While I was growing up in the suburbs of America, I never actually knew any Orthodox people, but somehow, I “knew” all about them. A friend, while driving past the home of one of the few observant families in our town, once authoritatively commented that Orthodox people are “dirty and unkempt.”
It’s interesting how long that single comment has remained in my memory – my children are now nearly as old as I was when I first heard it. And now, from my vantage point as a mother with small children, whose home is not nearly as “kempt” as I would like it to be (despite a daily and valiant struggle with dishes, laundry, and toys), I feel for the mother of that long-ago family.
Actually, I rather admire her. Subject to the scrutiny of her fashionable, two-child-and-a-dog, American-dreaming neighbors, she unfailing maintained her grasp on the age-old Jewish dream. She knew that the toys strewn about the yard were temporary, but the patience shown her children as they grew, was forever. She realized that the uninspired state of her flower beds was totally irrelevant in relation to the roses blossoming inside the house. The embarrassment she felt (and I am certain, any woman would feel) was allayed by the future promise of her young mess-makers. I dearly hope they are fulfilling it, bringing her nachas and joy to the end of her days.
Other information I garnered during my youth about Orthodox and Chassidic people came from a liberal interpretation of Torah and Jewish traditions. Feminists, disgruntled with patriarchal Western society, plucked single phrases, customs and laws from their living context to prove that Judaism, too, was in dire need of reform. I participated. I attended Rosh Chodesh gatherings that amounted to moon worship, and meetings that discussed alternative names for G-d. I protested when I was banned from leading Shabbos services in favor of a boy, even though I knew it better (and had a nicer voice, to boot).
When I finally met, quite by accident (or so it seemed), an honest-to-goodness Orthodox lady, I turned down in horror her offer that I come with her to shul – a shul that had a hated mechitzah, that quintessential representation of the Orthodox oppression of women, that separated the men and women during the services.
Well, that feisty lady told me that she won’t be considered oppressed until she’s ready and that, in any case, I have a standing invitation for Shabbos lunch. Curiosity got the better of me, and thus I finally made the acquaintance of a real Orthodox family, in real Orthodox surroundings, with hats and mechitzahs and only slightly untrimmed shrubbery (it was the end of the summer).
Since then I have thought alot about the preconceptions I had, and the complaints against Jewish rituals that supposedly indicate the second-class status of women in Jewish life. Like my spunky hostess, I cannot agree that I have encountered systematic oppression of myself as a woman by Orthodox men, whether subtle or overt. In fact, I actually find that I am treated by observant men with more dignity and respect: respect for me as a private person, for me as an intellect rather than a body, for me as the head of my own household, for me as a part of a sanctified union, for me as the mother of a new generation of Jews.
This respect is sometimes conveyed by limiting eye contact or by not engaging in casual conversation in the supermarket or other public places. This behavior may be a source of misunderstanding; someone could interpret it as disdain rather than respect, yet it is not. But for this you’ll have to take me at my word, unless you dare to see for yourself, leaving of course your preconceptions at the door.
As for the classic complaints against Jewish law and ritual, it seems to
me that they are also taken out of context, that is, the entire context of
Jewish life in which they are meant to be implemented. Is it not unfair?
The same Torah that commands men to say “Who hath not made me a woman,” says “The wisdom of a woman builds her house,” and “He who has found a woman has found goodness.” The same Torah that does not require women to perform any mitzvos that are bound by time (tallit, tefillin, three daily prayers) entrusts the woman with almost total responsibility for the three mitzvot most basic to the continuity of the Jewish people: kashrus, Shabbos, and Family Sanctity.
The same Judaism that gives a man the privilege to lead the community in prayer and read in public from the Torah, firmly obligates him (and only him) in the marriage contract to provide his wife with financial support, garments, and marital satisfaction. It commands him to love his wife as he does himself, and to honor her more than himself.
The same Talmud that describes women’s intellect, or da’at, as “light,” ascribes to them an extra measure of binah (understanding). This example alone proves the need to judge Judaism only by close familiarity with its terminology and conceptual framework, for the English translations and subsequent connotations of the English words lend nuances that are not true of the Hebrew.
Other information I garnered during my youth about Orthodox and Chassidic people came from a liberal interpretation of Torah and Jewish traditions.
The Torah records the respect given to and earned by Jewish women; where does it set out to denigrate? Here are some records set by the feminine half of the Jewish people. At Sinai, the Torah was given first to the women, and only then to the men. At the forging of the Golden Calf, the women firmly refused to participate in such nonsense. When the 10 Spies tried to discourage the people from entering the Land of Israel, it was the women who were not convinced, and then publicly rewarded by not dying out like the men did over the 40 years of desert wandering. The Talmud states that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of the righteous women, and that our future redemption will be in that merit as well. What is most telling is that these and other Torah tidbits are on the tip of everyone’s tongue in yeshivah circles; they cannot help but influence the way a boy or man views his mother, his sister, his wife.
Are the laws that govern proper dress, women’s singing, and seating in the synagogue restrictions on women, I wonder. Or are they really restrictions on the men? Or perhaps they are neither, but rather they are guidelines for everyone as to what is proper at a particular time and place.
The roles each individual plays – as a man or woman; Kohen, Levi, or
Yisrael; over or under bar/bat-mitzvah age; living inside or outside
the Land of Israel – when they are intertwined they form the tapestry that is a
vital Jewish community and, in my experience, truly none is considered better or
More than that, our physical roles here mirror the realities in the spiritual realms. Jewish thought paints women as receivers and developers, men as bestowers. G-d, the ultimate Bestower – of Torah, of blessing, of life – takes the people of Israel as a bride, to receive the Torah, to receive blessing, to receive life. If the entire Jewish people is portrayed as a woman, and not as just any woman, but as G-d’s beloved wife so to speak, is it then not obvious how precious G-d considers the Jewish woman?
This is something I never thought of in my feminist days, but it directs the undercurrent of my thoughts more and more. The point of Judaism is not to be a social system that determines the distribution of power and privilege among classes and sexes. (That’s a pretty patriarchal, Western view of the universe, anyway.) It is a means to recognize the infinite majesty of G-d, the relative insignificance of humans (men, women, and even the ritual committee), and the amazing idea that we still can and are meant to do something to serve Him, using the tools of our own gender, years, personalities, and otherwise specific, inimitable ways.