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The Parameters and Paradoxes of Being an Orthodox Woman


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Photo Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

I am a woman. I am a wife. I am a mother. I am an observer of Halacha. I am a professional. I am a shul board member. I am a writer. I am Orthodox. I am committed to Jewish tradition, to the Oral and Written Torah. I am a proponent for the advancement of women’s viewpoints and concerns.

If the combination of those terms seem paradoxical to you, trust me, I understand. I have spent a lot of my life trying to resolve this odd dichotomy.

I have read about the recent uproar over women and tefillin with growing interest. It was interesting to read about a modern Orthodox school allowing a couple of girls to wear tefillin, but it was even more fascinating to read the various reactions inundating the blogosphere.

If you are an Orthodox woman and this story did not interest you, it should. And here is why:

As an Orthodox woman, whether you realize it or not, whether you are bothered by it or not, you are living a paradox. As a woman alive in the 21st century, you can be a lawyer, a doctor, an accountant, an engineer, a researcher, a psychologist, a computer programmer, a judge, an academic professor. If you do not have a career in any of these fields, you most likely know a woman who does.

Kollel lifestyle has ironically helped promote this, as women seek to find means to support their husbands. Frum women are creating careers for themselves in all areas. They are working as professionals, pursuing intellectual careers, managing finances, taking on leadership roles… all successfully.

Yet while they may be respected as professional and competent contributor to their profession, when it comes to discussing Divrei Torah at the Shabbos table, they often take a side line. They may become CEO of a company, but when it comes to being president of a shul board, they are forbidden by many Orthodox Poskim. They may be a doctor whose decision impacts the life or death of a patient, but when it comes to deciding Halacha, they cannot contribute.

Women are generally exempt from mitzvos that are time-bound. Traditionally, this was more easily understood, providing women who were housewives and mothers with greater leeway. This may continue to be easily understood for contemporary women who are functioning as the primary caregiver. However, Halachically-observant women in the workforce who are complying with various time-bound constraints due to a professional work-day, create their own anomaly. There is something odd about seeing women at a professional conference, who sit around and “schmooze” while their male colleagues stop to daven mincha.

Traditional Bais Yaakovs do not teach Oral Law to girls. When I repeatedly asked my teachers if I could learn Gemara as a young child, I was given numerous answers as to why it was not okay. Mostly because “women’s brains are not cut out for that type of learning” or “women are too emotional to analyze text objectively.”

Looking at the various careers my fellow classmates and friends have embarked on, I see a blatant inconsistency. Halachically, women cannot be judges (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 7:4) or bear witness in court (BT Shevuos, 30a; Baba Kama I 5a; Rambam Hilchos Edus 9:2). When I asked why, again I was told it was because women were too emotional and could not be relied on for objective observations.

With female Supreme Court Justices in the United States who seem as objective in their decisions as their male counterparts, with a court system that relies on women witnesses just as much as men, it’s makes the reasons I was given seem inadequate. Interestingly, numerous recent research studies have shown no significant differences in gender in eyewitness memory, other than women remembered more details when observing women and men remembered more details when observing men (Google it!).

Although Bais Yaakov education ingrains in girls the glorified role of a woman in the home, not many Bais Yaakovs harp on the negative legal ramifications of the traditional role of woman. In traditional Halacha, men were the official heads of household and women had few independent rights and privileges. Halachically, men had sole custody of their children- they were the final decisor in all matters until the child reached puberty (BT Sotah 23b). In most instances, all of a woman’s earnings belonged to her husband, in exchange for him supporting her (BT Gittin 77a).

Not only that, but a woman was not responsible for something she damaged since legally, she owned nothing—it all belonged to her husband (similar to a slave who was also not responsible for what he damaged- BT Baba Kama 87a). In Kesubos (59b), the Gemara lists a wife’s responsibility to her husband (in response to his responsibilities to her). The list includes various domestic obligations. In Kesubos, 61a, the Gemara goes on to say that if a women brings maidservant to the marriage, she is released from these obligations, with a few exceptions. She still had the obligation to personally wash her husband’s feet, prepare his cup of wine, and make his bed. Rashi says that these are not obligations but rather suggestions to make a wife beloved in her husband’s eyes. Rambam, however, says these were obligations that were enforceable by whipping (Hilchos Ishus 21:10).

So while the “frummest” girls may say they have no interest in the feminist agenda, there are many apparent paradoxes that they have to contend with. I cannot imagine that most women would lie awake at night and lament a time when a woman’s role followed the legal aspects dictated above.

