Friday, March 04, 2016

Barefoot, Pregnant, and in the Kitchen

Agudah Board of  Trustees at the National Mission to Washington
While the title of this post is a punch-line to a misogynistic joke about what a woman’s place should be - it is not that far off from how women are to be seen in some segments of Orthodoxy.

This is not to say that women are mistreated in those segments. Nor does it mean to say that these women do not prefer having that role. In the ideal, they view the role of a Jewish woman as responsible for raising children, and taking care of the home.

The reality of course is that few women even in those communities limit themselves to that. In the non Chasidic Yeshiva world, women are not only responsible for the aforementioned tasks, they are often the breadwinners too. They not only cook and clean, and take care of the children, they work – often putting in more time than the typical 8 hour day. All while their husbands spend long days in the Beis Hamedrash toiling over a section in the Gemarah.

Women in the Chasidic world are out in the workplace as well. While Chasidim do work - the vast majority of them are undereducated (except in Torah studies) and can only find menial low paying jobs. Considering that a family of 10 children is fairly common, a low paying job will not suffice even if they are as frugal as possible. The women in that world therefore work too.

The point here is that women are as out in the world today as men in virtually every segment of Orthodox Judaism.  The idea of women staying home and out of sight is simply not the reality.

It still however remains the ideal. Kevuda Bas Melech Penima – Jewish women are to be seen as royalty and their honor is on the inside. Although I interpret that to mean a Jewish woman’s true honor is internal (via her midos - personal character), it is more often interpreted to mean that she should be modest – to be a private person and stay out of the public eye as much as possible.

However, in light of the reality of women being out in the world, is the latter interpretation even relevant anymore? There was a time that women were not seen in public very much. They stayed home. Men would work. They were the breadwinners. But that is rarely the case today. In fact even in cases where women do not work, they become involved in a variety of activities outside the home – with the full approval of their rabbis  no matter how Charedi.  There are Chesed projects, involvement with their children’s  school via a PTA, and involvement with various other pursuits that take them out of the home.

In short, there has been a huge paradigm shift since the days where women stayed home - rarely leaving the house. This shift did not happen yesterday. When it was the case, women were so rarely seen in public, that even sitting together with their husbands at a wedding feast was considered immodest. So much so, that Halacha forbade saying a common introductory phrase to the grace after meals of ‘Shehasimcha Bimono (….the joyous event is in God’s abode) because it was considered immodest for men and women to sit together and therefore not worthy of being in God’s abode. But many generations ago, Poskim started permitting that phrase to be said because it was no longer considered immodest for men and women to sit together. Women no longer stayed home all the time. They were a common sight in the public eye.

There are many that insist on maintaining the old paradigm of separating the sexes as much as possible. And in some cases they go to great lengths to separate men from women. Although it is the right of any segment to behave as they wish, that right ends at someone else’s door. And that is the source of a lot of animosity between some of the more extremist Charedim and other Orthodox Jews. Which has played out in a number of ugly ways, ranging from beating up women who sit down in the men’s section of a sex-segregated bus in Israel, to photo-shopping images of women out of pictures in Charedi publications.

The latest such occurrence involves a picture posted on Agudah’s website (I know they don’t really have a website – but they do.) It was a picture of a group of Agudah activists that were in Washington DC to mark the 55th anniversary of their late leader, Rabbi Moshe Sherrer’s ‘historic testimony regarding government assistance to religious school communities’.

Interestingly, women were included in that picture. But Hamodia does not publish pictures of women. So Agudah, knowing that some publications won’t publish pictures with women in them took another one without the women in it. That is the picture Hamodia published. As much as I applaud Agudah for publishing the picture with the women in it, I’m sorry that they felt the need to honor a stringency they do not believe in themselves.

One might say it was nice of them to accommodate those to their right. But by doing so they also participated in a wrong. It is unfair to the women in the picture to have erased them from this event as though they weren’t even there. But even if the women in that picture didn’t object to it, it is an insult to women in general to be erased out of the public eye when they clearly have no real problem with it themselves. As evidenced by the fact that they published an identical picture with the women in it on their website.

Accommodating them in this grants legitimacy to a concept of modesty that no longer exists. A modesty that can cause all kind of problems and make Jews look primitive. In a world where men and women are out in the public square all the time it is insulting to photo-shop women out of a picture before it is published and explain it as a requirement of modesty. It is one thing to stand up for Halacha – even if it would insult modern sensibilities. That is a mandate for a Jew. One does not give up Shabbos  - even if it would make us look bad. But to stand up for a principle based on circumstances that no longer exist and haven’t for many years is in my view foolish and even harmful.

If you want to separate men and women at a Kiddush in your Shul on Shabbos… separate away. But if you are going to try to perpetuate archaic ideas about modesty when it involves people outside of your community, it should not be done. And those that wish to do so ought to be discouraged in any way they can.

Agudah’s policy of accommodating those to their right in this case was therefore a two sided coin. In my humble opinion, instead of accommodating them, they should have tried to impress upon them the problems such stringencies can generate and told them to if they did not want to use the picture with women in it, they should not use any picture at all.