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.