Monday, November 26, 2007

What Do I Tell My Daughter?

M, a reader of this blog, wrote me recently with some stimulating questions. I'm copying part of her e-mail with her permission.

"And now I am raising my daughter and am not sure that a Conservative shul is what I need. Yet I am so reluctant to give up egalitarianism because it just feels right, and because I hate to start telling my daughter that she can't do x, y and z."
I struggle with this as well. Would I want to raise a girl to not be allowed to do all that her brothers can? I'm a feminist – how could I deny equal opportunity to my daughter?

I would like to suggest to M that it is entirely possible that her daughter will never ask her why she can't do x, y, or z. Many Orthodox women and girls are perfectly content with their roles. Some women want equality at work but don't see a need for it within Judaism. There are children who avoid the spotlight – such girls may even be relieved not to have to perform religiously in public. Others are happy to be the center of attention, but just don't feel drawn to public religious roles. Daughters like these may never ask, "but why can't I ..."

But is this even something to hope for? Would we want our daughers to grow up with a limited vision of what they can do? Should we really aim to have our girls accept their role unquestioningly? Is it best to keep their expectations low? And do we have good answers ready if they do challenge us?

As I pondered this question, I realized that I routinely impose limitations on my children without a second thought. When my children ask why we don't have a television, I don't hesitate to explain my reasons to them. When my children ask why we walk upstairs on Shabbat when our next door neighbor takes the elevator, I readily explain that we are Shabbat observant. And I don't feel defensive or apologetic for making them wait to eat dairy if they have had meat. I am confident in these decisions and enforce them as a matter of course. But we are uncomfortable telling our daughters that they can't take on certain roles because we ourselves are not so sure that it's right.

If we believed wholeheartedly that separate roles are beneficial or mandated by God, we would explain this limitation just as we explain every other limitation. The problem is that we are unconvinced. I think that the real question is not "what do I tell my daughter", but rather "what do I tell myself?" We would have to feel whole about constraining ourselves to the female role before we could comfortably impose it on our daughters.

We need to be pretty sure that the Orthodox female role offers advantages that outweigh any disadvantages. The standard explanation is that men and women are equal in their ability to get close to God. This claim seems to be as follows: God created men and women different spiritually and emotionally as well as physically. These differences mean that they should have different roles and different Mitzvot, forever. This much I could maybe accept. The problem is that the different roles and different Mitzvot lead in practice to differences in status and power. This is hard for me to swallow.

A friend suggested an alternative argument: The system now is far from perfect. It does meet the needs of some women, but others feel dissatisfied. However, for women and for the Jewish people, it's better than the alternative. The Jewish people as a whole does better to ignore the needs of the minority of women who are dissatisfied. Judaism is not about our individual fulfillment, so much as it's about fulfilling our responsibilities to perpetuate the Jewish people and our unique role among the nations. This argument at least is honest, and it has some potential.

When we focus on "what do I get out of Judaism?" we may end up neglecting our responsibilities. In parenting, we focus on our responsibility to our children, not on our individual fulfillment. Paradoxically, we often find fulfillment and growth through the daily routine of doing everything we have to do for our children, even when we don't feel like it. Perhaps Judaism is similar – we may find fulfillment and growth through the daily routine of doing Mitzvot, even when we're not in the mood. So even if the system has glaring problems, we stick with it, do what we're required to do, and work within it to fix things.

Or as M put it,
"Among egal congregations, in my experience, there is less emphasis/acceptance of the idea of religious *obligation*. Leading davening, getting aliyot, etc. are looked at primarily as honors or privileges, not obligations. What has been lost is the idea that eligibility for the privilege only flows from accepting the obligation. I believe that was the original intent of the Conservative movement's decision to ordain women. If the women accepted upon themselves extra mitzvot, then they should be entitled to the same privileges granted to men who were similarly obligated. But, in practice, I don't think this was ever enforced. So now we have a lot of congregations where men and women feel equally not obligated and are equally eligible for special honors. Is this progress?"

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Modest or Something Else?

