‘Most women don’t want to’ is not a reason

Most men don’t want to play in the NBA, therefore they shouldn’t be allowed to play basketball.

Most men don’t want to be President of the United States, therefore they shouldn’t be allowed to take the Constitution test or study politics.

Most men don’t want to cook, therefore they shouldn’t be allowed in the kitchen.

Most men don’t want to spend time on grooming, therefore they shouldn’t be allowed to own mirrors.

The arguments above make little sense. Who cares if only a small percentage of elite athletes are actually talented enough to play for a professional basketball team? Many more men enjoy shooting hoops in their backyard or in amateur leagues for their own exercise and enjoyment. Why should the pros have all the fun? So what if a man doesn’t aspire to be the next American president?  Does that mean he can’t take an interest in learning about the Constitution and how our government works? So a man doesn’t want to be a professional chef, nor does he have an interest in being the primary cook in his household? Does that mean he can’t learn a thing or two about basic cooking in case he needs to take over kitchen duties in a pinch? Maybe primping for a night out is a 2 minute affair for most men, but does it make sense to outlaw mirrors because beauty routines aren’t a high priority for them?

What about men who are gifted enough to make it into the NBA? How about those who do aspire to the Presidency and actually have a chance of getting elected? What about men who have a talent and passion for cooking and choose to focus on it as an art form, as a career, as a hobby, or as one of their household responsibilities? How about men who enjoy taking care of their appearance, and therefore need mirrors to accomplish their desired look?

Even if these kinds of men only made up a small percentage of the male population, would it be rational to prevent them from achieving their dreams because the majority of men won’t be affected?

That’s why this argument, when applied to women and expanding their roles within Orthodoxy, doesn’t make sense to me. I have literally heard people say that most women don’t want to wear tefillin, therefore it shouldn’t be allowed. Most women don’t want to study Gemara, so it shouldn’t be allowed. Most women don’t want to be called up to the Torah, so it shouldn’t be allowed. Most women don’t want to dance with a Torah on Simchat Torah, so it shouldn’t be allowed. Most women don’t want to be rabbis, so it shouldn’t be allowed. Most women don’t want to lain, so it shouldn’t be allowed. Most women don’t want to be a shul president, so it shouldn’t be allowed. Most women don’t want to serve on the board of an Orthodox institution currently made up of men, so it shouldn’t be allowed.

This excuse allows men to say that the reason why women aren’t permitted to have an expanding role is because they don’t want one. It’s an endless circle of women not having a precedent for leadership or involvement in public ritual, and the claim that the cause of that precedent is that women have never wanted greater involvement. When some women speak up that they do want more opportunities, the precedent of never having wanted them before is cited as the reason why they can’t have those opportunities now. Our female representatives have spoken, and they have declined progress. Polls will reopen in 3015.

Even if most women don’t want to do x, y, or z, why should the women who do want to do x, y, or z have to suffer? Also, I personally have always heard the excuse, ‘most women don’t want to,’ declared by men. I’ve heard women say, ‘I don’t want to,’ but most women will still acknowledge that there may be other women who do. It isn’t fair to prohibit larger participation of women in Jewish public life on the basis that most women aren’t interested in a larger role.

If you asked three different orthodox women their reasons for having no desire to be president of their local school board, you might get three different answers. One woman saying no might have many young children, and be in the throes of the exhaustion that comes with frequent pregnancies and round the clock parenting. Another woman declining might be devoting all of her energy working to support her married children and trying to marry off the remainder. Yet another uninterested woman might be heavily involved in being a kallah teacher and providing taharat hamishpacha outreach and education, and she feels her already large contributions to the community are enough without having to take on school board duties. However, if you asked three other women their reasons for wanting to become the president of their local school board, they might have equally compelling reasons related to their own philanthropy goals, dedication to an alma mater, decades of experience as an educator, grown children all out of the house, etc..

We also have to consider which women are being surveyed as the Electoral College determining interest. Most probably it’s the women who have the ears of the most influential rabbis. Meaning, the mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of today’s gadolim. When you consider that many of the women whose voices are (unofficially) heard by rabbis regarding egalitarianism are those who enjoy the privilege of proximity to a highly respected rabbi, it’s even easier to see why polling women with yichus would make them even less likely to see a need for women to be granted official power.

Such women are often afforded a higher level of authority and respect than the average woman due to their husbands. These women might not even relate to Orthodox women feeling powerless or frustrated at a limited public role, because they themselves lead lives very much in the public and are constantly asked for guidance by their husband’s congregants/followers. Although their influence might be informal, their opinions might sometimes count more strongly than even a tribunal of rabbis hoping to influence the rebbe. Additionally, I am told it isn’t unusual for the more open minded rabbaim to have chavrusahs with such wives who are inclined toward a higher level of Jewish scholarship. Whether or not rabbis and their wives learn a blat of Gemara I can’t say, but such one on one private sessions could possibly allow their wives access to texts not permitted to women in a public classroom.

