, I was invited to be a part of a panel discussion on women's issues. The participants were a group of women activist and leaders who had come together to discuss, share and brainstorm on the issues facing us as religious Jewish women. The panelists each gave a presentation on how to respond to questions and critique about the role of women in traditional Judaism.
Following our presentations, a lively discussion ensued. Finally, several hours later, there remained a small group, resolute on continuing. The intimate environment now gave way to greater openness. "Tell me," one participant asked, "in all honesty, are you wholly satisfied with the answers you have presented? Do you ever have a remaining niggling doubt?"
This question comes often, in many shapes and sizes, but basically always asking: Do you feel completely satisfied with your understanding of your role and Judaism's position towards women?
To answer honestly, no, I do not feel satisfied. Yes, I have doubts. No, I am not completely comfortable with the answers I have so far arrived at, even the best and most eloquently voiced ones.
But is Judaism a religion of comfort? Is our goal as Torah-observant, G‑d-fearing individuals to suppress our doubts, to vanquish our questions and feel "satisfied" with our positions and understandings?
Is our goal to supress our doubts? If you asked me if I was "satisfied" with my level of parenting, I would respond, no, I am not comfortable with how I parent, but constantly strive to be a better mother, to learn new and better ways to develop my children's innate positive qualities and overcome their negative ones. No, I am not satisfied with my marriage, but always seeking more meaningful ways of sharing and communicating. No, I am not satisfied with my children's educational systems and I am forever rallying the teachers and institutions to better their skills, improve their methods and broaden their horizons. No, I am not satisfied with my relationship with G‑d, or the role that spirituality plays in my life, but always yearn to make it more real.
In fact, in just about every area of my life that is significant, I do not have a "comfort level". So why should I feel a comfort level with my role as a Jewish woman?
It reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend several years ago. She called me on one very rainy Lag b'Omer morning, knowing that I had arranged a big event for our community for that special day— in an outdoor park.
Susan (cynically): "So Chana, what do you say now about your G‑d, ruining our opportunity to enjoy a Lag b'Omer event in the outdoors? How do you defend Him?"
Me: "I don't defend Him. He can better defend Himself."
Susan: "What do you mean? You are a religious woman! You need to defend G‑d and what He did this morning."
Me: "Susan, you are a lucky woman."
Me: "Your greatest complaint against G‑d right now is that He made it rain on Lag b'Omer; you are a very lucky woman indeed! I, on the other hand, have far bigger and greater complaints against Him and how He chooses to run His world."
Susan (aghast): "Chana, how can you talk like that? I thought religious people have no complaints against G‑d. And certainly never ever any doubts!"
But contrary to my friend's impression, I believe that that is exactly what Judaism demands of us. Not that we become robots who have no emotions, personality or opinions. Not that we squelch our questions, thought processes, doubts or problems. That is not faith— it is sleeping through life! G‑d wants us to ask, to question, to research and then to ask some more. He wants us to involve our intellectual and emotional faculties in our religious service. Push your buttons, stretch your limits, expand your boundaries and find the answers that talk to you, personally. And once you discover your answers, begin searching again on a whole new level.
It is precisely because I believe that G‑d has such "broad shoulders," that I don't need to "defend" Him and I do not fear to unload my challenges and doubts on Him. Because I believe in His absolute greatness and His infinite wisdom, I don't fear that there aren't answers to my questions— even when I can not find these answers.
So, it is complacency, not questions, that pose a threat to Judaism. If we don't question, how are we expected to grow and develop as intelligent, emotional and spiritual beings?
Moreover, it is these questions that propel us out of the lethargy of our comfort zones – lay people, scholars and great rabbis alike – to dig deeper and discover the greater truths hidden within our eternal Torah.
Because Torah is not man-made, it contains the greatest infinite secrets for each of us to uncover, to live more connected and meaningful lives. Torah is dynamic and it has embedded within it the unique responses and answers to the pressing questions and conflicts of each generation. The more we push our limits, the more we will cause our society to evolve into what is truly G‑d's will for our world, at any given era.
