Some time ago I got into a little discussion down by Michelle's blog. I may have gotten a little off topic but I had critized the way contemporary Orthodoxy treats women. Another blogger, Anonym00kie, took issue with that and sent me thjs email:
i often see your comments on michelle's blog
and i just wanted to tell you that ir eally disagree with your view of women and sexism, both in the frum community and even more in the secular world. i wish it was as peachy as everyone seems to describe it.. but unfortunately, as a woman, coming from the secular world, my view of feminism and its effect on society are completely different than yours..im glad to be out of there and in the frum world. and dont go judging me because im a bt, assuming i see it all thru rose colored glasses.. i really dont, i fight for every ounce of positivity and beauty that i find, u have no idea how cynical i am.. but in my experience, i can honestly say that what i have found in torah judaism, regarding women, is by far more "feminist" than wats offered out there in the world.
i realize there are issues in the frum world, big issues.. but those arent, in my opinion, part of the ideology, of the beleif system...
anyway, i dont know if u want to discuss it or not, and honestly i have to get to work, but if you wanna email, please do.
I opted to email back and did so thusly:
Can you please explain to me why girls aren't taught Gemara like boys are? Why is the subject matter deemed too much for the small minds of girls?
Why is there no such thing as a female rabbi or halachic decider? Are women incapable of being community leaders or understanding halacha well enough to be a poseket? Is a woman incapable of giving a d'var torah worth listening to?
How do you feel about the fact that a woman cannot be a witness in any sort of Halachic observance? What does that mean on a theoretical level? Women cannot be trusted to accurately recall events when called upon to do so?
You don't see it at all degrading to women when they have to walk through separate entrances to go into these super frum places? How about when these stores have certain hours for men and hours for women? How do you feel about the fact that in most frum shuls, the mechitzah is so positioned that women are way in the back - sometimes with as much as an entire physical wall blocking the view with only little windows to peak into the men's arena? What does that all say about women? That their bodies are such powerful sexual objects that men cannot think properly 'pure' thoughts when they are around?
Don't you see it as at all ironic how virtually every religious duty or activity (with a couple of exceptions) is lead by a man? And even those that can be done by women, if men are around, a man is assumed the responsibility of taking care of it. When's the last time you saw a woman lead a havdalah ceremony, for example? Have you ever seen a woman recite megillat esther for men? Women are stripped of the ability to be leaders. They even count less than a man as nine men and a thousand women still don't make a minyan. They are basically treated like children by Halacha. Now, there are certain benefits to being a 'child' - less responsibility is one of them, but it comes at the deep cost of not being considered a full adult.
Or did you just never notice any of this?
She first sent me a short email saying that she did notice all of those things, assured me she was intelligent and educated (which I did not question and have no reason to doubt) but that she still stuck to her original point of view.
Later on she sent me a (much) longer email defending her position (slightly edited) :
well I finally have a little time to reply to your email (actually I really don’t.. but hey, who needs sleep?!). I’ve been thinking about your questions and how I want to go about answering them and I hope you find my reply worth the wait. Originally, I was hoping Id have more time to get you some good solid answers but I realize that’s not going to happen. I know I wont get around to it, and the truth is I’ve come to a decision that Im not going to try and convince you that I’m right or that you should change your views. That’s not my job, and honestly im not in the mood to fight it out. Ive done my searching, ive lived in the frum community for many years and ive made peace with a lot of these things and that’s what ill present to you. I completely understand if you don’t agree and if you have your own set of sources and reasons, and I respect that. The thing I love the most about Judaism is free will – and that implies that as long we are intellectually and spiritually sincere, whatever decision we make, whatever conclusion we come to is in my eyes respectable. i hope you feel the same way.
Ok, so in terms of answering your questions, I think the bulk of my answer revolves around two main ideas. The first one is that I firmly believe that men and women are created with a different physical, mental, emotional and spiritual make up. The second is that when you want to understand the way a system works, you need to use the rules of that system. Applying rules and heuristics of the secular world to understand the frum world (or vice versa) isn’t intellectually honest, in my opinion.
