This is another story from Yael, whose husband is supporting her through medical school, while she supports his career in finance.
We always loved substitute teachers. It meant a day of discussions and stories and the best part was that we would not be tested on anything. So I was pretty happy when one blistery winter morning, in which I showed up late to class, I discovered that our teacher was out. In front of the room stood a tall, blonde, and rather attractive woman with chiseled features who would be our substitute for the first morning period. The lines etched on her face made her look like the kind of woman who was very opinionated and I quickly saw that my instincts were right on target. I also learned later on that she was a “well-liked” teacher in a different local BY school.
Throughout high school, I had a habit of waking up as close to 9:00 am as possible and flying out the door with just enough time to slip into class at 8:59. This meant that I often didn’t have time to pop my lenses into my eyes before leaving my house, and so I would bring my lenses with a small bottle of lens solution with me to class. Then, ever so discreetly, I would slip my lenses into my eyes and none of my teachers seemed to mind.
But the substitute minded. She eyed me sharply as I was slipping my second lens in, cleared her throat, and said something like “put that away”. She was a tough one and the only person in my entire high school education who minded this little habit of mine. I was a little petulant after she told me off and I kind of spaced out, knowing we wouldn’t be tested on anything we were learning.
“You know, you should never let your husband take out the garbage,” Mrs. Substitute was saying.
My ears perked up and my newly-lensed eyes focused on Mrs. Sub.
“You know why?” Mrs. Sub was saying, “Because if you let your husband take out the garbage, then you… are the wife of a garbage man.”
Stunned silence in the classroom. This was enough to perturb even the most aidel, ehrliche, kollel-minded among us.
“But if you let your husband learn Torah undisturbed, then you (dramatic pause) are the wife of a ben-Torah. Don’t you want to be the wife of a ben-Torah, and not the wife of a garbage man??”
Even the girl who we all knew would be Chessed Head the next year looked uncomfortable now. It took a few more moments for the message to sink in before the entire class started to retaliate. We gave each other looks and then began raising our hands frantically in an attempt to make sense of what we just heard.
After some back and forth, Mrs. Sub added: “Well, my brother, when he was very newly married, called me up in a panic one day and told me that his wife just asked him to take out the garbage. ‘What should I do?? Should I take out the garbage?’“
She paused to smile. “I told him, don’t worry about it. Of course you can take out the garbage. L’maaseh, a wife may need help sometimes and of course the husband can pitch in. But the concept, the concept is still there.”
This wasn’t a new line. We were taught many “ideals” that were easy to challenge, like this one. The teacher would either grudgingly agree that we had a point but, “l’maaseh it isn’t possible to do because we are not on that level” or would cling to the notion that it was possible “if only we had enough mesirus nefesh/emunah/bitachon.” Either way, they had planted the seed of the idea, and now it would never quite leave us.
But today, Mrs. Sub also taught for me some very fundamental concepts that all Bais Yaakov girls learn, albeit usually more subtly:
1 – A woman is not her own person. She has no value on her own. She is a reflection of her husband (or father). Thus, if her husband is a garbage man, her value is as “the wife of a garbage man.” However, if a woman is a garbage woman, this doesn’t matter, so long as she is “the wife of a ben Torah.”
2 – What’s derogatory and demeaning for men is just business as usual for women. Because a woman’s goals, aspirations, and accomplishments don’t matter. Her true accomplishments are solely those of her husband. (This concept is central to today’s kollel system.) So taking out the garbage, scrubbing the toilets – it doesn’t matter how demeaning her work is as long as she does it to elevate her husband and help him learn Torah. That is her tafkid.
This is subtly and not so subtly taught in various ways with flowery metaphors and emotional stories. Man is the sun, woman is the moon. Chomer and tzura as explained by the Maharal. She takes the raw materials given by her husband and creates a home. How beautiful.
But strip off the poetry and you reveal the underlying idea that a woman is not meant to accomplish her own goals. Man and woman were not meant to be in a synergetic relationship. The man was meant to lead, accomplish, and direct while the woman “stood by his side”. And if she ever did accomplish something of her own, tznius dictated that she would keep it under hush and pretend like she never did anything.
This is explained in Rav Falk’s “Oz V’hadar” where he speaks about a well-known Rebetzin who was very knowledgeable in Torah but would pretend like she wasn’t when at the Shabboss table. The men would discuss Torah concepts at length, but she would remain quiet. Rav Falk praises this woman. This is the ultimate midda of tznius.
“…a rebetzin who never displayed her vast knowledge. Whenever the words of the Rambam, the Chovas Levavos, or the Mesilas Yesharim were quoted at the Shabbas table or at a family gathering, she would listen quietly and closely as if the words were new. She never hinted that she was fully acquainted with what was being quoted.” (Oz Vehadar Levusha, p. 45)
For a man, there is no violation of tznius if attention is drawn to him because of his accomplishments. But the exact same thing would be a lack of tznius for a woman.
Which brings us to the necessity of the glorification of tznius. How do you get intelligent, talented, but sheltered adolescent females to deny their own kishronos and importance? Dress it up in frills and lace.
Tznius is the crowning glory of a woman.
G-d saves your sweat earned by the tzniusdik clothing you wear in the summer and it’s akin to the sweat of a man as he toils over the Gemara.
Tznius is for a woman what Torah is for a man.
And the promises: you will have good children, you will have the zechus to marry a true ben-Torah, you will have a beautiful torahdik marriage (unlike the goyim who all have horrible marriages.) the list goes on.
It takes a large spoonful of sugar to make that medicine go down.
I’m pretty sure all of us were uncomfortable with Mrs. Sub’s comments that day. But the same ideas were repeated weekly, if not daily, reinforced through sheer brute force of repetition. After high school there was Seminary to take over the reins of inculcation. And beyond that, there is the powerful duo-combo of social pressure from shidduchim and the kollel-system, the former insisting that you won’t get a guy worth marrying unless you buy into the latter, and if you don’t find a husband soon, your life is pointless.