Torah expects us to push our reach Since Torah is G‑d's divine blueprint for creation, it teaches us how to elevate our world. Since Torah is eternal, it speaks to a whole variety of people on all different levels with all different value systems in all eras and time zones. The common message throughout is: lift yourself from where you currently stand, just a little higher. Torah cannot and does not demand from us that which is beyond our reach, but it does expect us to push our reach, to stand a little taller, towards its ultimate goal of a perfected, rectified world.
For example, throughout history, even in those eras when in the world at large women were considered not more than mere chattel, in Torah societies, there were mandated laws, a ketubah, or contract, listing a husband's obligations and responsibilities towards his wife's happiness and fulfillment and financial stability on the event of divorce or widowhood.
Or the Torah's view on slavery, something that the modern mind, with today's developed value system considers backward and immoral. Centuries ago, however, due to the economic and societal structure of life, slavery was a mainstay, as much for the masters as the slaves. As such, the Torah does not forbid slavery since the world was not ready for this. Instead, Torah tells us very clearly on numerous occasions that it looks askance at the practice of slavery – "These are My servants," G‑d tells us, "[and are] not [intended to be] servants of [My] servants" – and imposes upon the masters such restrictions and laws that, in essence, created a situation where masters were required to respect and treat their slaves in many ways better than themselves.
Polygamy is another such example. The Torah ideal is "every man shall leave his parents and cleave to his wife"—in the singular, one wife and one soulmate. Different circumstances, however, may have necessitated a man marrying more than one wife. Examples are many and hard to fathom from the lens of the twenty-first century, but include times of war when many males died, to times of economic hardship when single, divorced or widowed women within society were left unable to support themselves. Polygamy was necessary then as much for the woman as the man.
Our tools are questioning, researching, digging deeperAnd, when the time came when these circumstance became outdated, embedded within the Torah was the power and structure to then abolish what at one time was needed but now would only serve as something destructive to harmonious family life.
(It should be noted that the above applies to allowances that the Torah gives us – such as slavery or polygamy – that might have been based on the needs of a particular time. With regards to the Torah's commandments – every one of them – they are equally applicable to every era and every location [unless the Torah explicitly tells us that a particular mitzvah is contingent upon certain circumstances that no longer exist]. This is regardless of whether a certain commandment suits our "enlightened" sensibilities.)
Since time immemorial, society has undergone many changes and fluctuations. There were times of plenty and times when it was a battle just to survive. Throughout, Torah has consistently been one step ahead in educating us to live a higher moral code, in encouraging a deeper level of education (for both its men and womenfolk) and in demanding a greater responsibility towards the vulnerable in society. These higher ideals were always reflected in the attitude towards the Jewish woman as well.
Our world today is still maturing and evolving. We live in an imperfect world and we await the time when we will experience the rectified state that G‑d had originally envisioned for our world. But until we get there, and to help us get there, our tools are: questioning, researching, digging deeper within the Torah, and within ourselves, to make the necessary changes to make our world better. Complacency and satisfaction with where we are at is never a response.
This is true for all areas of Torah and this is true as well with the Torah's attitude and role for women.
So, where am I getting at? And in which ways would I like to see change in the role of the Jewish woman?
Part II: What I love about being a Jewish woman and where I’d love to see change
A cursory study of the history of civilized society shows that women have always gotten the short end of the stick. And even nowadays, when the contemporary woman has achieved great strides in opportunities, studies still prove that her long sought-after equality has not yet been realized.
In the workforce women are plagued with sexual harassment, lewd or condescending comments, a paycheck that is smaller than her male counterpart's, a feeling that in order to succeed she needs to put aside her feminine qualities, and a glass ceiling that makes her realize that no matter how much she sacrifices personally, her efforts will never be fully rewarded. At the home front, too, today's woman can expect to confront the bulk of the household responsibilities, even after putting in a full day at the office.
