Leave Orthodoxy Alone
I am writing to regarding the letter to the editor in the San Diego Jewish Journal called “Woman and Orthodoxy,” by Marsha Sutton. Being an observant Jewish woman myself, I feel compelled to respond.
I’d like to preface by noting that I did not grow up in an Orthodox home, nor did I receive a religious education. I started to become interested in Judaism during my first year of college. From there I gradually learned more, taking upon myself more aspects of a traditional Jewish lifestyle. After graduation, I studied in Jerusalem at a yeshiva for women (called Mayanot, run by Chabad), an experience that solidified my commitment to living a Torah-observant lifestyle inspired by the philosophy and teachings of Chabad.
I was troubled by what Marsha wrote in her letter for two main reasons.
First, calling women not being permitted to read from the Torah a “discriminatory and repressive polic[y]” and a “deni[al] of full equality” represents a profound misunderstanding of Judaism’s view of the woman and her essential role.
In many ways, a woman and a man have similar roles; we are here to live a life of meaning and purpose, of self-development, and of giving to others. However, there does exist a division of responsibilities between men and women. As a nation, we are like one body, and we work as a team. Since one person cannot do everything, the Torah delegates responsibility to men in certain areas, and to women in others. This is not to say there is never overlap. Yet, since men and women have different natures and strengths, the Torah gives them different roles with the purpose of helping each to actualize his or her innate potential as well as contribute to the greater mission of the Jewish people.
Judaism teaches that a woman attains fulfillment through embracing her femininity, not by trying to act like a man. Telling a woman that in order to be valued she must fight to do as a man is, in effect, devaluing and repressing her. It is essentially telling her that her femininity is inferior, so therefore she must strive to be masculine. I believe this mindset, which society has so successfully ingrained in us, is a source of great unhappiness and lack of self-worth among women today.
The second reason I was troubled by the letter is the assumption that the synagogue is the center and heart of Judaism, and, since it is the men who are the main participants in the traditional synagogue services, this means women are, as you say, “relegated to lesser roles” and to “subservient status.” This could not be further from the truth. The home and family, not the synagogue, are the heart — or, to borrow your car analogy, the “engine” — of Jewish life, because it is in the home, not in the synagogue, where the Jewish soul is most nourished, and it is the warmth and values in the home that ensure Jewish continuity from generation to generation.
(The proof of this is in the pudding: Historically, in Jewish communities where Judaism was strong in the home, the children and grandchildren overwhelmingly continued Jewish tradition. However, in communities where the synagogue was the center of Jewish life and Jewish tradition was weak in the home, an overwhelming percentage of children in subsequent generations did not stay Jewish.)
The Torah calls a Jewish woman ha’akeret habait: the foundation or bedrock of the home. While she may earn a living and do many other things as well, a woman achieves the greatest fulfillment by serving her essential role as a mother. This does not mean cleaning and cooking (she can hire others to do that), and it does not only mean taking care of a child’s physical needs. The woman is, above all, responsible for taking care of her child’s spiritual needs, for raising the next generation to be emotionally healthy, productive and, most importantly, good human beings. (And if, God forbid, a woman is not able to have children, her feminine energy should be just as crucially devoted to nurturing and empowering those around her.) This is a very challenging job, and there is arguably no greater contribution one can make to society. I would certainly not call it a “lesser role in life.” To the contrary, God gave the Jewish woman the greatest mission possible: to ensure the continuity, strength and integrity of the Jewish people.
Living a Jewish life is all about purpose. The Jewish people have a national purpose; Jewish women have a purpose; Jewish men have a purpose; and each individual has his or her own distinct purpose. The Torah teaches us that life is not about being better or worse, or even about “rights,” but rather about uniting to work toward our greater mission, to make this world a holy place. And each one of us has a unique and essential role within that mission.
I truly encourage Marsha to do some research into the more than 3,000 years of Jewish wisdom, which address every aspect of life, including womanhood and what it means in the modern world. Though it is ancient wisdom, it is fascinating and relevant, and I’m sure as an education expert, she would agree that more knowledge is always a good thing. I can point her in the direction of some literature if she would like. I would also be happy to discuss these issues further over coffee if she is interested.