Buying clothes for my daughter can be challenging. Fashion today dictates clothes that are revealing and tight, even for little girls. When Y was younger, I used to buy her clothes that were several sizes larger than her true size, in order to get clothes that fit properly. As she got older, finding her clothes got even harder. So when my friend C told me that her daughters heard from a friend that there were nice shirts available for reasonable prices at a well known clothing chain, I decided to take a look.

This clothing chain is known for its fashionable labels, and their clothes are usually outside our budget. Even the murals on their walls have sometimes been so suggestive as to leave me embarassed . Still, if there was a possibility of finding attractive shirts, it seemed worthwhile to check it out.

I should have known better.

At the store I looked around a bit but didn't see anything like the shirts C had described. I tried to explain to the saleswoman what I wanted: an attractive shirt for my daughter, not at all tight. She held up a shirt for me to examine. It was completely wrong – much too tight and revealing. "No," I tried again, "I'm looking for something ... nicer." She showed me another shirt, fancier than the first but no more appropriate. I indicated that it wouldn't do, and she showed me several more. Each was more suggestive than the one before. Finally, I blurted out, "this is for a religious girl!"

"Oh!" she replied, "why didn't you tell me?" She then showed me one or two other shirts which would have been acceptable had they not been so expensive. I thanked her and left the store.

It took me a few hours to realize the answer to her question. Why hadn't I told her that the shirts were for a religious girl? Because I wouldn't have dressed my daugher in those clothes if we didn't observe any Mitzvot at all! It seemed so unfair. Why did secular girls "have to" dress in ways that exposed their bodies and suggested sex? What, only religious girls have the right to cover themselves adequately? For me it wasn't a religious issue, just one of personal dignity.

I've never been comfortable with the word Tzniut. I probably have higher Tzniut standards than most of the mothers in my daughter's class, but I never use the word "Tzanua" or "modest". Clothes are "appropriate", "loose enough", or "long enough", but never "modest" or "Tzanua". Why not?

A post by MotherInIsrael on Tzniut got me thinking about this again. Somehow, Tzniut always seems to me a matter of following externally-imposed rules, some of which make little sense to me. "Appropriate" clothes, on the other hand, cover the body without clinging to it. Somehow skirts are considered modest, although I frequently see women's underwear and upper thighs when they wear even long skirts. Of course this doesn't happen with loose pants, which I consider "appropriate" if not "modest". I often see women who wouldn't consider exposing their elbows, wear tight long sleeve shirts. The rules don't seem to be about personal dignity. At best they are a way of identifying which religious community a women is part of. At worst I feel like other people want to dictate to me what I should wear. I want no part of that.

Many books and articles about Tzniut claim that it is about personal dignity. But focusing on covering as much as possible doesn't seem to shift other people's focus to a woman's inner personality as the books and articles promise. It all seems to be about what other people think of her, not what she thinks of herself. When too much emphasis is placed on Tzniut rules, it seems to me to have the opposite of the intended effect: women get judged based on small details of their outside appearance, rather than on their personality or inner qualities. It seems to emphasize the exterior, rather than the interior.

Still, why should "modest" be "their" word only, and not mine? Can I use it to mean what I want it to mean or will I just be misunderstood? Is it time for me to reclaim the word "Tzanua"?

Friday, October 12, 2007

What's Your Passion

I sat in my egalitarian shul this morning and reflected on my simultaneous pull toward Orthodoxy and toward equality. I have been taking on new Mitzvot and experimenting with new ideas and an Orthodox worldview. I even davened at an Orthodox shul a few weeks ago, and will probably try out another in the coming weeks. I was hoping to be able to get past my lifelong distaste for sitting on the less participatory side of a Mechitzah. But I didn't. I just felt irrelevant and pretty uninspired.

There are things that bother me in my own shul, mostly having to do with a more casual attitude toward observance of Mitzvot than I would like to have in my community. But the equality that we experience there between men and women seems so natural and so right. Men and women participate equally in every aspect of the service and make it all happen. I read Torah, lead davening, and serve as Gabba'it. I very much appreciate this opportunity, and I like seeing both sexes make the public prayers happen. At Orthodox shuls, it just feels unnatural to me that only the men participate publicly.