The bottom line is that making generalizations about “most women” when only taking into consideration the opinions of a few gives a flawed perspective. Cream rises to the top. Even if the general female masses aren’t interested in expanded opportunities within the Orthodox tradition, should we consequently prevent the advancement of all women, including the superstars who could be pivotal to the future of our people?

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The virtue of being blunt

Part of the reason that Orthodox men are only now dealing with the crisis of “feminism” is that it’s only been in the last decade or so that some Orthodox women have been blunt enough to voice their frustration.

Women in general are conditioned to be sweet. There is nothing more unappealing than a harpy – a nagging, sour, unhappy woman with a chip on her shoulder and a frown on her face. It’s the antithesis of what a pious frum woman is supposed to be.

Therefore, the advent of women complaining about their limited roles in Jewish public life and ritual are not only aggravating because of the difficulties they pose in forcing solutions that will reconcile modern sensibilities with ancient halachah, but also because men don’t like dealing with angry women.

I think things have had to reach a crisis point, where women just can’t remain silent any longer, for us to finally say – this isn’t enough anymore. Too many Orthodox women have achieved great heights in medicine, law, politics, academia, the arts, etc. to be held to the old belief that women don’t have the necessary mental fortitude or understanding to interpret Judaism’s ancient holy texts reserved for the male mind.

To be fair, I think that when this frustration has bubbled up over the last few decades, women kept it sweet. They may have smiled and nodded through gritted teeth, but they kept it sweet. Those who couldn’t do the smile and nod, left for other denominations of Judaism that promised them equal participation and ownership of public worship spaces, if not the same authenticity.

Now women are holding their ground in the Orthodox sphere and refuse to be driven away to other unfamiliar venues. They want change and ownership in the Orthodox arena they were either born into or drawn into by the promise of said authenticity – change that can be gotten legitimately without violation of halacha, but with a change to long held mesorahs (traditions/customs) which is where much of the culturally bestowed misogyny often resides.

Women are finally being blunt and men don’t like it. The coy smiles are gone; so is the vague language. The cards are on the table and it’s time for everyone to show their hand.

Any woman married a long time knows that eventually, the veiled niceties of courtship must come to an end if you want to clearly communicate with your husband. You can get away with the photoshopped version of yourself when you are dating – but eventually he’s going to learn that you don’t wake up wearing lip gloss, your hair isn’t permanently enshrined in beachy waves, and you haven’t been granted the superpower of never having to pass gas or produce human waste.

I learned this lesson in one area after about 18 years of marriage (I’m married 22 years).

Ever since the beginning of our marriage, when my husband and I would go out to a public venue he was concerned about my purse. Men keep their wallets close at hand in their back pockets. The proximity of this small holder of money and important documents gives men a greater sense of control over preventing it from being stolen. Women, having the need to carry far more than currency and identifying information, carry larger bags held only by a hand, elbow, or shoulder strap. This leaves us vulnerable to either having the bag ripped from our clutches or accidentally leaving it behind after setting it down out of necessity, such as using the restroom.

I wasn’t used to having someone ask me about my purse all the time. Before I got married, I was the only one who cared. My husband, however, took it upon himself to always want to know the whereabouts of my purse, or remind me where it was at any given moment, in case I forgot. This was especially true when I went to the bathroom. Apparently, toilets eat purses. Or that’s what he seemed to believe, because whenever I would get up from a table at a restaurant and excuse myself to go to the bathroom, my husband would ask me why I was bringing my purse. In fact, he quite often suggested that I leave my purse at the table with him while going to the bathroom.

The fact that he couldn’t comprehend why I would need my purse to go to the bathroom is conclusive proof of Eve’s curse.

Anyway, for many years, I would just tell him that I needed my purse and continue on my way to the toilets. He would look after me with that exasperated expression reserved for parents with teenagers who realize that young Johnny will just have to make his own mistakes and learn the hard way.

This continued on for years, with him trying to convince me to leave my purse in his capable hands, while I entered “The Scorch.” Each time I would give a vague response about needing my bag, hoping that he would drop the matter, especially if we were in the company of friends. I even went so far as to ask him if he was aware of certain times of the month when I might need certain things in my purse. His head nodded yes, but his blank stare said no (if it matters, my husband is a physician, so the education level of the man doesn’t really play a role in them understanding vague wife speak).

Finally it got to the point where I knew I had to be blunt. Much as it seemed like it would be fun to finally take him up on his offer to hold my purse while I removed the necessary items needed for the re-plug – in fact he could wave me off as I marched towards the ladies room, blowing on a tampon like a party horn and sticking a pad over one eye like a jaunty pirate patch – I knew it was time for a brutally honest sit-down.

