Friday, October 12, 2007

What's Your Passion

I sat in my egalitarian shul this morning and reflected on my simultaneous pull toward Orthodoxy and toward equality. I have been taking on new Mitzvot and experimenting with new ideas and an Orthodox worldview. I even davened at an Orthodox shul a few weeks ago, and will probably try out another in the coming weeks. I was hoping to be able to get past my lifelong distaste for sitting on the less participatory side of a Mechitzah. But I didn't. I just felt irrelevant and pretty uninspired.

There are things that bother me in my own shul, mostly having to do with a more casual attitude toward observance of Mitzvot than I would like to have in my community. But the equality that we experience there between men and women seems so natural and so right. Men and women participate equally in every aspect of the service and make it all happen. I read Torah, lead davening, and serve as Gabba'it. I very much appreciate this opportunity, and I like seeing both sexes make the public prayers happen. At Orthodox shuls, it just feels unnatural to me that only the men participate publicly.

But because there *are* things that bother me at my egalitarian shul, I have been considering an alternative worldview: that men and women should have separate roles, that public prayer is the proper role for men, and that private holy home-tending is the proper role for women. It can be easier to consider accepting this worldview when I'm not faced with actually executing it in shul! Still, if I had to choose one role over the other, there's no question – I would choose being the one to primarily care for my family, rather than having the same role as men have traditionally had in shul.

A friend has been easing her way back into the workplace as her children have gotten older. Recently she accepted a job perfectly suited to her talents and interests. However, it demands more time away from home than she has ever had, and she finds it difficult to be away from her children so long. They are thriving and so is she, but she misses being with them. I had had a similar experience when my older children were born – I missed them when I was at work, and felt so torn about combining mothering and employment. Eventually, I stopped working and I have been a full time mother for nine years. It struck my friend and me, that our husbands – both devoted fathers – just didn’t feel divided about working and parenting the way we did or do. They work outside the home and they don't feel like they should be home with their children or caring for them. Family – for better or for worse -- does seem to be more of a passion for women than for men. And fathers seem more at peace with their outside role than mothers do. So maybe the Orthodox worldview, with its strict role divisions, simply recognizes this reality and builds on it. I love reading Torah and leading davening – but my passion is my family. That is where I want to put most of my time, thought, and energy. If I am to pursue the role that I am passionate about, it would be the traditional role of wife and mother.

But is it necessary to choose? Why can't I pursue mothering and also take fulfillment in public roles in shul? Why does being female have to mean being irrelevant in shul, at least Orthodox ones? And do men really have a passion for public prayer the way women have for mothering? Somehow, it seems unlikely.

I've heard the explanation that men are obligated in public prayer because they need the spiritual development that it offers (and that women don’t need to develop spiritually in that direction). For example, men need opportunities to bond in a healthy way with other men. Or that men will forget that they're Jews with obligations, so they need these thrice-daily reminders. Or even that all this prayer keeps men too busy to get into trouble. Or as one man plaintively asked, if women have the home and the synagogue, what's left for the men? How can they connect to God and to other Jews? It has been suggested that if women demand and get an equal place in the synagogue, men will be less interested in pursuing public prayer. They don't want to compete with women; they want women to love them and accept them and admire them. Are they interested in public prayer only as long as they can keep it pretty much a private men's club? I've also heard the suggestion that men are incapable of keeping their minds on prayer when women are visible or audible, so women need to be invisible and inaudible to the men. None of these explanations is terribly complimentary to men! Are they true nonetheless? Is there some other explanation I've missed?

There is a Kabbalistic teaching that when God created the universe, he (or she) had to shrink himself to make room for the universe. This process is called Tzimtzum. A wise mother I know once commented that parents do something very similar as their children grow, to make room for their children's growth. Perhaps women need to do something similar for men. Women are amazingly capable. We have proven that we can do anything and do it well – and do many things simultaneously. Maybe women need to do a Tzimtzum of our own to make room for men's growth. If women are created with a passion for nurturing, then this gives us a way to perform Tzimtzum – we give something to men that means a little less to us than our passion does.