But because there *are* things that bother me at my egalitarian shul, I have been considering an alternative worldview: that men and women should have separate roles, that public prayer is the proper role for men, and that private holy home-tending is the proper role for women. It can be easier to consider accepting this worldview when I'm not faced with actually executing it in shul! Still, if I had to choose one role over the other, there's no question – I would choose being the one to primarily care for my family, rather than having the same role as men have traditionally had in shul.

A friend has been easing her way back into the workplace as her children have gotten older. Recently she accepted a job perfectly suited to her talents and interests. However, it demands more time away from home than she has ever had, and she finds it difficult to be away from her children so long. They are thriving and so is she, but she misses being with them. I had had a similar experience when my older children were born – I missed them when I was at work, and felt so torn about combining mothering and employment. Eventually, I stopped working and I have been a full time mother for nine years. It struck my friend and me, that our husbands – both devoted fathers – just didn’t feel divided about working and parenting the way we did or do. They work outside the home and they don't feel like they should be home with their children or caring for them. Family – for better or for worse -- does seem to be more of a passion for women than for men. And fathers seem more at peace with their outside role than mothers do. So maybe the Orthodox worldview, with its strict role divisions, simply recognizes this reality and builds on it. I love reading Torah and leading davening – but my passion is my family. That is where I want to put most of my time, thought, and energy. If I am to pursue the role that I am passionate about, it would be the traditional role of wife and mother.

But is it necessary to choose? Why can't I pursue mothering and also take fulfillment in public roles in shul? Why does being female have to mean being irrelevant in shul, at least Orthodox ones? And do men really have a passion for public prayer the way women have for mothering? Somehow, it seems unlikely.

I've heard the explanation that men are obligated in public prayer because they need the spiritual development that it offers (and that women don’t need to develop spiritually in that direction). For example, men need opportunities to bond in a healthy way with other men. Or that men will forget that they're Jews with obligations, so they need these thrice-daily reminders. Or even that all this prayer keeps men too busy to get into trouble. Or as one man plaintively asked, if women have the home and the synagogue, what's left for the men? How can they connect to God and to other Jews? It has been suggested that if women demand and get an equal place in the synagogue, men will be less interested in pursuing public prayer. They don't want to compete with women; they want women to love them and accept them and admire them. Are they interested in public prayer only as long as they can keep it pretty much a private men's club? I've also heard the suggestion that men are incapable of keeping their minds on prayer when women are visible or audible, so women need to be invisible and inaudible to the men. None of these explanations is terribly complimentary to men! Are they true nonetheless? Is there some other explanation I've missed?

There is a Kabbalistic teaching that when God created the universe, he (or she) had to shrink himself to make room for the universe. This process is called Tzimtzum. A wise mother I know once commented that parents do something very similar as their children grow, to make room for their children's growth. Perhaps women need to do something similar for men. Women are amazingly capable. We have proven that we can do anything and do it well – and do many things simultaneously. Maybe women need to do a Tzimtzum of our own to make room for men's growth. If women are created with a passion for nurturing, then this gives us a way to perform Tzimtzum – we give something to men that means a little less to us than our passion does.

Maybe the Tzimtzum is even a necessary part of our own growth in some way. For example, not having public prayer roles to focus on could stimulate us to focus more on our holy family role. Women are such multitaskers that we often find it difficult to concentrate solely on what we are doing for our families. Many mothers have observed that even when they are giving attention to a child they have to work hard to not also give attention to the 1001 other things that are clamoring for our attention. By eliminating one major temptation, we set the stage for performing our biggest task – our passion – with greater concentration and creativity. Men get distracted by women, so they are obligated to pray separately from women. Women get distracted by other activities and obligations, so our role tends to minimize the particular source of distraction provided by actively participating in public prayer.

I feek this explanation is only a start. If you can add additional insights, please share them!

Liberating Limitations

We humans are a funny species. We value freedom and automnomy at the same time as we crave security and boundaries.

