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.

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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 questions are somewhat related to the issues raised traditional gender stereotypes. Supposedly, boys like sports, war, and blue. Girls like dolls, art, and pink. Men are loud and confident. Women are soft spoken and meek. A real man is manly. A real woman is feminine. Some people think these bright lines are very important and they should not be crossed.

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.

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