I explained to him about periods. I educated him about hemorrhaging and overflow. I told him about telltale clothing stains that happen when you don’t change feminine hygiene products often enough. I informed him of the necessity for women to carry tiny versions of a CVS pharmacy in their purses every month. I explained to him that this was why I needed to carry my purse into the bathroom with me, despite the risk of theft and germ exposure to the rich Corinthian leather. Oh, that and sometimes I just need to reapply my lip gloss.

In any event, it worked. I could see the realization dawning in his eyes as I explained in graphic detail how a woman’s purse is her monthly M.A.S.H. unit. Public restrooms are the battlefield, and our purses hold our weapons. He got it.

Well, the leaders in the Orthodox community are finally getting that talk that women have been avoiding for so long. The men don’t like it, but they get it. Unlike my husband, it might not change their actions. They might still insist on loudly asking why we are taking our purses to the bathroom during a large family dinner at Carlos and Gabby’s, but this time the asking is truly on them. We’ve explained the reasons. Nuff said.

Letting men take the wheel

Just as there are strong efforts today to change the mesorah of strict gender roles in Orthodox society, so there are strong efforts to resist such changes. Some of the strongest opponents of opening up educational and leadership opportunities for women in Orthodoxy are women in Orthodoxy.

The question is why? Why would any intelligent, strong, and independent thinking woman fight for the right to live by a set of both opportunities and restrictions that are solely determined by her gender?

After all, other Jewish women have been defying such gender restrictions for more than 30 years. According to ejewishphilanthropy.com:

To date, more than 350 women have become rabbis in the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative branches of American Judaism.

Last month, the Conservative movement celebrated 30 years since the May ordination of the first Conservative woman rabbi, Rabbi Amy Eilberg. She was ordained in 1985 by the Jewish Theological Seminary. Since then, Conservative women leaders have revolutionized the field.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, says three main contributions of Conservative women rabbis on the Conservative movement are in the realms of ritual, scholarship and leadership.

One might wonder why any woman wanting to rediscover her Jewish roots or convert to Judaism would ever consider joining the Orthodox denomination, when so many more opportunities for women exist within the other realms. However, according to RCA statistics, women make up 78% of Orthodox conversions. I was unable to find statistics on how many women vs. men become baal teshuvahs, but my guess is that women make up a larger number in that arena as well.

Tradition in a Rootless World by Lynn Davidman is an interesting portrayal of women who decide to eschew secular society to live a life adhering to traditional Orthodox female roles. While the RCA survey states that 80% of converts cite “spiritual-intellectual search” as their reason for converting, the women in Davidman’s book portray a slightly deeper picture of why women might wish to return to, or join, the Orthodox fold. The main reason – they come for the men. Or rather, they come for the promise of stable marriages and children; something that their relationships with secular men have not offered.

Yes, of course many women and men venture into Orthodoxy primarily to quench a spiritual thirst. However, it doesn’t surprise me that 80% of all converts tell their rabbinic sponsors that their reasoning for wanting to become an Orthodox Jew is to fulfill a spiritual and intellectual search. I’m betting that if a potential convert told their rabbi that their primary reason for wanting to become Jewish was because they heard that Jewish guys make the best husbands, they would be promptly dismissed as a candidate. Since baal teshuvahs don’t have to undergo a screening process to argue why they want to become frum, it’s assumed that their main reason is for spiritual meaning. However, the social aspect is quite often an equal enticement.

Again, though, if it’s marrying a Jewish man that women are after, why turn to Orthodoxy? Aren’t there plenty of available Jewish men to choose from in the liberal segments of Judaism? Apparently not. A 2011 Slate article asked, “Jewish men on the decline: is Judaism becoming too female-centric?” The article said that while laudatory advancements for women have been made in egalitarian sectors of Judaism, it has come at the expense of male retention:

In 2008, Brandeis professor Sylvia Barack Fishman coauthored a monograph, Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent, based on survey data and her own interviews. On a range of metrics, she found Jewish men to be less invested in their religious identity and less active in synagogue life than Jewish women. Women typically wish to marry within the tribe and raise Jewish children, while men often expressed hostility toward Jewish women and religion generally. Fishman declared this disparity a “crisis……

According to surveys and extensive anecdotal evidence, women do seem to be significantly more involved in the laity. Rabbis report that men are scarce in pews and adult education classes, and boys are known to flee after their bar mitzvahs. The North American Federation of Temple Youth consists of 59 percent girls and 41 percent boys…..