I believe that the secular world operates according to standards which are advantageous to males, and discriminate against women. Success, the way we have been taught, is measured in terms of external power, and public recognition is highly rewarded and valued in secular society. Politicians, movie stars, famous athletes gain their fame and power through their ability to stand above the crowd and their public exposure. The torah, on the other hand teaches a different kind of power. In Judaism, strength is measured in terms of being able to shape and control one’s negative qualities. Honor is bestowed upon those who behave ethically and virtuously. Power is measured according to one’s ability to develop his/her character traits. This is important because it shapes the way we value and acknowledge achievement.
It is accepted in the torah perspective that women and men are created differently and therefore possess different strengths and weaknesses. The torah is a system that teaches a spiritual path for each individual and because men and women are perceived differently, they are provided with different tools to achieve their spiritual fulfilment.
The implication of this is that in the torah world, having a public role is not viewed as a necessary means to achieving power or admiration. It is accepted that there are different channels that can lead to greatness and respect. It is understood that both men and women have the ability and the potential to have power and to be valued for their respective achievements.
Everyone agrees that men and women are considerably different, in their physical, emotional and cognitive makeup. Applying the same rules and the same standards to both leads to discrimination to one of the two.
The sexism found in the secular society is very subtle one and that’s why people (and especially men) get deceived into believing that it doesn’t exist. Women can “do” anything, they can be prime minister, they can be doctors, lawyers, wrestlers.. whatever they want. In an externally focused society they’ve achieved equality, they can be as publicly and externally powerful as any man (and if theyre lucky they may even get the same wages as a man). However, what this means is that women have been granted the opportunity to compete against men in their court, to be judged according to male standards, and to develop masculine strengths.
But how is that equality?
Using the same standards on different populations is considered discriminatory. Men and women don’t compete against eachother in sports for that exact reason. Men and women have a different physical makeup and we realize that it would be incredible unfair to women to compete against men. A child who is mentally challenged can only thrive in an environment that respects and accommodates his strengths and weaknesses, and a child who displays greater intelligence can only thrive and reach his potential in an environment that promotes his abilities. Sticking either child in a regular class is cruel.
The torah promotes this understanding and encourages both men and women to develop their respective strengths and work on their own weaknesses. In the secular world, the default system operates according to masculine strengths, weaknesses. Granting women real equality necessitates respecting and validating the strengths and weaknesses of women, it requires allowing women to develop and grow within their abilities And talents.
So what are women’s strengths?
Women are more naturally skilled in their ability to be nurturers, to be intuitive, to view situations in a more holistic way. These are all strengths which are internal. Women are considered more insightful (binah). They have a stronger ability to understand matters from the inside, the capacity to see a person and understand their needs, to relate to people according to their needs (btw, this is where it gets tricky, you being a male, I think, hinders you from fully appreciating what I, as a woman, feel are my strengths.)
Raising children and running a household are responsibilities and achievements which are in no way looked down upon in the Torah world (as they are in the secular world). If anything it’s the opposite. The husband gets up and sings the praises of his wife on Friday night. He acknowledges her worth and her beauty. Being a full time mom is not seen as a second class occupation, its value in the jewish community is respected and appreciated.
In a community minded value system, raising and forming and shaping the future generation is regarded as much more commendable than pursuing selfish self actualization.
A woman’s power comes in her ability to create the minds and affect the values and ethics of people. It may not lead to public recognition or to financial gain but in a system where these achievements are not highly valued, it becomes irrelevant. Women are responsible for the internal development of their family members. They create their society by raising and facilitating the development of the members of their society.
The strength of women is also to actualize pure potential. Of course the most obvious manifestation of this is in the physical relationship between a man and woman where the male is responsible for providing the raw material and the woman is responsible for the development of that seed. A baby cannot be created without the active participation of both parties.
In the story of creation we see that woman is created from the rib of man – from an inner bone – that is also representative of the woman’s strength, her inner strength. Being more low key, more private, more internally focused is a strength of the woman (which can obviously not be valued in an externally focused society).