So, life for the contemporary, modern feminist is not as rosy as was once hoped for. And that's where I believe that modern society and Torah values can mesh to improve our world for all of us.
There are many areas where Torah values can improve our society, but the following three encapsulate what I feel are most essential and most defining about the Torah's attitude towards women:
I. Value of Children & Family Life
What I love about Torah Judaism is the central position given to children, who are our future. As a family-based religion, the ideal of raising children is considered most significant. It is a responsibility that is shared by both parents, but Torah realizes the unique talents, techniques and intuition that women bring to the fore.
The value of family life and a woman's special touch in this arena is best demonstrated, I believe, in women's exemption from time-bound laws.
Torah realizes the unique talents, techniques and intuition of women The 613 mitzvot in the Torah are comprised of 248 positive commandments ("you shall"s) and 365 negative commandments ("you shall not"s). Men and women are, for the most part, equally bound to abstain from the negative commandments. From the positive commandments, however, women are exempt from those mitzvot that need to be performed within specific time limits. (For example: Saying the Shema prayer at a specific time, wearing tzitzit, or hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. On a practical level, women have voluntarily taken upon themselves to do many of the time bound mitzvot, to the extent that some of them are today considered obligatory.)
There are different reasons suggested for why women are not obligated in time-bound mitzvot. The most commonly accepted explanation is that the adherence to a rigid schedule that these mitzvot generally demand might conflict with a woman's primary responsibility and threaten the tranquility of the home environment that the Torah considers of great import.
I love that concept. We've come to idealize a world where success and the bottom line has become the most important drive in our lives. Career and achievement takes precedence over the home and family life. The feminine role of giving life and nurturing life is seen as secondary and insignificant. Sadly, we relegate raising our children and tomorrow's future to something that, of necessity, needs to be dealt with, rather than a cherished opportunity. If pay scales can determine society's value system, child care givers are a dismal indication of our society's lost priorities.
While some might encourage women (including mothers) to abandon these fields due to their low monetary rewards and seek more lucrative pastures, this is no solution. Instead our society as a whole must gain a stronger appreciation and regard for those who care for and educate our children—professionals and homemakers alike—and this must be reflected in both the status and pay given to those who dedicate themselves to these ideals.
By exempting women from time-bound mitzvot, Torah reminds us that essential to our relationship with G‑d is the understanding that building a Jewish family life is a priority that can never be sidestepped. It also encourages us to take a more holistic approach to defining personal success and to reevaluate our idea of success as a society.
We need to open up opportunities for womenAt the same time, while it is crucial that this role is given the status it deserves, I believe that we also need to make opportunities available for women who are single, women who do not have children, women whose children have grown, or women who for whatever reason feel that they have extra time, energy or abilities to contribute more, so that at every stage in their lives they too can find a fulfillment in their spiritual growth. While circumstances in the past might have required all women's time, energy and resources to properly fulfill these roles, with today's comforts and technologies, extra talents or energy may be untapped. We need to open up opportunities for women, in prayer gatherings, in the educational arena in becoming proficient in all areas of Judaic studies, and in areas of communal influence. Men (and women) should not fear or feel threatened by this new level of participation. It should not "push" men out of their roles or positions, but to the contrary, women's involvement should, and must, make Jewish life more vibrant by introducing fresh perspectives and voices.
When encouraging women to become learned in all areas of Torah, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that this study involvement will serve to further encourage discussion. The women will learn, question and research, thereby also encouraging their husbands, sons and all members of their families to become even more proficient and reach even higher levels of study.
We need to welcome women's achievements in all areas of life— and through their abilities enhance our communities.
II. Value of Individualism
Another thing that I love about the Torah's approach to women is the fact that Torah views me as a woman. A distinct being and creation who is not just another form of man.
