Photo Credit: Rabbi Freedman
Judge Ruchie Freier

{Reposted from the Emes Ve-Emunah  blog}

What is the role of a woman in Judaism?

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This is a subject that is so broad that I find myself wholly unqualified to answer it. And yet I often talk about the role of women in the context of the challenges of modern-day feminism. So as inept as I feel in dealing with the subject, I will give it a try.

For starters, the Torah as interpreted by the sages tells us that aside from the physical differences between us, men and women differ with each other in which Mitzvos each of us is responsible for. To briefly explain, both men and women are required to refrain from acts of sin (negative commandments). Both men and women are required to perform Mitzvos (positive commandments). But women are exempt from performing Mitzvos that are time bound. So, for example, women are exempt from the Mitzvah Daled Minim (i.e. Lulav and Esrog) on Sukkos. Men are required to perform that Mitzvah.

The rabbinic literature suggests that the reason women are exempt from time bound  Mitzvos is because of their roles as mothers and homemakers. I have always understood that to mean that their role in raising children is a full time 24/7 job which should not be interrupted. Men on the other hand can arrange their schedules so that they can perform that mitzvah when it is actually mandated. The role of men and women then has always been that men went to work to support their families while women stayed home to raise the children and take care of the home.

This is somewhat of an oversimplification with many exceptions which are complex and well beyond the scope of this post.

I often wonder if the sages were transported to the world we live in today, would they even recognize it as in any way Jewish? I am not talking about modern Orthodox Jewry. I am talking about the world of Charedim. The role assumed by men and women in our world today is the antithesis of what the traditional role of men and women has always been. Much to the approval of the Charedi leadership.

Men are no longer steered into the workplace. They are steered into full-time Torah study. In many instances leaving them fully unprepared to join the workforce and make enough money to support their families. Even if they wanted to. It is increasingly women that are becoming the primary breadwinners. What about raising children and taking care of the home? Men are increasingly doing that. There is of course nothing inherently wrong with that. But it does cut into the time they are supposed to be studying Torah.

This relatively new Charedi paradigm has ironically been enabled by what might be considered the arch-enemy of the Charedi mindset: Feminism – albeit in its earlier incarnation where it sought entry for women into professions traditionally inhabited by men and fought for equal pay for equal work.

If this is not role reversal, I don’t know what is. Is this way of life what God intended for us? I would suggest that it is not – based on the way Mitzvos have been divided between men and women.  And yet there is not a doubt in my mind that the Charedi world would crumble if not for this role reversal. There would be no such thing as full-time Kollel if women were not the primary breadwinners.

This is of course not to say that women shouldn’t have the right to do work at any job they are qualified for. I fully support that right. But what about the role reversal that has generated? I admit to being conflicted.

Attorney Rivka Lerner has raised another problem with this situation in a Charedi publication called Tzarich Iyun. The unintended consequences of women working in a culture that is anathema to the values of the Torah. Referencing a speech made by Rabbi Meir Kessler, Chief Rabbi of Modiin Ilit (Kiryat Sefer) she says the following:

(E)xisting workplaces create far from simple challenges for the Jewish home: secular employers seek to create social camaraderie and invite workers to happy hours, hangouts, courses, and meals. Many workplaces have unfiltered internet…

 Between 2001 and 2015, the number of Charedi women working in education dropped from 64% to 42%. Aside from teaching school and kindergarten, Charedi women can now be found in many professional fields…

Charedi women acquire academic education and integrate into the workforce as lawyers, para-medical specialists, and even doctors, social workers, psychologists, and more.

Charedi women have (not only) absorbed a deeply materialistic mindset… in (s)earching for intellectual development in their lives, Charedi women have turned en masse to academic studies (thereby) distancing… Charedi woman from Jewish content.

My only quibble with this analysis is that it applies to men too – although her solution might actually be an answer to my quibble. It is a solution that is counterintuitive to what one would expect in the Charedi world: Increased in-depth Torah study. Of the type women are discouraged from doing in the Charedi world.

The reason for that attitude is the Gemarah’s admonition that teaching Torah to women is considered ‘Tiflus’ – often translated as immorality. The reason for that is beyond he scope of this post. The point here though is that formal Torah study for women was discouraged if not outright forbidden until Sarah Schenirer came along. She convinced the rabbinic leaders of her time that their continued refusal to teach women Torah would result in an existential crisis for Judaism. Realizing that was the case most of them eventually approved of it. And reinterpreted that Gemarah to forbid-only in-depth Torah study.

Although that ship has long ago sailed in the Modern Orthodox world as per the rationale of Rav Soloviethcik, the Charedi world still clings hard and fast to that reinterpretation. To justify that view, they point to the unintended consequences of women seeking rabbinic ordinations. Which is being accommodated by prominent Left-Wing Orthodox rabbis.

Lerner does not directly address this question other than to say ‘Tzarich Iyun’. Rabbis need to be consulted about how to go about it because of that Gemarah. But at the same time she seems to feel that if women are not encouraged to do that, their interests will go elsewhere. And not necessarily in places that are conducive to perpetuating the values of Judaism. Which is kind of an existential crisis of its own.

Is she right? I don’t know. One thing it will not do is change is the role reversal the Charedi world is increasingly experiencing.  Is that a good thing? I don’t know the answer to that either. But is certainly food for thought.

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Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.