If all of these inconsistencies between your general lifestyle and traditional approaches don’t bother you, they may bother your daughter. And if they don’t bother your daughter consciously, they may bother her subconsciously. And by that I mean that even if she cannot articulate any issues she has, somewhere deep inside she has to deal with these paradoxes. To do so, she either ignores them and doesn’t think too deeply or tells herself that was then- it doesn’t apply now. Either of these scenarios runs the risk of significantly diminishing the passion with which the next generation commits to Halachic Judaism. When there are major inconsistencies in how you think the Torah law understands something and how you live in your “regular” life, you are already making your commitment to a Torah lifestyle severely diminished.

So if you want to help ignite your daughter’s passion to Halachic observance- to the preservation of traditional Torah observance and to the commitment to seek greater meaning to life than just materialistic goals, you are best to recognize these issues and take them seriously. Observance of Halacha can only be maintained when there is a fixed Halachic process. But within the parameters of the Halachic process, there are lots of ways to maneuver within the law. Taking a proactive approach to making a woman’s general life and Torah life consistent will do a lot for the continuance of Torah observant Jewry.

These women’s issues are not going away. They are only going to increase.

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30 Responses to “The Parameters and Paradoxes of Being an Orthodox Woman”

  1. Ben II says:

    Perhaps it’s time to come to the 21st century and not unfairly burden the woman.

  2. Ira Weissman says:

    Beautifully stated.

  3. Chani Hadad says:

    I could have written this myself. These are the points I have been making – publicly and privately – for years: "Yet while they may be respected as professional and competent contributor to their profession, when it comes to discussing Divrei Torah at the Shabbos table, they often take a side line. They may become CEO of a company, but when it comes to being president of a shul board, they are forbidden by many Orthodox Poskim." and "If all of these inconsistencies between your general lifestyle and traditional approaches don’t bother you, they may bother your daughter" and "Taking a proactive approach to making a woman’s general life and Torah life consistent will do a lot for the continuance of Torah observant Jewry." and, most of all, "These women’s issues are not going away. They are only going to increase."
    As a staunch supporter of halacha, and as an educator of frum young women, I foresee (with a measure of dismay) the level of dissatisfaction that the next generation of frum girls will express. We must be proactive now! What is permissible should be permitted.

  4. Malke Borow says:

    Chani-why do you think it is more of a problem in opur daughters' generation?

  5. Chani Hadad says:

    Malke Borow – previous generations looked to their grandmothers and thought "if it was good enough for them…" but our grandmothers didn't go to college -let alone grad school! If the only service a woman can contribute to the klal is baking cakes for tzedaka functions, and the woman is not a good cook, but she has excellent accounting skills, or administrative skills, can you imagine her frustration?

  6. Ahron Ebert says:

    What is new about the role woman are taking today. In there favorite song Ashees Chayal it says she is a business woman and professional. She rasies sheep cuts their wool and sells it in the market.

  7. Even the Rambam spoke of the fact that halakhic decisions/interpretations may have been influenced by the society at the time they were made and can thus be overturned or reinterpreted. Today there seems to be a great fear of examining past interpretations often with the thinking that those who made them were perfect persons.We Jews/Hebrews know that the only perfection in the universe belongs to Hashem.Hatzlakha

  8. You should ditch the rabbis and ask God for guidance. They are not prophets, they are merely giving their opinion and it is not binding. Worse yet, one rabbi contradicts another. Look to God and his word for guidance. Or did God not make things clear enough?

  9. The whole shaddchan system is to blame for the erroneous life decisions of our young men and women. We are producing a system which encourages 100% of our young men to be talmidei chachamim and for our young woman to become a professional and to have as may children as her society deems appropriate. We have turned the world topsy turvey. The majority of men are not cut out to be full time learners and our young women have become nothing more than a resume in a pile.

  10. Rivka Thurm says:

    I could not have said it better myself… I've been debating all these issues with male relatives all my life and the only response I'd get was that feminism is an American construct and if I hadn't been brainwashed by American media I wouldn't think such apikorsus. I am sending this to every one of those male relatives

  11. Lady Light says:

    "Look to G-d and his word for guidance. Or did G-d not make things clear enough?" What we think of as 'G-d' s laws' may not – upon modern historical, contextual and scientific analysis of the Torah – be G-d's law dictated word-for-word at all. It's time, with the tools we have today, to rethink what we perceive of as Divine, and delve into it with a new light: 'Hafoch bah ve-hafoch bah, " to gain greater clarity as to what the Torah and Halacha really is.

  12. Mark SoFla says:

    There ought not to be a big problem with this. Chazal, while full of wisdom and Torah, believed many things that were determined later to be wrong. Things like the origin of lice, or the physiology of certain mice, or astrology, or the rakia (where the sun hides at nighttime). So too did they believe certain things about women that were wrong – mainly they thought the difference between men and women was a lot larger than it really is (women can judge, can lead, and can learn as well as men men can).

  13. Great piece. I've been reading "The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature" by Menachem Brayer which tries to whitewash these issues, but doesn't slip past me. :) Good thing I agree with the commenters below; there is very little dogma in Judaism but a lot of human interpretation.