Just as the male and female are biologically different, we have specialized psychological, biological, emotional and spiritual qualities and needs. Kabbalistic teachings approach the masculine and feminine as distinctive, yet equally important, cosmic forces necessary for our world to function. Just as the heart and brain are both vital for the function of the human body, so too, are man and woman for our world. This cosmic approach in seeing the masculine and feminine on all levels of reality resonates with my soul.
I love the concepts of feminine receptivity, nurturance, intuitiveness, revealing the essential divine spark within the physical, releasing and unpackaging the Divine energy from the bounds of our world, and the beautiful role of the feminine Shechinah. These concepts are readily found in the esoteric dimension of the Torah, and we need to teach the world to value these feminine qualities. From the very beginning, from our Matriarchs, from Sara to Rebecca to Miriam to Chana and many others, women have played a strong role in the formation of our nation. Men and women alike need to cultivate the feminine voices, rather than silence it or abandon it for the more apparent male role.
I love the fact that Torah views me as a woman I find it demeaning in secular society that women have to twist themselves into a mold to feel that they can succeed. We cannot lose our feminine qualities in an overwhelmingly male defined society, or our world as a whole loses out. As well, precisely because in Judaism the male role is so much more evident as an external/outer role, and takes on so much more of the public and ceremonial duties, this inner feminine role needs to be nourished, preserved and safeguarded all the more.
III. Preservation of the Inner Self
One of the most glaring aspects in traditional Judaism is the division of the genders. Boundaries are put up almost everywhere to prevent the two from meshing too closely—from synagogue divisions (mechitzahs) to strict rules about a male and a female being in seclusion.
There is also an entire body of law governing the appropriate dress for both men and women. Jewish tradition is a strong believer in the necessity of preserving personal dignity—which includes keeping covered different areas of the body that the world sees no problem with exposing.
As a Jewish woman, living in a secular society where the sexualization of women accosts me at every turn, I don't resent these boundaries. I see them also serving as a preservation of the feminine and of the inner self. I see the lack of these boundaries as a very slippery road to feminine exploitation which has happened far too much— in the blurred boundaries within office settings, in the dissolution of family life, and in the increase of sexual aggression against women.
In our secular society, women's sexuality has become so debased that women feel a need to flaunt their feminine wares and to reveal more and more skin in order to feel attractive or desirable. Secular society seems to say that a woman needs to become cheapened in order to express her sexuality and accommodate to male lusts.
Judaism requires women to dress modestly, but, unlike Muslim societies for example, it doesn't require formless robes or burkas.
Islamic society seems to tell women that they need to disappear in order to accommodate male lusts; Torah's concept of modesty couldn't be more different. Judaism actually encourages women to dress beautifully
Jewish tradition is a strong believer in preserving personal dignityBecause it's not about the men at all—it's not meant to "protect" them from their lusts, nor is it to protect women against unwanted advances. Torah recognizes the male's urges and failings. Yet it demands of men to rise above reacting like an animal. Women need not disappear, it seems to say, in order for you to control your urges and behave morally.
At the same time women need to preserve their inner dignity and not resort to demeaning themselves by flaunting their physicality to satisfy the male lust and to feel a sense of self-worth.
I see Judaism's boundaries as teaching both men and women to respect one another, to respect their differences and to see beyond the outer dimension of the physical form to the inner soul of the person. Torah recognizes the innate attraction between the male and female and views it as a healthy tension, but only when expressed within appropriate boundaries and parameters.
And, yet, while I appreciate these necessary boundaries – and I would never feel comfortable with anything that violates Torah law– I also feel we must ensure that women do not feel they have been relegated to "behind" the mechitzah. They should never get the feeling that the "action" – or all the important decisions and roles – are being taken care of on "the other side," in the arenas from which they are excluded, whether it be in a synagogue, in communal life, or in any type of activism for Jewish causes.
True respect for the tensions of attraction between the male and female means setting up appropriate boundaries between the two, but not fences of exclusion. Respecting the feminine means respecting her for all aspects of her being—as a physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual being, who has much to contribute to all arenas of our lives.