Maybe the Tzimtzum is even a necessary part of our own growth in some way. For example, not having public prayer roles to focus on could stimulate us to focus more on our holy family role. Women are such multitaskers that we often find it difficult to concentrate solely on what we are doing for our families. Many mothers have observed that even when they are giving attention to a child they have to work hard to not also give attention to the 1001 other things that are clamoring for our attention. By eliminating one major temptation, we set the stage for performing our biggest task – our passion – with greater concentration and creativity. Men get distracted by women, so they are obligated to pray separately from women. Women get distracted by other activities and obligations, so our role tends to minimize the particular source of distraction provided by actively participating in public prayer.

I feek this explanation is only a start. If you can add additional insights, please share them!


Mark said...

Have you read or listened to any of Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller's material on this subject?

There are some free mp3s at

There are other mp3s available at

Square peg said...

Thanks Mark. I've read a bunch of her articles and they were ok. But there was still a gap between my thinking and hers. That's why I'm writing this blog -- to put things in a language and a framework I can relate to.

RivkA with a capital A said...

I haven't thought about these issues in such a long time, that I am forced to recognize that certain changes in me happened without my even noticing.

It is clear to me that when I was young, single and fully energetic, I had a lot more interest and passion about equal obligations. I was prepared (at least in theory) to take on all sorts of obligations.

But now that I am a mother, with no time, no energy and a list of "things to do" that never ends, I am very happy to stop fighting windmills and let my partner to the things he does.

I am happy to rely on the idea that we are one unit. I get credit for the things he does and I don't need to do everything myself.

There are still things I like to do (which is why we went away for Simchat Torah). But I don't need to do those things *every* Shabbat. (although I would be very happy if there was a women's tefillah group in my neighborhood a few times a year...)

Anyway, my main realization is that: when a woman is single, the roles often seem more of a barrier than when a woman is married, and can reap the benefits of those roles.

RivkA with a capital A said...

ps. I can't believe I stayed up so late reading your blog!!

Square peg said...

Rivka, welcome! I'm glad you found the essays thought provoking. Thanks for commenting! I think you make a good point: when a woman is busy mothering, she has plenty of Jewish stuff to do even without the public role. I certainly find it more difficult to fit shul participation in than I did before I had children.

The problem, though, is in the inverse (converse?). When a woman is *not* busy mothering, she doesn't have so much Jewish stuff to do without the public role. When a boy becomes a Bar Mitzvah his life changes and he is responsible for many more things. When an Orthodox girl becomes a Bat Mitzvah, her life doesn't change so much. Her life seems to change significantly only many years later, when and if she has a child or children. And what about after the children are grown? Or single women? There are so many women at any one time in a position of being excluded from the public role without any compensation.

The other problem is that in any particular couple, it may be the woman who is more talented at the public role. It seems kind of silly to have a man do things for a woman when she could do it better herself. And it would be annoying to not have anyone do something because only the wife is really equipped -- or interested --to do it.

What do you think?

mother in israel said...

Well, men don't have to be a chazan or read the Torah if they aren't good at it. Getting an aliyah doesn't require much talent.

As for women being distracting, my 17yo said that the mechitzah in one shul we were visiting was "too low" for him to be comfortable davening.

Square peg said...

Welcome Mother in Israel and thanks for commenting!

I'm not sure where you were going with your observation that men don't have to do things in shul if they're not talented at it or that they can stick to things that don't require much talent. Would you elaborate?

My own point was that for me, as a woman who is good at these public roles and enjoys filling them, it would be frustrating to have someone else do it if they weren't even as good as me. And it would be especially frustrating because I would be barred from taking responsibility to do things better myself. Some women, like Rivka, are ok with getting credit for the things their husbands do. But if the husband isn't interested in doing them, or good at doing them -- or if there isn't any husband for whatever reason -- then a woman can't take even vicarious pleasure in having her husband perform these functions.

Regarding the Mechitzah, I can understand what your son said, intellectually anyway. But it seems to be based on the idea that shul is really for men, not women. The thing is, I *like* shul. But I really *don't* like being where I don't see or hear as well, and where the action is on the other side.

Please feel free to continue commenting. I appreciate the stimulation and the opportunity to sharpen my views.

mother in israel said...

I linked to you. Check it out. I am going to be getting a lot of traffic to my blog, and you can bask in reflected glory.

Square peg said...

Cool, thanks a lot!

3Pages said...

