Jewish Women: Separate, but Equal by Miriam Biber
Volume 1 , Issue 2 (Dec., 1987 | Kislev, 5748)
As Jewish women of the 1980's, we are confronted with the unique task of defending our position as wives and mothers. For centuries Jewish women carried out this important role with the recognition by both genders that this is the way Jewish life has been able to flourish throughout the generations. In recent times women have been presented with many more choices as to how to spend their lives. As a result of the women's movement, as well as technological changes which have made the job of managing a home less time consuming, women now have the option of having a career, pursuing voluntary interests, as well as raising a family. With the philosophical and technological advances of the past century, the value of the Jewish woman as wife and mother has recently been put to question. Most of these challenges derive from a generalization of the women's movement's philosophy into the Jewish world. The following article will evaluate how the women's movement has affected the Jewish woman's role and whether the conclusions derived from such challenges are valid.
Women's Movement Goals
At the risk of oversimplifying the goals of the women's movement, let me summarize some of their endeavors as an attempt to give women more control and influence in the main ?arenas? of modern society including the workplace, the home and the political world. A number of positive outcomes have been attained as a result of the women's movement's efforts. These include the right to vote, equal educational and job opportunities, and equal salaries for equivalent work positions. All of these gains were achieved by insisting that women be provided with the same opportunities that men currently have. Success in the women's liberation movement was at least initially obtained by assessing how the women's role and benefits matched those of men.
Although valid and effective in achieving gains in the
secular world, using the man's role as a standard of reference is an
inappropriate method of evaluating the women's role in Jewish life. Based on
the ?equal rights? logic Jewish women have become angered and frustrated over
not having the
Synagogue Not The Center
There are two difficulties with this type of logic. The first is the assumption that the synagogue is the center of Jewish life. In contrast to Christianity, the home is the center of Jewish life as is evidenced by the predominance of family oriented mitzvot (commandments). The synagogue is an ancillary institution. The synagogue serves as a forum for communal expression of prayer. However, if a synagogue is not available, prayer can still legitimately take place in a private home or in almost any other location. The Torah instructs us that when starting a new community, building a mikvah, which is the basis of Jewish family life,takes precedence over constructing a synagogue. Thus, raising a family based on Torah values, which will continue the chain of generations of Jews who have kept the Torah since we received it at Mt. Sinai, is of transcendent importance. Attending synagogue is but a small part of that larger packet.
The second problem with the demand for equal participation in the synagogue is that it is based on the assumption that men and women were created in the same way and thus should have identical ways of expressing their spirituality. However it is obvious that God created man and woman as two separate forms of human beings. Each gender possesses distinct biological and psychological processes that ultimately complement each other. (That is one of the reasons why it is only through marriage, when two distinct people become united, that a person's purpose is truly fulfilled). In accordance with these differences, men and women have unique ways of expressing their spirituality to God. The Torah teaches us that men require the daily structure imposed upon them by the 613 mitzvot as a way of incorporating Godliness into their daily life. In contrast, women, through their capacity to give life, have a more innate sense of Godliness. Their psychological make-up is such that they are more aware of God without having to carry out all 613 Mitzvot. Just as a man expresses his connection to God by praying with a minyan, a woman expresses her relationship by setting up a Jewish home and raising a family.
We have established that the home, rather than the synagogue is the center of Jewish life. The woman, as wife, mother and household manager is the primary figure in the primary domain of Jewish life. It is she that sets the tone and provides the environment for Judaism to flourish. It is through her efforts to set up and maintain a kosher kitchen, to keep the laws of family purity and Shabbat, and to provide her children from an early age with a love and enthusiasm for Torah that allows Judaism to permeate our daily lives. It is through her efforts that the family functions as a unit. Her actions transform a ?two bedroom apartment on Garfield? to a place where Jewish life abounds, and thus where God's presence rests. This is not to imply that men do not have any influence in the home. Itis just intended to point out that through the observance of our share of mitzvot women have the potential to bring Godliness into our homes and integrate it into a part of our daily lives.
Hence the contention that Torah does not provide an important role for women stems from the assumption that men and women must express their spirituality in identical ways. An insistence that women should be called to the Torah, for example, belittles the important spiritual role she does have as a wife and mother, and assumes that the only valid spiritual expression is that which takes place out of the home. Women have a vital spiritual job to carry out. It is a job which requires intelligence, a Jewish education and sensitivity. Let's not minimize our own spiritual importance.