Friday, October 12, 2007

Liberating Limitations

We humans are a funny species. We value freedom and automnomy at the same time as we crave security and boundaries.

I grew up observing Shabbat. I chose to attend a tiny college in New York City in which I was the only observant Jew, and I found ways to keep Shabbat as much as I could. I was able to light candles and to avoid violating Shabbat. I suppose it must have seemed quite restrictive to someone unused to Shabbat observance, and one day I found myself surprised by the implied negativity in a non-Jewish student's comments about Shabbat. "You make it sound like it's some kind of punishment," I answered. "Well, isn't it?" he asked. "No! It's the most relaxing day of the week!" I was frustrated at my inability to explain the Jewish perspective on our weekly day of rest. I had internalized the value of Shabbat, but I could appreciate that it would be counter-intuitive to someone unfamiliar with the practice. Understanding the beauty and health of Shabbat requires someone to adopt a different mindset than our production-oriented, instant-gratification society promotes. And yet, I knew that the limitations of Shabbat were what produced the wonderful weekly liberation that it offers us. It seemed a paradox – how can limitations be liberating? – but I knew from experience that it was true.

Over the next twenty years I occasionally wondered if this sort of paradox might apply in the area of gender roles within Judaism as well. The woman's role in Orthodoxy always seemed to me to be inferior to the man's role, and it seemed to earn less respect in their community too. Occasional visits to Orthodox friends and relatives for Shabbat and Chagim only reinforced this notion. Orthodox women seemed largely content with their position, but it seemed unappealing to me. I wanted to read Torah, lead Tefillot, and be part of a minyan, not cover my hair, watch what I wear, and leave fun and interesting Mitzvot to the men. I cringed when people put down women or made anti-female jokes. This just didn't happen in egalitarian circles.

And yet, I was intellectually honest enough to wonder if the limited woman's role might be liberating for Orthodox women in the same way as the limitations of Shabbat liberated me. Was the contentment and even fulfillment of so many Orthodox women really nothing more than internalized oppression? Or was this something that I couldn’t understand without experiencing it for a while? Did the exemption from some Mitzvot curtail women's development, as I had thought? Or did it free them up to develop in even more significant ways? I don't have answers to these questions, but one thing is clear to me. Just as my fellow student would have needed a different mindset to understand Shabbat, I probably need a different mindset to understand Orthodox gender roles. Grasping this other mindset isn't easy. What assumptions underlie it? Here is my attempt to begin:

1. Women and men are fundamentally different – not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. Intellectually different too?

2. Women and men therefore have different needs, desires and passions.

3. Therefore, women and men can best meet these needs in different ways.

4. Therefore, people who don't have what the other sex has aren't missing much. What they have is much more worthwhile for them.

I would very much welcome comments about these assumptions. Are there some I've missed? Do they need correction?

The problem for me in accepting these assumptions is that they don't match my personal experience. I get so much out of acting in the traditionally masculine sphere. Giving that up would feel like a huge loss. I don't like feeling invisible and I like feeling part of things at shul, even when I'm not actively participating. When I can't see or hear the "action" from the other side of the Mechitza, I do feel discouraged and alienated. Is there a different perspective on this that can help me feel differently? I've read and read on BT sites, but haven't yet found anything that really addresses this problem.

Where is the truth? If I can understand the Orthodox mindset, will my dissatisfaction with the limitations of the woman's role disappear? Or is Orthodoxy something that satisfies only some women, leaving others unfulfilled? Could I – would I -- be happy as an Orthodox woman? How long a trial period would I need to give it?

Please, comment away.

5 comments:

3Pages said...

As in many other aspects of gender differences, I have the intuition that the range of different abilities and tendencies is greater within each gender than between each gender. For example, we all know that men are generally slightly larger physically (and more heavily muscled) than women, but the range of difference between individual men in these aspects is much greater than the difference between the average man and the average woman; concomitantly there are individual women who are bigger and stronger than individual men.

So my unresearched assumption is that this state of things is similar in the intellectual and spiritual realm, which is why I feel that the Orthodox response is a 'mitat sdom' (you know the midrash about the 'one size fits all' bed they had in sdom? -- guests were welcome, but only if they fit the bed; if they didn't they would be stretched or clipped until they did).

Even in the egalitarian community we both belong to, I think there is a definite tendency for the men to be more active and the women to be more in a support role; especially when they have small children at home. But I would hate to give my children (of either gender) the message that 'you will see with your eyes and there you shall not go'.

SquarePeg613 said...

I'm not so keen on giving my kids that message either, when it comes to gender roles. But I don't hesitate to say that regarding other religious issues -- say, Shabbat or Kashrut as just two examples. So in principle, why should this be different?

3Pages said...

The short answer is there is no Mitzva involved in keeping rigid gender roles (or at least not one I am willing to accept as the only way of reading the sources).

The long answer is that I see a benefit to Shabbat and Kashrut, while I don't see one (or see a negative) in rigid gender roles.

I can honestly represent the principles of Shabbat and Kashrut to my children, and teach them the details of why and how. It is true that I also have to explain to them why some people don't keep Shabbat, but I am not asking them to comply with something I am not personally upholding.

I am willing to say "we will see with our eyes and there we will not go" but not "you will see with your eyes, I will go but you won't".

SquarePeg613 said...

Do you mean that you are willing to limit your daughters about Shabbat and Kashrut because you apply the same limitation to yourself, but that you don't want to limit them about gender roles, since you don't apply to yourself the limitations Orthodoxy imposes on women? What if a woman was willing to limit herself this way -- would you then say that that would give her the right to limit her daughters too?

What benefits of Kashrut would you explain to your children? How do you explain to them the benefits of Shabbat in terms they can appreciate?

What do you mean, there is no Mitzvah involved in keeping rigid gender roles? Would you elaborate?

Should our decide whether or not to observe Mitzvot based on if we see a benefit in it? If someone doesn't see a benefit in Shabbat, does that mean that the Mitzvah is not commanded? Or perhaps they'll warm up to the Mitzvah after observing it for a while?

3Pages said...

My response is here