  14. Lee Spaner says:

    More Baloney from the Myth Makers. OTD #ATheist

  15. I felt like barfing after reading this petty nonsense. Why would ANY woman support a man who is twittling his thumbs all day?

  16. This article has articulated many ideas I was wondering about for a long time. So what can we do about it?

  17. The article has inaccuracies. First of all, the exemption of a woman for breaking something is for shelom bayit (Rambam hilchot Ishut 21:9). Secondly, whipping and ostracism were the standard means of enforcing religious observance. A man who refuses togive a get when instructed to do so by a duly constituted bet din may also be whipped until he agrees (ibid Hilchot Gerushin 2:20). Thirdly, the person who gave the reason for women being disqualified to be judges and witnesses was giving his own opinion. They are actually decrees for which we do not know all of the reasons. For example, if Moshe and Aharon woulkd come back to life and come together as witnesses they would be disqualified as they are brothers (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 33:1). In practice, a bet din will hear what she has to say and ask the party against whom she speaks to respond.

  18. Please permit me – as a gentile woman, mother, granny and professional – to 'throw the cat among the pigeons' : what exactly is a man – deep down in his heart of hearts – afraid of when it comes to womankind? The Male is a competitive spirit – by dominating the female by whatever means at his disposal, there's one competitor less to content with – and the females, throughout the generations in all civilizations, subjected themselves to this system.
    Another question or point I would like to raise, is the following: why did Adam need a Helper (and he got one) while Eve did not?

  19. As I mentioned yesterday, our daughters are just a bunch of resumes. How would the boys like it if each girl got a bunch of resumes and they were the ones that had the opportunity to choose.

  20. Bruce James says:

    This reminds me of the joke where the kollel rabbi wanted to end the 1000-year ban on polygamy. He said it was necessary because "my students can't live on just one income anymore."

  21. I am one of those people who has an attractive and highly educated 20 year old daughter whose existence boils down to a resume. Why is this seen by any frum authority as a good thing?

  22. Dvora Rotenberg says:

    Thank you for this beautifully written article. My girls are older and these questions don't concern them. But they concerned me and no one had any acceptable answers – so I went another way- to a way that felt more in line with the modern world and I don't need to ask these same questions anymore

  23. God created the world and the entire solar system and by his power they function. He also gave us his word but over time it has gotten changed and he has not preserved it? Does he lack the power? Or does he no longer care? The God of Israel is the living God, he does not need ghost writers or interpreters. When men die others argue over what they said and what they meant but God is not dead. The existence of Israel proves that.

  24. Pinina Kahn says:

    Wow this is very enlightening yet I feel like there is no idea for solving the problem within the article. Part of the reason I am not frum today is b/c of how I was told constantly by my rabbi & teacher that I was too emotional and subjective and therefore unable to look at Torah m'sinai as rational. There seem to be so many inconsistencies in what I was being taught and what I was seeing in the world. Things are not as black and white, than what Judaism was made out to be for me, in fact things are so much more grey. I constantly live in the grey. My love for God and my religion is wholly based on Faith, which regardless of how anyone tries to rationalize it, is an emotional feeling! God and religion cannot be proven 100% but rather must be believed upon.
    To this day, I have yet to understand the whole "kollel" industry. According to Torah men are supposed to be the providers for their households, yet in modern times amongst the so called frum elite you have men that are basically emasculated boys who sit around and "learn" all day long while their wife goes out and makes a living as well as taking care of the children and household! And yet her mind is too feeble to learn Gemara or don tefillin?! Do I think that it amazing that someone can learn all day? Yes, but I still believe that the kollel industry is a fad rather than the higher calling it should be.
    In order for Orthodox Judaism to remain relevant in modern times the rabbeim need to re-evaluate and upgrade the oral law to modern issues. This is exactly why we had the oral law in the first place so that the laws could remain fluid and stay relevant with the times!
    Hopefully one day I will find a better fit amongst my ppl who regardless of my religious affiliation feel so kindred and I will find a level of practice that works best for me and my family. My call is the same as this author, people need to create their own meanings and definitions. I'm hoping that all those brilliant men studying the Torah can make some declarations or amendments so that Judaism can stay relevant for the future modern generations.

  25. I agree with the emotional stress caused by this issue. Conservative practice is an answer for many families. Don't underestimate or negate Torah observance if other groups

  26. Well said… Amazing and so true!

  27. Lo Bashamaim Hi… This does not take away from the articles point, which is that Halacha's clear contradictions towards woman and inability to recognize the inequality placed on woman MUST be addressed or the result will remain, more and more woman will not follow Halacha… and where does that leave a Jewish Home?

  28. I am an abolitionist…

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Kollel lifestyle has ironically helped promote this, as women seek to find means to support their husbands.

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