I grew up observing Shabbat. I chose to attend a tiny college in New York City in which I was the only observant Jew, and I found ways to keep Shabbat as much as I could. I was able to light candles and to avoid violating Shabbat. I suppose it must have seemed quite restrictive to someone unused to Shabbat observance, and one day I found myself surprised by the implied negativity in a non-Jewish student's comments about Shabbat. "You make it sound like it's some kind of punishment," I answered. "Well, isn't it?" he asked. "No! It's the most relaxing day of the week!" I was frustrated at my inability to explain the Jewish perspective on our weekly day of rest. I had internalized the value of Shabbat, but I could appreciate that it would be counter-intuitive to someone unfamiliar with the practice. Understanding the beauty and health of Shabbat requires someone to adopt a different mindset than our production-oriented, instant-gratification society promotes. And yet, I knew that the limitations of Shabbat were what produced the wonderful weekly liberation that it offers us. It seemed a paradox – how can limitations be liberating? – but I knew from experience that it was true.

Over the next twenty years I occasionally wondered if this sort of paradox might apply in the area of gender roles within Judaism as well. The woman's role in Orthodoxy always seemed to me to be inferior to the man's role, and it seemed to earn less respect in their community too. Occasional visits to Orthodox friends and relatives for Shabbat and Chagim only reinforced this notion. Orthodox women seemed largely content with their position, but it seemed unappealing to me. I wanted to read Torah, lead Tefillot, and be part of a minyan, not cover my hair, watch what I wear, and leave fun and interesting Mitzvot to the men. I cringed when people put down women or made anti-female jokes. This just didn't happen in egalitarian circles.

And yet, I was intellectually honest enough to wonder if the limited woman's role might be liberating for Orthodox women in the same way as the limitations of Shabbat liberated me. Was the contentment and even fulfillment of so many Orthodox women really nothing more than internalized oppression? Or was this something that I couldn’t understand without experiencing it for a while? Did the exemption from some Mitzvot curtail women's development, as I had thought? Or did it free them up to develop in even more significant ways? I don't have answers to these questions, but one thing is clear to me. Just as my fellow student would have needed a different mindset to understand Shabbat, I probably need a different mindset to understand Orthodox gender roles. Grasping this other mindset isn't easy. What assumptions underlie it? Here is my attempt to begin:

1. Women and men are fundamentally different – not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. Intellectually different too?

2. Women and men therefore have different needs, desires and passions.

3. Therefore, women and men can best meet these needs in different ways.

4. Therefore, people who don't have what the other sex has aren't missing much. What they have is much more worthwhile for them.

I would very much welcome comments about these assumptions. Are there some I've missed? Do they need correction?

The problem for me in accepting these assumptions is that they don't match my personal experience. I get so much out of acting in the traditionally masculine sphere. Giving that up would feel like a huge loss. I don't like feeling invisible and I like feeling part of things at shul, even when I'm not actively participating. When I can't see or hear the "action" from the other side of the Mechitza, I do feel discouraged and alienated. Is there a different perspective on this that can help me feel differently? I've read and read on BT sites, but haven't yet found anything that really addresses this problem.

Where is the truth? If I can understand the Orthodox mindset, will my dissatisfaction with the limitations of the woman's role disappear? Or is Orthodoxy something that satisfies only some women, leaving others unfulfilled? Could I – would I -- be happy as an Orthodox woman? How long a trial period would I need to give it?

Please, comment away.

Vicarious identity

You sometimes learn more about yourself from what you don't feel.

Several months ago relatives invited us to a Bat Mitzvah celebration for their youngest on their (secular) Kibbutz. I had recently started experimenting off-and-on with wearing a bandanna as headcovering, and I decided I would wear it to the Bat Mitzvah. When we arrived, our hostess told us that she had arranged Kosher food for us and for the few other guests who kept Kosher. She had asked a friend who lives on a nearby Haredi Moshav to prepare the food. We ended up sitting with this friend at the dinner, to make it easier to share the nice food she brought.

I appreciated that our hostess looked after us in this way and that her friend was willing to prepare so much food for the people who keep Kosher. I enjoyed chatting with her and with some women at the table next to us. We were glad to be able to offer her a ride home, although it took some accommodating to make it work.