Women, by nature, are not as competitive and aggressive as men tend to be. They are less focused on external achievement and stature. This isn’t to say that there aren’t exceptions, but naturally a woman’s tendency is much less geared towards public approval and public exposure. She is much more relationship-oriented, and it is in that setting that her worth and achievements can be appreciated.
Women are also known to have better social skills, to be more cooperative and to do better on verbal tasks. All these qualities create a gender which is more communicative and more relationship focused. As opposed to leading the masses, the strengths of women emerge in their one-on-one connections
Women also have a greater ability at being receptive and responsive. Women usually show more empathy and mercy and are more prone towards conflict resolution and consensus. This comes from their more holistic perception of the world. Whereas men think in a more compartmentalized manner, women are more skilled at seeing the bigger picture. This ability also allows women to multitask and this of course is incredibly valuable in raising children and running a household. To be less focused on the particular and more open to flexibility is a much-needed strength to function in a constantly changing environment. Of course in a male dominated world, where male qualities are valued, this ability to be more “light headed” to be able to focus less and to direct one’s attention on a variety of aspects is not recognized or respected. In order to appreciate these strengths, one needs to step out of that male mindset that secular society runs by, and to step into a different reality where both m en and women roles are valued and both men and women strengths are appreciated. In that reality it’s much easier to understand that what a woman has to offer and what she brings to the world is invaluable.
Comparing the role of women in a torah based society to that of a secular society is nonsensical as the measuring tools are completely different. In a world where power is not necessarily tied to a public role, not having women in those positions in no way diminishes their worth, it simply is not relevant to the development and appreciation of women. Unfortunately, having grown up in a society that focuses on externals and values externally directed achievements, we sometimes lose track of the fact that jewish women are living by a different set of rules and standards. In the secular, externally focused society, the achievements of jewish women cannot be measured or recognized.
Both men and women have equal needs, desires and capabilities in connecting to G-d, but each gender requires a different system that best suits their strengths and weaknesses. Because the torah teaches a spiritual path, the mitzvot and the roles of each gender are custom made to facilitate spiritual growth.
The majority of the commandments apply equally to both genders, but there is a small percentage of laws and customs which is geared specifically to one gender or the other. This is where people have trouble accepting that the torah promotes equality of the sexess As soon as people see a difference in treatment they consider it a weakness in the system, when in fact it is affording each group to develop its respective skills and reach self actualization.
For a woman raised in the secular world, this appreciation of her intuitive abilities is liberating. To finally be respected and appreciated for what comes naturally to us. To stop trying to compete in a man’s world, according to their terms. I cant express how much this helps in developing a woman’s self esteem. The Torah gives women the permission to be women – and not to feel guilty, or less valued, or less appreciated – for their strengths and their weaknesses.
The torah teaches us a spiritual path to fulfillment, both on a personal level and on a cosmic level. Once we internalize that, is it easy to see that G-d created a different system for men and women to work in, one which takes into consideration their respective roles, capacities and weaknesses, one where each gender has a valuable contribution to make.
I think you get the general idea of my answer to your questions, but ill try to address your questions separately now.
"Can you please explain to me why girls aren't taught Gemara like boys are? Why is the subject matter deemed too much for the small minds of girls?"
First of all its not an issur for women to study gemara, but once you realize that women do not have a torah obligation to study torah ,and once you appreciate the way a woman’s mind works, than learning gemara is not the best way for her to develop her relationship with hashem, its not the most conducive way to actualize herself.
Throughout history there have been women who have studied it, and who continue to, and even in very “black” circles, there are women who do today. But, this is done in a more discreet way because it is accepted that this type of behaviour is not viewed as one that cultivate a woman’s natural skills.
I’ve also heard that another reason why women aren’t encouraged to study gemara is that that the study of it can be very combative and aggressive and this is not a quality that we want women to focus on and develop considering their strength in consensus seeking and community building. Men on the other hand have a more natural tendency towards aggressively and competition and this is a positive growth oriented outlet for them.
"Why is there no such thing as a female rabbi or halachic decider? Are women incapable of being community leaders or understanding halacha well enough to be a poseket? Is a woman incapable of giving a d'var torah worth listening to?"
