Wednesday, February 05, 2014

What Do Women Want?

Now there’s a loaded question if I ever saw one. Has anyone ever asked, ‘What do men want’? Be that as it may, I think that as it pertains to Orthodox Judaism it is a legitimate question. But I would frame it a bit differently. From the perspective of Orthodoxy, what is it that should matter to a Jewish woman?

I have written about this issue in various ways many times – usually in the context of feminism. I have always maintained that what should matter to any Jew, man or woman, is doing the will of God. And God’s will is spelled out for us in Halacha. Which is of course based on Torah SheB’Ksav (scripture) and Torah SheBal Peh (orally transmitted Halacha as discussed and debated in the Talmud and organized in the Shulchan Aruch).

It is not about outside agendas. It is not even primarily about doing optional acts that personally makes us feel more holy.  It is about fulfilling the independent roles of both men and women as defined by Halacha. This of course does not mean we can’t enhance our service to God in permissible ways. But that is at best secondary. And at worst counterproductive if that enhancement is the result of influences and agendas that are outside of Halacha - and sometimes even counter to it.  What is important – as I said - is to fulfill the will of God.

The last time I wrote about this it was in the context of the recent publicity over a couple of young female students who chose to wear Tefillin during morning prayer services at their Modern Orthodox schools. I am not going to rehash the arguments against this I made there. But I believe it is instructive to read a brilliant piece of writing by Avital Chizhik who actually rejects the notion. I really think this young woman hits the nail on the head – and makes some of the same points I made far better than I did. This is not the first time I have discussed her writing. An earlier piece by her was also quite brilliant. But I think she outdid herself here.  

Ms. Chizhik correctly points out that women wearing Tefillin is hardly an important issue to most women across the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy:
(S)tep into a conversation in Flatbush, in Monsey, in Teaneck and the Five Towns and the rest of our Pale of Settlement – and people will blink at you: Women and tefillin (phylacteries)? Ah, yes; I saw some posts about that on Facebook. Weird, really…
The average Orthodox woman today is not preoccupied with fighting for ownership over her father’s and husband’s rituals. To imagine otherwise is at best sensationalist and at worst delusional.

This must be said for the sake of accuracy, lest readers imagine that all of us enlightened Orthodox specimens live in Riverdale, and that hordes of women in the community are now barricading rabbinical courthouses and demanding tefillin and prayer shawls. Ask the average American Orthodox woman if she would lay tefillin, if it were acceptable, and she will likely give you a blank look and laugh.
I completely agree. Which is why I say that it ought to be ignored when it happens.

So what is important to the Orthodox woman and what is not? The following are some excerpts from that essay where she takes to task some of the values of both the right and the left:  
Women here are worried about living in a world where family status is essential, definitive and fragile: where the unmarried, the childless and the divorced occupy a lower caste. Women who are denied divorces continue to waste away for years, waiting for freedom to remarry. Abuse in our community’s schools is taking painfully long to be investigated.
Life outside is demonized, out of fear of tainting our impressionable minds. Secular literature is effectively discouraged, even intensive Torah study is not popular. Ask a bookseller for help with a little sister’s birthday gift, and you’ll be directed to the cookbook section. Our children’s teachers and idols, even in the more modern-thinking schools, are bright-eyed seminary graduates high on religious fervor, overseen by rabbis who take a certain pleasure in granting disapproving smirks. Everything goyishe is therefore impure, everything modern smacks of galus – exile...
We are less worried about the formal motions of ritual, and more about the small things that make up our everyday, our minds. We are worried about sociocultural norms and pressures that define our present, and which we fear will define our children’s futures.
Here, one finds a disgruntled generation, too clever to be cheated any longer by poor reasoning, by superstition and obscurantism instead of actual faith. Our sole alternative? Ah, progressivism and its egalitarianism…  If, as some would have it, the so-called Haredi world is marred by excessive passion, the modern Orthodox community is often afflicted by endemic lassitude; and it can ill afford the diminution of spiritual enthusiasm.”
There is a silent majority here which steers clear of the very vocal minority… These are Orthodox women who are not interested in this fight... (T)here is an awkwardness about this progressivism that frum (extremely pious) women here quietly laugh at. They find the movement unsophisticated, not suave enough, not fluent in frum, its clothing too colorful, its cadence too militant, its ideas too democratic to survive in religious politics – and not a place that’s immersive enough to raise believing children in…

I venture to say that the silent majority would much rather strive than fight, neither interested in shrieking battle refrains nor in bringing some great establishment to its knees.

I have found my own phylacteries in the everyday, things before my eyes that constantly remind me of who I am and before whom I stand. This is inevitable, every time I dress modestly to leave the house, every time I utter a blessing over food and rush to pray by sunset, every time I turn a page in my notebook and write “with the help of God” in the top corner. Am I in need of further reminders? Yet another ritual that will risk losing meaning?
Want to know the burning problems that face Orthodox women? They lie less in halakha and more in social norms that have evolved from it, less in sets of phylacteries and more in simple-mindedness. Forgive me for the distasteful notion, but placing tefillin on my (female, light-headed) forehead will not offer redemption. It, and egalitarianism, seem like slapping a Band-Aid on an internal wound; it’s a solution equally preoccupied with the external, no different from the Haredi obsession with outside-ness and image.
What can I add besides a big ‘Wow’?! So... what do women really want? Read the full article here or here to find out.