I can't speak for your husband, but for me it certainly isn't/wasn't as easy as it looks to leave my home life behind and go to 'the trenches'. I often struggle with the feeling that my career is 'engineered' to keep me away from my children for all but a couple hours a day (plus Israeli weekends), and when I have to travel, I come back to the feeling that I am entirely superfluous and am just getting in the way. Many decisions about how things are done at home are/were taken autonomously by my dear wife, and opening them up for [re]negotiation is messy and inconvenient.

So, in continuation of my comment on another post of yours, I think that you should feel free to take a 'back seat' at shul if you so wish, while your children are small and you are otherwise occupied. As you yourself noted in one of your first posts, there are different stages in life, and perhaps for you during this one being active in shul is not a priority. I am not clear on why this needs to be justified in a metaphysical model.

SquarePeg613 said...

Welcome 3pages, and thanks for your thoughtful comments.

You got my motivations backwards. Actually, I'm at a stage of parenting in which it's easier than it's been for many years to pursue active participation in shul. If I felt that was what I needed to be doing, I could do it with much less difficulty than I've experienced in a long time. But I'm no longer so sure that that's what I should be doing.

The problem is that the (Conservative) system isn't working. Raising children to be observant is quite a struggle in the Conservative world, the more so if you depend on Conservative institutions (school and youth groups) for support. This could reflect a true philosophy that doesn't get implemented well, or -- more likely -- a philosophy that may not be as true as we would like to believe. If it doesn't work, it may be because it isn't right, even though we sense intuitively that it is right. Our intuition can be wrong.

It is possible to raise observant Conservative children -- but it is *hard* and the odds are against it. I think that it works better when the parents are in agreement about it and work together more or less as a team. It also helps a lot if there is a parent who is learned enough to explain it to children. Me, I'm just a simple Jew and not knowledgeable enough to do a good enough job at that.

Anonymous said...

Square Peg,
you wrote that a boy's life changes after Bar Mitzvah with increased mitzvot. Well, techinically for a Bat Mitzvah it is the same. She really should daven 3x a day, ideally with a minyan. I think you see the default aspects of Orthodoxy, (since women don't have the same obligation they just don't do) rather than what should be done (until a woman has children to care for, she really should be as active a participant as possible)

Now, of course this doesn't change your unease with the lack of official roles, but I do think you have to look at how Orthodoxy is meant to work, not just the default.

mother in israel said...

SP--Do you really think that learned parents have a higher success rate? I don't believe that is necessarily true. Anyway, although I think you underestimate yourself, Jews are always supposed to keep learning. Maybe you will find fulfillment by attending shiurim. Surely you can find something to your liking.
Anon--most authorities do not require a post bat-mitzvah girl/woman to say arvit (eve. prayer). And with a minyan? Women are completely exempt, with or without children. Maybe there are minority opinions, but I don't know anyone in any community who requires it. And why should they? Women have other restrictions, like tzniut and later taharat hamishpacha. Let's not make it more difficult than it already is.

SquarePeg613 said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence, MiI. I'm not assuming that learned parents in general do better at raising kids to stay observant. But within the Conservative world, it could be true. When I started questioning observance in my teen years, my father had answers for me. I didn't always agree with or relate to his answers, but at least he had something. Often when my daughter asks me stuff I don't know how to answer. I'm not talking about Halachic questions, but rather questions like, "why should I say Birkat Hamazon (which is long and boring) instead of just saying 'thank you God." Or, "why don't we do things religiously like other families?" Or, "Who wrote the Torah?" and "was there really a flood as in Parshat Noach?"

SquarePeg613 said...

Anonymous: in Orthodoxy, a woman's role is ideally enacted at home, raising a Jewish family. A Bat Mitzvah girl has years to wait before she has a chance to do this, and can't even be certain that she'll ever have the chance. However, the public-prayer aspect of a man's obligations and role is something that a Bar Mitzvah boy can experience immediately.

yoega said...

I actually understand where you’re going with your post. As I recall the dropout (kids who don't remain religious) rate for Mamad schools is aporx. 30%. In a system which pushes the individual to make his own decisions (I'm including Orthodox and Conservative in this), following in some other person’s footsteps is very difficult. Rabbi Solovechik's Man of Faith lives on the proverbial razor edge middle ground between modernity and halacha. This is an extremely arduous task. Most people would just rather do as their told. Could your becoming Orthodox make certain that your kids will be so as well? Although there are no guarantees, the orthodox system has more ready made answers since they embrace the recorded halacha. The conservatives and egalitarians especially are a rather new splinter group (new is a relative term) but since they reject to some extent or fully the halacha body. They have so much less answers. On the other hand as I recall what I liked about the egalitarian minyan I was exposed to, was the devykot of the people there. This opposed to the blatant "we don't really want to be here" attitude of the orthodox minyan, was very inviting.