If women don’t spend as much time and as much of their energy on studying torah, (primarily because they have other obligations), then how many poseks do you expect will emerge? Even among men, not every rabbi is a posek, it requires a higher level of learning and most women focus their energies elsewhere. As for being community leaders, that question becomes moot when you step out of the westernized – male focused- system where public exposure and external achievement are more valued than internal power and private achievement.
Here again there are exceptions, and there are women who require more public exposure to develop but they try prefer to find ways which are more compatible with their more feminine and more private nature (in women’s groups, or in smaller settings)( there are of course important exceptions, today Rebbetzin Jungreis speaks to thousands of people, runs a high organization and is respected and valued in very frum circles)
"How do you feel about the fact that a woman cannot be a witness in any sort of Halachic observance? What does that mean on a theoretical level? Women cannot be trusted to accurately recall events when called upon to do so?"
I don’t think anyone believes that women are so simple minded that they cant recall events, but the fact is that due to their ability to think holistically, and to think more empathetically, than yes their ability to recall facts can be affected. In a court of law, facts are what are required, not an understanding of the greater picture.
As for being a witness to halachic observance, I think women do that on a daily basis whether it’s in matters of kashrut, or taharat hamishpacha or any other observance that is related to the home. The greatest, most strictest rabbi will trust his wife 100% when it comes to those things – so obviously the issue is not with her trustworthiness, but simply with the role and recognition we, as westerners would like her to have.
"You don't see it at all degrading to women when they have to walk through separate entrances to go into these super frum places? How about when these stores have certain hours for men and hours for women? How do you feel about the fact that in most frum shuls, the mechitzah is so positioned that women are way in the back - sometimes with as much as an entire physical wall blocking the view with only little windows to peak into the men's arena? What does that all say about women? That their bodies are such powerful sexual objects that men cannot think properly 'pure' thoughts when they are around?"
You see it as women having to walk through separate entrances; but why not see it as men walking through separate entrances? Or better yet, why not take our western male focused bias out of it and see it as men and women walking through separate entrances? Stores that have separate hours do it to separate the genders, but not as a sign of sexism. In the torah perspective men and women are much more sensitive to their differences – and compatibilities- and so the system promotes a separation of the genders so as to avoid certain behaviours that can lead to de-sensitization.
As for the mechitzas, once again it brings us back to what the focus is. If you go to shul to connect to g-d, to develop your relationship with hashem, than, if youre a woman, it really makes no difference where you are situated, your avodat hashem is much more private. If youre a man it is much more dependent on the communal setting and communal activities. A womans service to g-d is different than that of a man and so it makes perfect sense that men have a more central, public and communal position in the synagogue – after all these are the abilities they need to develop.
You say – "what does it say about a woman that her body is such a powerful sexual object that men cant think properly around her and I ask you, why is that such a difficult situation for you to accept?"
Once again, in a male focused mind frame, its more advantageous to a man to take away a woman’s sexual power, to subjugate this ability, to take away her edge. But women know. Women know the power they have, so the torah simply acknowledges and validates what we intuitively know. A woman is an extremely sexual being, and this is not a negative thing. What it means however is that for men, who are externally focused, it is much easier for them to get blinded by a woman’s sexual exterior and not take the time or put the energy to dig deeper and appreciate and value a woman for her real (internal) worth. The fact that men ant think prioperly around women is a reflection of a male characteristic (to be externally focused), not a reflection of a woman’s worth.
"Don't you see it as at all ironic how virtually every religious duty or activity (with a couple of exceptions) is lead by a man? And even those that can be done by women, if men are around, a man is assumed the responsibility of taking care of it. When's the last time you saw a woman lead a havdalah ceremony, for example? Have you ever seen a woman recite megillat esther for men? Women are stripped of the ability to be leaders. They even count less than a man as nine men and a thousand women still don't make a minyan. They are basically treated like children by Halacha. Now, there are certain benefits to being a 'child' - less responsibility is one of them, but it comes at the deep cost of not being considered a full adult."