Notwithstanding all the above, however, an honest discussion on the role of women in Judaism, clearly points to many junctures in time when her voice was limited. How are we to understand this?
Part III: The Moon's Diminishing Radiance
An honest discussion on the role of women in Judaism must include an admittance that at many junctures in time, her voice has been limited, sometimes severely, to the point of silence. Much can be attributed to circumstances, and the to the resultant lack of time, talent, resources or opportunities, as well as to a different value system that is difficult to fathom through the lens of the twenty first century.
But I believe that there is an element that hasn't been touched upon that can be found in a fascinating Talmudic passage about the moon. I see this reading as a metaphor for the evolution of the feminine role.
Her voice has been limited The Talmud tells us of a dialogue the moon had with G‑d, following the creation of the sun and moon—both with equal luminosity:
The moon: "Sovereign of the Universe, can two kings share a single crown?"
G‑d replied: "Go and make yourself smaller."'
"Sovereign of the Universe,"' she said to Him, "because I made a proper claim before You, am I to make myself smaller?"
...On seeing that the moon would not be consoled, the Holy One said, "Bring an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller." (Talmud, Chulin 60b)
Interestingly, the exchange seems to convey that G‑d did not want to diminish the status of the moon, and only does so reluctantly, after the moon herself raises the valid point that there cannot be "two kings sharing a single crown." It seems from G‑d's plan that He would have preferred that the sun and moon remain distinct luminaries, each shining in their respective arenas, but both equally recognized for the essential contribution that they provides.
But the moon herself, with her intuitive understanding, recognizes that in our imperfect world this cannot be so. We live in a world that has only understood things in terms of hierarchy. It would take centuries for the concept of equality for all to come to the fore.
G‑d reluctantly acquiesces to the moon, admitting the validity of her perception and then tells her that it is she, the one who understands this dynamic so well, who must diminish herself.
The moon protests this unfair treatment, and despite G‑d's efforts to placate her by giving her special advantages, the moon is still not satisfied. In the end, G‑d asks us to offer a sin-offering for the suffering He has caused her in diminishing her light.
Only in a future era, in the era of a rectified and perfected world, does G‑d promise that the shine of the moon will be restored completely (Isaiah 30:26). Only in the era of Moshiach will the role of the feminine be fully understood and will the moon shine with equal brilliance and radiance.
The conflict between the genders continues The conflict between the genders, the interplay between the masculine and feminine forces of our world continues. As we approach that perfected era, the moon's light is growing brighter in some areas of societal life, while in others it is just as dim as ever. It is a process that is evolving and that each of us can and must contribute to—by pushing our boundaries, questioning our comfort zones and digging deeper to find better answers in the Divine wisdom of our infinite Torah.
There is a beautiful sight that I witnessed one Friday afternoon when my married daughter and son-in-law were visiting. As my daughters and I kindled the holy Shabbat lights, I noticed my son-in-law standing almost at attention, waiting and watching his wife light hers. He waited in reverence as she kindled the match. He watched as she waved her arms over the lit candles ushering in the holiness of the day. And he stood in silence as she covered her eyes and recited the blessing. Finally, when she was done, the two turned to one another and wished each other a "good Shabbos."
To me the scene was so beautiful because it was clear from his posture and from his patient waiting (especially at a moment when most people are rushing in a frenzy to get in those last-minute, harried preparations) that he felt the immense importance of the moment.
Despite any inconvenience, he makes sure to be present, reverently witnessing and taking in the awesome holiness of this moment, every single Shabbat eve. Clearly he deeply understands and respects that through her kindling the candles, his wife is the conduit of blessing for their family. As she ushers in the very holiness of the Shabbat Queen, she personifies the glory and grandeur of the Shechinah herself, descending into our reality.
This perspective is a true and vital validation and admiration for the feminine, and all that she personifies. And it is such a perspective that we must seek to cultivate within our world.
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