3Pages said...

This lady claims that most of our influence on our children is genetic and/or in our engineering which peer group they will have. I certainly think that my children's main peer group is the mainstream Orthodox "dati Leumi", which, in Jerusalem, is liberal enough to not feel threatened by eccentrics like me. At the same time, I want them to feel comfortable with people who are different, so I enjoy the variety who arrive at my shul.

After early childhood, I think the main habits of belief and socialization are pretty much set. As my children move into adolescence, I am trying to concentrate on acting ethically towards them and in front of them, where my main yardstick is Hillel's "That which is hateful to you...".

As for questions that I can't answer -- I love that! I feel that questions are basically more important than answers in general (answers change with time, questions have near-divine eternity). So, even if I do answer, I try to first appreciate the question and questioner, and then to present the facts as I understand them, or to admit honestly that I don't know, or that I don't think anybody really knows, or suggest how I think we could find out.

The classic that comes to mind is when my kids started asking about what happens when we die. I explained that some people think that there is a part of us, the soul, which goes up to heaven, but nobody really knows, since nobody has come back to tell us what it is like :) I didn't go into more complex formulations, such as the one where some part of our loved ones continues living within us as long as we remember them; or for that matter, the fact that early Judaism does not have an afterlife as such, only a resurrection when the messiah comes. They weren't age appropriate.

So getting back to the point, as Yoega reformulated it: is egalitarianism sustainable? Will my kids be religious and/or egalitarian? I hope so, but I am not willing to coerce them or change my lifestyle to a coercive one in order to ensure that outcome.

mother in israel said...

3pages:Gordon Neufeld wrote a whole book (reviewed on my blog) refuting Harris. It's called, "Hold on to YOur Kids: Why Parents Matter More than Peers." At any rate it sounds like you are doing the right things.

SquarePeg613 said...

I read the interview with Judith Harris. I think she made a good point that kids get a lot of behavior codes from the peer group. Neufeld, however, claims that if peers are the only or main source of direction, that kids will run into trouble. They need their parents a lot more than Harris seems to think. This makes a lot of sense to me. Harris also doesn't touch at all (at least in the interview) on kids getting values from parents. My kids can speak Hebrew without an accent (unlike me), but in several areas I try to raise them with values that are at odds with what they see around them. The job is difficult, certainly, but so far hasn't seemed impossible.

Yoega, I am very interested in your comment that there was more dveikut in the Conservative minyan than in the Orthodox one. Our (Orthodox) Mohel once made a similar comment! I am curious, though, what the minyan population was -- students, small families, larger families, older people, or a mix. I wonder if different populations succeed at dveikut at different stages of life.

Gella said...


I was glad to see in the comments that you acknowledge the reality that not all women have home/family roles to fulfill and be fulfilled by. First of all.. hetero-normative much? But beyond that, I remember not long ago sitting alone in my apartment in Brooklyn, an adult Jewish woman without a family, musing over the fact that, were I not egal, I would have basically no Jewish identity and no role. This, if nothing else, is why I have to believe in egalitarianism. Because not every woman is cut out to be an Eishet Chayil. You speak of tzimtzum, but if you are contracting yourself for the sake of a vacuum, what does that say about your worth as a person? I have to believe that God created us as more than baby machines, because God would not be so cruel as to create so many intelligent driven ambitious women without the capacity or desire for child bearing or rearing if they were to have no legitimate role in God's world.

When people have children, of course priorities shift. The balance usually tips more in favor of the mother as the nurturer, but I think that this is more than mere biology, or "reality" as you put it. I think that to a large extent, this comes about because it is our default assumption. But if it were really the case that the woman davka has to be the caregiver while the man takes public religious roles, then what is a single father meant to do?

I think that there is a lot that is executed improperly in the Conservative and Egalitarian world(s). I do not believe however that it is a problem inherent to the system, but rather imposed by those who make no effort to understand the system, who come into Conservative shuls not because they are Conservative but because they don't like Reform fluffiness or Orthodox stricture. How do we solve it? I'm not entirely sure. Still working on it.

Shavua tov :)