The torah is a system of laws and rules that helps get above their nature and change themselves for the better. What this means is that the mitzvoth are tools which help us develop our strengths while diminishing our weaknesses. We have a natural tendency to be selfish and therefore the torah obligates us to give tzedaka, be kind, be generous. What this means is that depending on a gender’s characteristics, the mitzvoth that apply will be based on what ‘work’ needs to be done.
Women, by nature, are more internally focused, pray better and build a connection to g-d thru personal prayer. I grew up around women (secular) who were constantly speaking to g-d. This is how families are raised by the mothers I know. Women are relationship-focused and have much better skills at developing and maintaining relationships and so their communication with g-d is much less regimented than that of men. Women intuitively understand how to communicate with g-d (as well as with those around them).
Men on the other hand are team players, men need more guidance in building that relationship, in developing the communicative part of their connection to hashem and so it is more strictly controlled and they are required to pray in a minyan, three times a day, following a siddur. Men get together when they have a reason, women are more communicative, more communal and will congregate naturally. So women can go to shul, but praying in a minyan isnt particularly advantageous to women’s spiritual growth. Men on the other hand do need a reason and an obligation to pray in a minyan in order to help them develop that skill.
You compare women to children because of their reduced involvement and leadership roles in public communal activities, but by now I think its clear to see how the appeal and the value that these roles/ activities carry with them are based on a set of values that is foreign to the torah. The standards you consider as “adult like ” and “child like” don’t apply in a torah based system, they are based on a male oriented, hierarchical, externally focused system. If the whole point of the torah and the goal of a torah jew is to grow spiritually – on a personal and universal level- than these activities are just not necessary for a woman’s development. Those aren’t the strengths she needs or desires to develop. A woman is exempt from time bound mitzcvahs because her approach is one of constant readiness or adaptability to being able to continually respond to changing realities. Women have a more innate ability to create structures and so have less of a requirement for externally based frameworks.
Now one last thing, most of the questions you asked are not based on activities that are forbidden from women (they can read the megila, do havdala, study gemara…) but that they are not obligated to. In the torah perspective, where one’s focus is based on spiritual development, the torah is used as a priority setting guide. It is understood that if women don’t have an obligation to perform certain mitzvot, than there’s a good chance that they are not required for her development. Nonetheless because we are each created as individuals with individual strengths and weaknesses, there are members or each gender that will require or desire more participation in the other gender’s activities. This is acceptable as long as the frame of mind is correct. That means that if a person can say that they have exhausted their ability to fulfil the commandments and the path that have been set out for that gender and they now seek more, to tap other strengths or weaknesses, than that is more often than not acceptable. If however a woman is tempted by what is prescribed for men, purely to make a statement, to prove that she can do what men do, than that is not acceptable, and is deemed sexist Its sexist to place more emphasis on the abilities and the spiritual path of one gender over the other. Instead of appreciating and respecting her own role, her own spiritual path, she views man’s role as more valuable, and ends up devaluating her own prescribed path.
All that being said, I will say one more thing. I will not deny that there are sexist people, communities, rabbis… im not naïve and im not blind. However, the torah in itself, as a system of beliefs and values is not sexist. It is, in my eyes, the opposite of sexist; it provides each gender with a spiritual path that is best suited for it. It respects the contribution of both genders, and it values the natural abilities and tendencies of both genders.
So there’s my VERY long answer to your question. (ive decided im going to post this answer to my blog, do you mind if i include your questions?)
I don’t claim that these answers will convince you I’m right, but these are the answers I’ve come to, as a woman. It is not so obvious to verbalize to a man these ideas in a way that he will be able to relate but I am telling u things the way I see them. I hope you can respect my opinions and my conclusions and that even if you disagree or find that they don’t meet up to your orthoprax standards, that you will accept that in my mind and in my heart I’m happy with where I stand and what I believe in.
I would love to hear some feedback, but I realize this is REALLY long (i think ill have to shorten it before i post it, or else no one will read thru it :)
any feedback you give me will be appreciated.
Whew! Now if that ain't long enough for ya, I responded back to her defense with my own reply. It's hardly a conclusive list answering every single one of her arguments (that would be a real chore), but it hits on the most germane ideas:
I appreciate your long and detailed response. But I have just a couple of points to make about it.