Since 2004, at the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College, women have outnumbered men every year but one, usually by a substantial margin. (This year, for example, 25 women and 10 men graduated.) For cantors, the ratios have typically been even more skewed. Fishman and others worry that as boys see fewer role models, synagogue will increasingly be seen as a female space. This concern points to an unsavory reality: While women often clamor to participate in male-dominated institutions, female-dominated institutions are more likely to drive males away.

The bottom line is that Orthodoxy manages to retain the involvement of men because it excludes women from public ritual life. The synagogue is a boy’s club, and that’s exactly why men like it. Even in the secular world men seek out male only spaces to socialize with other men sans wives and girlfriends. Whether it’s a bowling league, a softball team, a fraternity, a shriners club, or any number of other men’s societies – men like to have a place to group together in a pack without women.

For Orthodox guys, those places are the shul and the beis medrash. Yes, women are allowed in synagogue – but only behind a large screen where they can’t be seen or heard. For all practical purposes during services, the men can function as if women aren’t there. Also, let’s face it, most Orthodox women only go to shul on Shabbos and Yom Tov, so the majority of the time, the men have the synagogue to themselves.

This exclusive right over Jewish ritual and public places of worship and study give men a sense of ownership and entitlement over their own Judaism and the Jewish community. They are the voice of the Jewish people. If we take away that exclusivity and try and make it 50/50 between men and women, men lose interest in the entire enterprise. This dynamic seems to be playing out in other Jewish denominations where there are more young women invested in Jewish life, ritual, education, and leadership than there are young men.

Even though in the secular world it’s old school to want to settle down to marriage and babies in your twenties or even early thirties, many women still want those things. Maybe it’s a nostalgic longing for the throwback times of our grandparents or even parents, or possibly even just a longing for the security of a committed relationship that many men seem unwilling to agree to, but one thing liberal women looking for commitment can’t argue with is that Orthodox men are open to settling down in a way their secular counterparts aren’t.

When I was dating in college in the 1990’s (around the same time Tradition in a Rootless World was published) the concept of commitment in your early 20s was already dead in the secular world. If I went on a first date with a man and started talking about life goals, engagement timetables, weddings, marriage, or how many kids I hoped to have the man would label me a psycho and make an excuse to high tail it out of there.   There is even a romantic comedy called “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” that exaggerates mistakes women make that scare men away, such as presenting a new beau with a photo album of merged baby pictures depicting how your future children will look:

10 days

Contrast this with the shidduch date, which assumes that both parties are there to assess whether the date will ultimately end in wedded bliss 3-4 months down the line. It would be unusual for the conversation on such a date not to veer into the territory of children, what schools you would send them to, where you see yourself living, how soon to get engaged, how soon to get married, etc..

When I started dating my husband, it was a refreshing change from the other secular Jewish men I had dated who made it clear they were not ready to settle down and were just having fun until some unknown time in the future after they finished school, were working for a few years, and had sufficiently dated enough women to be sure they were marrying the right one. My husband, like most of his friends, wasn’t looking for a girlfriend as much as he was looking for a wife. Contrary to being scared of commitment, Orthodox men are taught that the entire purpose of dating is to find a woman for commitment. This is an attractive prospect for women who seek such an attachment.

So attractive, that giving up the autonomy you have as a non-Orthodox person in exchange for the husband and children you desire is a fair exchange. If you never planned on being a rabbi, or a cantor, or if the main lure of Orthodox culture was family and stability and not praying with a minyan three times a day, what are you sacrificing? Not every woman (or man) chooses spirituality/religion as her number one priority in life. For women, it’s even easier than it is for men to put other things (like marriage, children, career, relationships) above religion as a priority.  We don’t have the same restrictions on our time or interests in the name of bittul Torah.

Since two of the top priorities a woman is expected to have is being a wife and mother, a woman can still feel a sense of religious integrity if she joins the Orthodox movement with those goals playing a prominent role in her decision.

If staving off male defection in the Orthodox community means women continuing to ride in the passenger seat, while men take the wheel in religious leadership, it’s a sacrifice most women are ready to make.

Why do women dance at weddings, but not on Simchat Torah?

kallah

It is a question my nineteen year old son brought up over Yom Tov, and my husband had a poignant answer.

At a wedding, the women dance around the bride.  The kallah is the focal point and women dance both to bring her joy and also to express their own joy in sharing her simcha.  When the bride stops dancing, typically, the women also take a break from the dancing until the bride returns to the floor.

On Simchat Torah, the Sefer Torah represents the kallah (for the men it is akin to the chasson/groom).  We dance with the precious Torah scrolls in celebration and reverence of their service as the foundation of the Jewish people, just as the bride represents the foundation of the Jewish home.  If she isn’t there to make it possible to perform the mitzvah of m’sameach ha’kallah, the women feel no purpose in dancing.