What About the Women?

This question has hounded me since childhood – both in the secular world where I grew up and in the Orthodox Jewish world where I chose to live as an adult. My relationship with Judaism, particularly as it relates to women, has always been like a love affair – with a soap-opera-worthy level of both exhilaration and heartbreak.

While I find much about living a Torah lifestyle that is meaningful and beautiful, I was always disturbed by the question: If this lifestyle is supposed to lead to spiritual fulfillment, why does so much of the tradition conflict with modern women’s sensibilities, realities, and aspirations?  The discussion of women and Judaism is often presented as a tug-of-war between tradition, which supposedly represents the Torah ideal, and modernity, which supposedly deviates from it.

Wrestling with this question made me realize the importance of distinguishing between two meanings of the word “tradition.” One is “what we have always done.” The other is “what we should be doing.” To learn about the former, one needs to study unbiased, scholarly research. It was shocking to discover the differences between what I was told had happened and what historical documents bore witness to.

Invoking history to justify current practices implies that in the past all “good” women were satisfied with their traditionally defined roles. So what is wrong with women today that they are not? Yet memoirs show that this is just a necessary myth.

When women voiced their unhappiness, they were generally ostracized and labeled as being outside the tradition. When it was politically unfeasible to malign the woman, such as if she was the wife of one great rabbi and the daughter of another, her voice was simply censured. Consider how Reina Basya Berlin, wife of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (known as the Netziv), who lived in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, felt about women’s traditional role, as documented by her nephew, Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, in his auto-biography  Mekor Baruch:

This is how she would comport herself on the Sabbath: … There were always a variety of books before her: Tanach, Mishna, Ein Yaakov, … and many similar volumes… All her insight and attention, her senses and emotions, were focused on her books, and she never took her hands off them…

Frequently I heard her complaining…, emotionally defeated or bitter about the damage of the bitter lot and portion of women in this world . . . for they had been denied the ability to fulfill positive, time-bound commandments like tefillin and tzitzit, sukkah and lulav, and so many others. As she put it, ‘For them, 248 positive commandments, and for the poor, wretched, shameful women, only three.’ More than this, she was worried and pained over the disrespect and depreciation of women, embodied by the fact that they were prohibited from studying Torah.

Mekor Baruch was published in English as
My Uncle the Netziv
 by ArtScroll Mesorah in 1988, without this entire chapter.

The unhappiness we see today regarding women’s traditional role is not new, and it doesn’t make them “bad.”

What about the second meaning of “tradition,” what we should be doing? Coming from an unapologetically Orthodox perspective, this question becomes “What does the Torah tell us we should be doing?” Can it be that the way women have traditionally been treated represents the Torah ideal? If so, too many things don’t make sense. Can enforcing women’s ignorance of Torah really be the best way to build a Torah-infused community? Is effecting a marriage in a way that makes it nearly impossible for a woman to leave against her husband’s will really the best way to build a harmonious and loving home? Over and over, logic seems suspended.

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 10.27.38 AMI eventually discovered deeply gratifying answers in various Kabbalistic teachings  that portrayed men, women, and their respective roles in terms of a dynamic developmental process. This process proceeds from an immature state of hierarchy and repression to a mature state of equality and respect for human dignity.  Therefore, changing Jewish practices to fully reflect women’s dignity is not an attack on our tradition, but rather a fulfillment of it. I later realized that these teachings were summarized in the Lecha Dodi prayer. It seemed like the perfect lens through which to explore this part of the Torah. Everywhere I looked- in every corner of history and in personal memoirs, these teachings were manifest. They apply not just to Jewish women, or even just to Jews, and it didn’t suddenly become relevant in modern times. I described these teachings in my book,
Come My Beloved! Women and the Jewish Tradition We Thought We Knew
. After years of study, I finally figured out how they apply to me: my angst was pre-ordained, meaningful, and the key to redemption.

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