Women, Orthodoxy, and Orthodoxy: Some Thoughts

Did you watch the Agudah Convention? I tuned in for the panel on the OTD phenomenon, and was impressed by Rabbi Doctor Jerry Lob’s speech.

First, I want to say that it was a great speech. It was humble and it was honest. You can find it at the bottom of this page under “Sunday Morning Highlights.”

One part that intrigued me was how he described his sister going OTD during “the height of the women’s movement.”

He quotes her explanation: “Yiddishkeit works for you, you’re a man… Being frum raises your status, while being frum lowers my status.”

To which he said, “I didn’t know what to do with that.”

Rabbi Lob didn’t know what to do with that because lowering the status of women is a basic tenet of chareidi Judaism. To be content as a frum woman, one must be content to be secondary. But if you’re not content, that doesn’t mean you’re feminist. It just means you don’t want to be secondary.

I never read a single feminist tract until last year. I only read it because everyone kept telling me I was a feminist, in spite of my protests.

I’m not a feminist. I just want respect. For as long as I can remember, I have battled with frumkeit and frum people for respect I wasn’t accorded for only one reason: I am female.

When I was four: My father was davening for the amud. My brothers were standing next to the bima – essentially on it – as a way of being important by association. I wanted to stand there too, but they kept pushing me back. I was a girl – girls didn’t belong on the bima. I threw a temper tantrum so big and so loud, complete with lying on the floor kicking, that my father had to stop davening to sort things out. The gabbai teased me about it until my bas mitzvah.

I wasn’t a feminist when I was four.

When I was seven: We had Thanksgiving dinner with my great uncle, who was a rabbi whose name you’d recognize. I thought it would be appropriate to shake his hand, like grown-ups do. When I stuck out my hand, he stared. He said that usually he doesn’t shake women’s hands, but he’d make an exception for me. But first he had to put his glove back on. I was offended. Why was I untouchable just because I was female?

At age seven, I had not yet been exposed to any feminist influences.

When I was nine: They told me I had to sit behind the mechitzah in shul. I couldn’t see what was going on. I couldn’t kiss the Torah as it passed through the shul.

I knew that being shoved out of reach, out of sight, and out of mind was not an honor. I declared that if I had to sit behind a curtain in shul, I just wasn’t going any more. And I didn’t, until high school, except for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Simchas Torah, and Parshas Shkalim.

When I was nine, I knew nothing about “patriarchy” but I was a pretty big expert on “fair.”

When I was eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve… All kids get into “boys are better/girls are better” arguments at this age, but when you’re frum there’s a twist: the boys have Chazal on their side.  I heard that “daatan nashim kalos” and that teaching me Torah was teaching me “tiflus” because I was too emotional.

I would counter with whatever I could: “binah yeseira” and “I get bas mitzvah’d first because girls mature faster” but they always had an answer. They always knew more. “It’s not ‘maturity’ how you’re thinking it means.” Then they’d all look at each other knowingly.

I couldn’t answer back, because I didn’t know. I wasn’t allowed to know. I was purposely kept ignorant because I was a girl. I knew that I was as smart as they were, and I seethed that anyone would think I was incapable of learning as much as they could.

It didn’t take a social movement to make it clear: I was being judged by my gender and not by my character or ability.

When I was fourteen I was in bais Yaakov and doing my best to be a better Jew. I loved Torah and mitzvos. And yet every Simchas Torah, the holiday for celebrating love of Torah, I was relegated to audience. There was no way for me to express my love. No way for me to participate. All I wanted to do was hug a Torah – that precious scroll that guided my life. All I could do was sit and listen to women swap recipes.

Finally, through some begging and scheming, I was able to get my arms around a Torah when nobody was around.

Almost nobody.

I had just hefted the weight of Hashem’s will and closed my eyes to let the greatness of this moment flow through me… and it was yanked out of my arms by a furious man. How dare a woman touch a Torah?

Why? I wanted to know. Why couldn’t I touch a Torah? Why did being a woman matter?

Was this the insidious influence of secular society?

When I was in high school: the men, at the Shabbos table, always had interesting discussions about Torah and halacha. I listened avidly. Whenever I could, I would chime in. Often, I would come up with chidushim on the parsha that would impress the guests. “Who says that?” they’d ask me.

“I do,” I’d say.

Some looked impressed. Others were immediately dismissive. In an attempt to be taken seriously, I ran my initials together into a Rishon-esque acronym. Whenever someone asked “Who says that?” I would answer, “The Zlagan.” Sometimes, it even worked.

But when the subject turned to Talmud or halacha, as it invariably did, my participation was limited to hearsay. “I heard that it says…” was as deep as my input could go. I was frustrated by my own irrelevance. I wanted to participate in these Torah discussions. Why couldn’t I?