Afterwards, I realized – I had felt comfortable, and non-defensive. I wouldn’t even have realized that I usually feel defensive, until I had this experience. Ordinarily I might have made religious references or felt judged by our table mate because I didn't wear Kisui Rosh. It was as though I used to have to say "hey, I'm religious too!" When I wore Kisui Rosh, I didn’t have to do that. I was automatically identifiable as a religious married woman. I liked that! I felt freed to focus on being sociable, rather than on my own discomfort.

It was always important to me for some reason that people know that we were observant. If I was with my sons, I could automatically be tagged as religious, since they wear Kippot. But I never felt right about being vicariously identified as religious. Experiencing Mitzvot vicariously has never appealed to me. I love leading prayer services and reading Torah. I am bothered when I am in situations in which I'm barred from full participation and have to experience a Mitzvah through men. But my public religious identity was always established vicariously, through my sons or occasionally my husband. Now I identify myself wherever I go, and it feels good. If my sons wear baseball caps to keep the Israeli sun off their faces, it's ok. I don't need them anymore to show that we are a religious family. I can take care of that myself.

It surprised me, but wearing Kisui Rosh has been empowering in this way.

Postscript from several weeks later: My neighbor died several days ago, and some of us neighbors organized to make meals for the Shiva. Since the daughter is very frum, we consulted with her as to her Kashrut requirements. She said that as long as the people cooking keep a Kosher home, then she will eat food prepared from Badatz ingredients. I was happy to be able to help in this way, and it pleased me to know that she would not be nervous about my home's Kashrut. On the one hand, my home is no more or less Kosher than it was when I didn’t cover my hair. It seems silly to be focused on the outer symbol that – in my case, anyway – doesn't indicate anything about our Kashrut. But on the other hand, I certainly don't want someone in Aveilut to be worrying about the Kashrut of the food provided to them.

It was a new experience for me, having someone who doesn't know me understand that my kitchen is Kosher. Ordinarily I might have felt defensive when cooking for someone frum or bringing a potluck to a gathering with frum people, etc. I would wonder if they trusted my Kashrut and feel irritated if they didn't. I was so used to feeling defensive that I didn't even notice I felt that way. It felt liberating to *not* feel that defensiveness. I liked that feeling.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Defined Roles

My husband and I have been blessed with five children. Like many siblings, they fight with each other. Sometimes it even seems that they'll fight over anything. But there are actually a few things they never fight over. How did we achieve this? What things could they possibly manage to not fight over?

Everyone in the family has an assigned seat in our van and at our table. When we get into the car, everyone knows where to sit. (Ok, sometimes my husband and I have to decide who sits in the driver's seat). At the table, too, everyone sits in their regular spot. We don’t waste time negotiating over who gets to sit where each time, or have to find creative solutions when everyone is hungry. We just take our seats. Each of the children also has their own color for their cup, cereal bowl, soup bowl, and plate which helps eliminate some fighting. It started as a way to avoid constant cup-washing. Before we color-coded, the kids took a new cup each time they drank during the day since they had no way to know which cup had their germs or anyone else's. We've seen other benefits too, though. We always know who has cleared their place after a meal – and who needs a reminder!

I reflected on this recently. Fixed seating and fixed color-coding makes our household run more smoothly, peacefully, and efficiently. Perhaps fixed gender-roles function in a similar way in Judaism? Maybe having men's mitzvot and women's mitzvot saves time and energy by not having to decide all the time who "gets to" or "has to" do what.

Mind you, the fixed seating plan doesn't always seem fair to everyone. Why do the two oldest children always get to sit on either side of their father? For that matter, is it fair that I always sit between the two youngest children and miss out on conversation because I have to be focused on their needs? Not really. My big boys who sit in the back seat of the van have to shout to allow me to hear them in front, and their sister gets tired of having to lean forward all the time to allow them to get in and out of the car. Sometimes they (and I) would like to switch their positions and try out another seating plan. But we generally don't, because it simplifies things so much not to have to rethink the configuration each time we sit down to eat or get in the car.

Actually, we did try it once. My two oldest children ate Shabbat lunch at the home of friends one week. The youngest children asked to sit next to their father for a change, since they never get to. This seemed like a great opportunity, so we let them. Why not?

