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!