First, I think you far overestimate the differences between men and women and how each's strengths can best be cultivated. Women would not benefit from participating in ordered and regular worship services because of their inherent intuitive personal relationship with God? Come on. Do you really accept that?
I would also like to point out that a far better system for realizing each individual's spiritual and general qualities would be done simply on an individual level. Some women, I am sure, would greatly appreciate being involved in many of the things that they are now excluded from (either by Halacha, society, or convention). And conversely, I'd bet that some men find their numerous obligations to hamper their best spiritual efforts. Why divide by gender when there are so many natural exceptions? Wouldn't it be far better to have a system that allows people to be engaged in whatever they feel most fulfilling as far as they are willing to go? This would allow for individually-planned religious lives that would best serve each person on an individual basis.
A 'Torah society' that focuses on internal development rather than external power is a beautiful thing, but creating this gender divide to force 'proper' gender development is backwards. You shouldn't be arguing for a "women's sector" of religious life that allows women to develop their own powers outside of a male-focused society, but a non-judgemental society that allows each individual to develop themselves to the best of their abilities with no attention paid towards the person's 'proper' gender role. Women shouldn't have to 'escape' the male-world and those so-called "male standards" that rule it, but should find their own standards equally represented on the public stage.
The only reason I can see then for encouraging the gender divide, is not for protecting individual spiritual development, but for keeping the social status quo and all that entails. This then leads me to my second point.
If you look back on history, or even any modern society where discrimination exists, there are always endless apologetics posited to justify that discrimination. In fact, taking your basic thesis that women have a different approach to spirituality than men, you can then justify _any_ restriction on women. You can fit virtually any offense towards women and make it seem that it's for their own good.
Whether it's burkahs on women or keeping women from driving cars or keeping them from voting or keeping them from entering the business world, all of these can be justified by an argument ensuring women that it's for their own good.
"I don’t think anyone believes that women are so simple minded that they cant recall events, but the fact is that due to their ability to think holistically, and to think more empathetically, than yes their ability to recall facts can be affected."
I really can't believe you said this. You really believe that men are better suited to recalling factual events than women? Seriously. How can I trust women with such an important power as the VOTE when their power to recall events are so much poorer than men? Would you ever accept such an argument to restrict your power to testify in secular court? I think not!
"If women don’t spend as much time and as much of their energy on studying torah, (primarily because they have other obligations), then how many poseks do you expect will emerge?"
That's really not the point. The point is that even if a women held the requisite skills to be a poseket, I contend that she would never be able to exercise those skills within the contemporary community standards. No one would see her opinion as authoritative and very few people would feel comfortable saying they act a certain way because they follow the ruling of Poseket XYZ.
"You see it as women having to walk through separate entrances; but why not see it as men walking through separate entrances?"
Because it was men who made these separate entrances in the first place. This kind of thing is rarely, if ever, initiated by women. In the 1950s when there were 'White' and 'Colored' drinking fountains, nobody looked at the whites as being the victims of discrimination.
To finish off, I'd like you to recognize how in human society it is basically a universal maxim that those in power like to stay in power. Men have ruled Jewish society for nearly as long as Judaism has existed. Do you believe it was by some coincidence that the male Rabbinate gave us a society with such male superiority?
The point about women's liberation was that women had the choice to do what they willed without being held back because of their gender. They could fulfill their 'female development' to the best of their abilities or they could enter the wider world and engage in pursuits formerly restricted only to men. The point is the choice.
Do you believe that the very existence of this option harms women? Women who are moved to do so, can now engage the world entire without being restricted just to the women's sphere. That you personally find deep spiritual fulfillment by living a traditional woman's life in the kitchen (while barefoot and pregnant, I might add) is your own business and I wish you good fortune, but you shouldn't be using such fulfillment as reasons to hold other women back.
Contemporary Orthodoxy does not let women control their own destiny or the direction of the Jewish people on a communal level. The issue is power. It's great and all to say that you don't care about power but about personal development, but why should you be holding back those women who have different interests than you or who feel more personally developed by going outside of traditional gender roles?