I'll tell you why not. The following week it took forever to sit down to eat. Suddenly our younger children's usual places weren't good enough. They had had a taste of a "better" seat and wanted more. Such fighting over something seemingly trivial! What a waste of time and energy. After that, I instituted a rule: everyone sits in their own seat, even when more attractive seats are available. The only time we move people around is to make guests more comfortable. No, it's not fair. But it works.

I see a similar phenomenon sometimes with fixed gender roles in Judaism – it doesn't always seem fair, but it does seem to work. Families with traditional gender roles don't have to figure out who will do what. Who will go to shul early to help make minyan? Who will stay home to watch the kids or interrupt their own davening to take care of restless children? Who makes Kiddush this time? Who takes care of the homemaking? Who takes on public roles at shul? How much time and energy gets wasted figuring these questions out? Simply put, the families with traditional gender roles seem, on average, to do a better job transmitting Judaism to their children. On an assembly line each worker specializes in one part of the manufacturing process. This increases production and efficiency. Similarly, it seems that families with traditional gender roles have higher "Jewish production". Everyone knows what to expect and what their responsibilities are. The men are motivated to rise to the occasion and the women don't wear themselves out trying to do it all.

So is this then the way to go? Should I attend to women's mitzvot and leave "men's mitzvot" for my husband? Will I achieve the goals I want – increasing family harmony and raising the level of Jewish content in our family? What price would I pay? I really don't know.

I have been egalitarian almost my whole life. I love reading Torah, leading Tefillot, and participating actively. Would I be happier overall if I didn't participate in this way? I'm not so sure. The fixed gender roles often seem to me to be "one size fits all" – but human being are so much more complex. I know a woman who was content to take the back seat to her husband the rabbi. When he died, however, she began attending daily minyan at their Conservative shul to say Kaddish for him. There she found the right outlet for her talents and Jewish commitment. I can't think of any other outlet that would have suited her better – more likely, she would have been a less fulfilled person and the Jewish world the poorer for it. Had she been in an Orthodox shul, she would never have discovered or developed that aspect of herself. What a shame that would have been. The traditional role for women more or less suited her for part of her life, but not for all of it. The mitzvot are often described as a path for our own spiritual and moral development. It just doesn't make sense to me that all women will develop best through the traditional roles. What about the women who don't fit that mold? What about women who want to act in the public sphere, not just vicariously experience things through the males in her life?

And what about other women, who don’t have anyone to fulfill the traditional man's role? Divorce, widowhood, or even a husband's lack of inclination or ability to fulfill a role can leave a hole that *someone* needs to fill. The traditional roles don't seem to work as well for these women either. Shouldn't Halacha take them into account??

Is there one right answer here or are there several? Is there a right answer for me in my family? What is it? This is the latest question I'm pondering. I'm interested to read your comments.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Who am I? I am married, a mother of five children, born in the U.S. and living in Israel.

Why square peg? I grew up observant, the daughter of a Conservative rabbi. I've always been a feminist, even before I knew the word. As an adult, I stayed observant and practiced Judaism in egalitarian communities, in which women and men take part equally in all aspects of the prayer services. Over the last several years I've felt like I don't really fit into any existing categories.

Why this blog? Recently I have begun questioning my assumptions and wondering if I should be Orthodox – and if so, what stripe. My parents, Jewish educators both, managed to imbue their children with their passion for Judaism. I feel that I have failed to convey my passion for Judaism to my children, and that I need to provide them with a stronger model of observing Mitzvot. I am wrestling with many questions, but here are three of the most basic:

1. How can I increase my chances of my children and grandchildren being Shomrei Mitzvot – and at what cost to fulfilling other values?

2. What is true? What does God want of us? How can I know?

3. What empirical evidence is available to answer question #2? What are the people like in different communities? Where do they have great passion for Judaism? Where are people happier, more mature and better people? Where can people best fulfill their potential? Where is there greater justice?

This blog is a record of some of my thoughts and questions as I search for answers. I am vitally interested in your comments and perspective.

Thank you!