In the last few days I have seen many arguments and positions in favor of rigid, traditional gender roles. This is in response to an infinitesimal number of Orthodox (or somewhat Orthodox) Jewish women who are interested in laying tefillin or performing other rituals and roles traditionally reserved for men.
Gender roles arguments arise in two different contexts that can be hard to splice. Some gender roles are social and some are religious.
Social gender roles are the things that men and women do in non-religious contexts. Who is the breadwinner? Who cares for the children? Who pays the bills? Who cooks dinner? Who drives when husband and wife are in the car? Who decorates the home? Some people think that the man is the breadwinner, who pays the bill the bills, and drives the car. While the woman cares for the children, cooks dinner, and decorates the home.
These are all social issues. A growing number of people, especially among Millennials think that these roles and stereotypes ought to be tossed out the window. Couples should divide their responsibilities based on preference and ability, not chromosomes. Boys can play with dolls. Men can embrace their feminine side. Girls can play sports. Women can be more assertive. More and more people in Western countries think this way.
Socially, women have greatly benefited from these progressive attitudes. It has given women the right to own land, attend school, vote, join government, achieve corporate success, and live fulfilling lives independent of their roles as mothers and wives. Just look at misyognistic advertisements and how-to guides from the first half of the 20th century. When men were men! It’s cringeworthy. This makes it hard to see how one can object to these social advances.
Orthodox Judaism in America skews to the more “traditional” values side of women’s roles. (Traditional is really a misnomer. At certain times in history and in many places, men have had more passive roles and women have had more assertive roles. Also, marriages were different. Some men had several wives while in other places there was no such thing as marriage. And men used to boss their wives around like servants. So when we say “traditional” it’s really just a word used to appeal to emotion but is entirely inaccurate.) Generally, Orthodox Judaism teaches that it is virtuous to raise a family, and be a good wife, and be a good hostess, and cook good food, and to accentuate femininity. Men are the leaders of the home and the community, spending their day either studying Torah or earning a living and participating in communal religious practice.
However, things have changed significantly within Orthodox Judaism as well. A 19th century Orthodox Jewish woman would feel quite liberated in 21st century Orthodox Judaism (save for the most insular communities). Women are more educated, more women work outside the home, women are more involved in communal life, and women are taking more positions of authority institutionally. This is happening at varying speeds and degrees depending almost entirely on the insularity of the sub-sect.
There are some gender roles that are religiously mandated by Jewish law. By religious, we mean that these things are codified in books of Jewish law as details related to the practice of Mitzvos from the Torah and Chazal. Men have obligations that women do not. Men are required to provide for their families. Only men can be the monarch, or perform duties in the Temple, or be the Messiah, or divorce their spouse.
So religiously, there are clear distinctions between men and women in Judaism. Socially, the trend is toward looser gender roles even within the Orthodox Jewish community. Religious matters are pretty much incontrovertible. Social matters are not only less rigid, they are changing before our very eyes.
But there is a giant area of overlap between the two. There are things that are most likely a result of social conditions that have found their way into religious law or accepted practice. This is the area with all the action.
Women shaking arba minim, women counting the Omer, women’s prayer groups, women halachic advisors, women donning a tallis or tefillin, women dancing with the Torah on Simchas Torah, women reading from the Torah for other women, etc. These issues are matters that relate to religious practice but are not explicitly prohibited by the Torah or even by Chazal. Yet, over time standards and expectations have evolved into normative practice. Some have even been addressed explicitly by Gaonim, Rishonim, Achronim, and recent poskim.
This creates an area of great tension. Some people value the authority of the decisions by halachic codifiers and rabbis. If the Rema makes an authoritative statement then it is binding on Orthodox Jews because the Rema’s authority extends to these areas. If the Mishneh Brurah issues a psak, it becomes authoritative too.
Other people value the open-ended nature of halachic position of the early authorities like the Talmud. If the Talmud permits something, then it remains permissible. To them, the fact that things evolved later on can be attributed to culture and social mores and cannot prohibit that which was permitted by the Talmud.
It seems to me that this is the core of the recent debate about women wearing tefillin. But it’s really much more than that. These differing views really explain every single one of the issues in the area where religion and social gender roles overlap. In some examples, the traditionalists have yielded to the “whims” of modernity. In other examples, it seems impossible that things will change.
It must be noted, that it is entirely possible to be a staunch social gender roles progressive and be a religious gender roles traditionalist. However, in the grey area of overlap, it is inevitable that one will make subjective distinctions, no matter how reasonable they may be. I think it’s useless to invoke one’s position on social gender roles or purely religious gender roles in this discussion. They are almost irrelevant to the discussion about the area of overlap.
Finally, I don’t expect naturally conservative or traditionally minded people to just change their mind on feminism. But I do find the extreme aversion to the movement more than a bit disturbing. I have heard rabbis compare feminism to heretical movements. Orthodox Judaism is not inherently anti-feminist in a social sense. The Torah does not require men to work and women to stay in the home. Nor does the Torah require that boys play with tools and that girls play with My Little Pony. I see no reason that Orthodox Jews should see feminism as such a great threat. If anything, I believe anti-feminism poses a far greater threat to Orthodox Judaism. If we cannot somewhat synchronize Judaism with modern culture, we will be forced to retreat out of the modern world and create ghettos completely isolated from the rest of the world. That would not be ideal.
Visit Fink or Swim.
About the Author: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at finkorswim.com. Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.
If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.
Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.
If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.