Perhaps this was a desire born of feminism?

When I was in high school: They told us that we, as women, had two main purposes in life. Our first was to be tznius. The reason for this, they said, was because we were a bas melech and had to dress accordingly. And yet, whenever they explained why we had to look a certain way, it was described in terms of preventing men from having wrong thoughts. Tznius, we quickly realized, was all about men.

Our other main purpose was to support Torah and raise b’nei Torah. Our own Torah had minimal value, because we weren’t obligated to learn. And Torah was the only way to earn Olam Habah. So we had to support the Torah of men to make it into Gan Eden.

In short, bais Yaakov students are having it pounded into their heads that they have no intrinsic value of their own. What they do only matters when it affects men.

I never really bought this, because while I am uncertain about many things, I have always had one solid conviction: that I have value in my own right.

But maybe I have always been influenced by the radical notion of women’s equality.

When I was in high school, I heard that women are supposed to form a mezumanes.  But I have never been able to get a group of halachically-minded bais Yaakov girls to form one. They assume that three women together cannot possibly be equal to three men together.

Both men and women assume that it is inappropriate for women to form a zimun in the presence of men. Why? Because in Orthodox Judaism, men are the ones who do things. Women are the ones who watch. It’s inconceivable to us that the reverse might be possible. But halachically, this attitude is wrong.

And I know that halacha isn’t feminist.

When I graduated college, I moved out of town for my first job. I had my own apartment, and I occasionally hosted couples for meals. I made Kiddush Friday night. It never occurred to me not to. The head of the household makes Kiddush, and the head of my household was me.

My guests’ reactions ranged from uncertainty to refusal: they were sure it was dishonorable for a woman to be yotzei a man in Kiddush. Even source and citation couldn’t change their mind, because this wasn’t about halacha. This was about honor, as defined by our society.

That’s the point, really. Orthodox Judaism is very solicitous of the honor of its men. But it is downright dismissive of the honor of the woman.

It didn’t take feminism to turn Rabbi Lob’s sister away from frumkeit. She just needed some self-respect. Frum society and praxis raises men up and provides them with opportunities not available to women solely because it might offend men. (Why can’t women get an aliyah? Why can’t women hold positions of authority? Answer: the honor of men.)

Many women are content to take the backseat in their household, community, and family. But other women aren’t. This is not because we are under outside influence; it’s because we have internal passion, conviction, and self-regard that cannot be quashed by our education.

I know of a family with twin siblings. The male twin is learning in kollel. His sister is a community manhiga ruchani. Many people think they are oddly divergent. But to me it seems obvious: they are exactly the same.

Both twins love Judaism. Both twins want to learn and grow and connect with their tradition. Both want to be active participants in their communities. But chareidi Judaism offers so much more opportunity to one twin than the other. What choice, really, did she have?

Well, she had one more choice than Rabbi Lob’s sister did.

A few months ago I attended a partnership minyan for the first time. At the end of the service, a little girl sang Adon Olam. When she finished, people from both sides of the mechitza went over to shake her hand and wish her a yasher koach.

As I watched, I couldn’t help but contrast her experience with my own, at the same age. Far from pushed away, she was welcomed to the bimah. She was permitted to be a part of the congregation in a way that only a contributing member can be. A shining moment of happiness and pride in what she could give to the congregation was not withheld from her simply because she was a girl.

It was an extraordinary thing. Here was an entire minyan that had come together for the sole purpose of extending respect to the other side of the mechitzah, to the limit permitted by halacha. All these people understood—and they wanted to help.  I was touched. I was grateful. And I had hope for the future.

I understand that this doesn’t address Rabbi Lob’s consternation.  Chareidi Judaism will not, any time soon, accord women the same honor it gives men. But there is still something that the Agudah can do: stop paying a weak lip service to “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayim.”

There are schools where girls receive a Jewish education comparable to their male peers. There are legitimate poskim who support these schools. But the average chareidi perpetuates malicious rumors about such places. If a girl even dreams of transferring to such an environment, she is warned that she will never get a good shidduch.

There are shuls where women are given a sefer Torah on Simchas Torah. There is legitimate psak behind this practice. But the average chareidi assumes that anyone who goes to such a shul doesn’t have a chezkas kashrus. “We don’t eat by them.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. These attitudes create unnecessary divisiveness in klal Yisroel, forcing many girls to squeeze themselves into molds they question… and question… and question… until they leave.

This kind of sinas chinam is something that the Agudah can battle. Acknowledge that there are other Torah-true paths to follow. That someone who doesn’t feel comfortable in a chareidi setting has options within Orthodoxy. There are women and girls who will never be satisfied with being secondary. Give them a place to go that doesn’t require leaving the community.