The perpetual debate about the woman’s role in Judaism has been framed almost completely in the negative – what it is that women can’t do or shouldn’t do and why not? But what can women do? (What women should do is really a personal decision that depends on background, temperament, talent and other factors.)
Certainly, we should start with the basics. Both men and women were created in the image of G-d and both have the capacity to achieve great spiritual heights. “I call upon heaven and earth to testify whether Jew or non-Jew, man or woman, the divine spirit rests upon a person according to their deeds” (Eliyahu Rabba 10). Both have intellects and spiritual worth.
Certainly, as well, Chazal embraced for the Jewish family what economists call “production complementarities,” the notion that a fully-functioning home requires the distribution of tasks in a way that usually accords with the couple’s proclivities and thereby maximizes both success and happiness. Some people are just more suited to the workplace and the production of income, and others better suited to domestic life, hands-on child-rearing, and the nurturing of the home front. Obviously, the former was traditionally the domain of men, and the latter the domain of women, with some notable exceptions.
From that perspective, Chazal perceived the division of spiritual chores in the home accordingly: “How do women achieve merit? By sending their sons to learn Torah in shul, and sending their husbands to learn Torah in the Bet Midrash, and waiting for their husbands to return home.” In so doing, “the promise made to women is greater than the promise made to men” (Masechet Berachot 17a). The “production complementarities” of Jewish life worked well enough to sustain the Jewish home for several millennia, but, it must be conceded, no longer enriches the lives of many women. For them, their “souls are not satiated” (Kohelet 6:7) being relegated to a supportive role, even if that supportive role is actually perceived as superior, and even if that role has, for the most part, worked. (The book is still out on whether the elevated public role that women desire has been good or bad for the Jewish family and our children, but the early returns are hardly comforting.) What can they do? What can a woman contribute to the Jewish world once her child-rearing days are over? What can she do to exalt her own soul and those of others? Again, in economic terms, when a couple no longer pursues “consumption complementarities” – a shared pursuit of consumer goods and services – but each person pursues spiritual satisfaction of his/her own (as a religious “consumer”), what roles are open to women?
They are numerous. Earlier today, at a street fair here in Israel, I bought a set of “Nashim B’Tanach” (Women in the Bible) cards, produced in order to raise awareness of the esteemed role of women in Jewish life. In all, 40 women are profiled, ranging from the famous ones to the relatively obscure, like Achsah, daughter of Calev and wife of Otniel, who was so named (Masechet Temurah 16b) because “whoever saw her became angry at his wife [for Achsah was so beautiful and smart].” These women, giants of Jewish life, were all different, each making a unique contribution to the Jewish world.
At the top of the list of laudable activities is Torah study. Last week’s Besheva profiled Daniella Golan, a fascinating Baalat Teshuva who merited learning “b’chavruta” (companion study) with Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook in his latter years. She heads a study center for women in Yerushalayim called “Or Chaya” guided by some of the greatest rabbinical personalities of the last few decades that encourages Jewish women (when feasible) to leave their homes a few nights a week and learn Torah. It has a Chasidic bent, and eschews provocations and heavily politicized areas of study, simply to focus on Torah lishma, study for its own sake – to create better people and better homes. Add to that the dozens of daily shiurim for women taking place across the country designed for Talmud Torah, not political statements. Kain Yirbu!
Along those lines, nothing is more appropriate than women principals or heads of schools for young girls. They are ideal role models, and the ones that I have known have been filled with Torah knowledge and wonderful character traits. Ditto for women teachers of Torah, recognizing the reality that many men (not always for the most salutary reasons) will not attend a shiur given by women. But for women? Kain Yirbu. Additionally, while I have not been supportive of the yoetzet program for reasons stated elsewhere, many fine Rabbanim have been, both here and in America. The jury is still deliberating that also, whether it will stay within the bounds of the mesorah or stray afar, but I do concede that there are two sides to the issue.
Well over a decade ago, women first broke ground by appearing as toanot before the rabbinical courts. Truth be told, I never understood the objection before and do not really perceive this as encroaching on any Jewish principle. A to’ain (pleader) is essentially a lawyer in the rabbinical court system. Why can’t a woman be a lawyer in that forum, any less than in any other forum? As a lawyer myself, and as a Dayan, I have encountered women numerous times as advocates. Perhaps that is why I never understood the ban before or the hoopla after; it’s just something new, like female referees, but essentially innocuous.
Can women be machgichot? This is an open question that is usually answered affirmatively. Rav Moshe Feinstein permitted it in a somewhat limited case – a widow taking over her husband’s hashgacha – but many Kashrut organizations are permissive. There are technical issues involving forcefulness (often a problem for a male as well) and occasionally yichud, but both seem eminently resolvable.
When we consider that almost every profession is open to women, it emerges that women can have very full days, very fulfilling lives (if they too are not bitten by the materialism bug that can capture the male species), and actualize their spiritual potential as much as anyone. The problems only arise when female fulfillment is sought only in the duplication of the male role (essentially an insult to women), when parenting is delegated to outsiders, usually foreign women, entrusted with raising our children, and when the Torah virtue of limitations is renounced in favor of unfettered personal expression.
Nonetheless, we should never forget the ideal. Women who focus on rearing children and caring for the home can find immense fulfillment in that as well. The Internet provides unlimited opportunities to hear shiurim on a constant basis from thousands of Torah teachers, male and female. The chesed that women can do when their children are in school or grown is enormous and indispensable to Jewish life, adding a dimension to our world that is precious.
We do not have to be the same or do the same things (or even bear the same titles). In fact, it is far better that in G-d’s orchestra, like in man’s, each person plays a different instrument and plays it well, but together, to forge the great harmony that G-d has established for us as our most sublime goal in life.
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- Great Rabbis of the 20th Century, Part 3: Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka [audio]
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- Introduction to Berachot, Part 2 [audio]