Monday, November 26, 2007

What Do I Tell My Daughter?

M, a reader of this blog, wrote me recently with some stimulating questions. I'm copying part of her e-mail with her permission.

"And now I am raising my daughter and am not sure that a Conservative shul is what I need. Yet I am so reluctant to give up egalitarianism because it just feels right, and because I hate to start telling my daughter that she can't do x, y and z."
I struggle with this as well. Would I want to raise a girl to not be allowed to do all that her brothers can? I'm a feminist – how could I deny equal opportunity to my daughter?

I would like to suggest to M that it is entirely possible that her daughter will never ask her why she can't do x, y, or z. Many Orthodox women and girls are perfectly content with their roles. Some women want equality at work but don't see a need for it within Judaism. There are children who avoid the spotlight – such girls may even be relieved not to have to perform religiously in public. Others are happy to be the center of attention, but just don't feel drawn to public religious roles. Daughters like these may never ask, "but why can't I ..."

But is this even something to hope for? Would we want our daughers to grow up with a limited vision of what they can do? Should we really aim to have our girls accept their role unquestioningly? Is it best to keep their expectations low? And do we have good answers ready if they do challenge us?

As I pondered this question, I realized that I routinely impose limitations on my children without a second thought. When my children ask why we don't have a television, I don't hesitate to explain my reasons to them. When my children ask why we walk upstairs on Shabbat when our next door neighbor takes the elevator, I readily explain that we are Shabbat observant. And I don't feel defensive or apologetic for making them wait to eat dairy if they have had meat. I am confident in these decisions and enforce them as a matter of course. But we are uncomfortable telling our daughters that they can't take on certain roles because we ourselves are not so sure that it's right.

If we believed wholeheartedly that separate roles are beneficial or mandated by God, we would explain this limitation just as we explain every other limitation. The problem is that we are unconvinced. I think that the real question is not "what do I tell my daughter", but rather "what do I tell myself?" We would have to feel whole about constraining ourselves to the female role before we could comfortably impose it on our daughters.

We need to be pretty sure that the Orthodox female role offers advantages that outweigh any disadvantages. The standard explanation is that men and women are equal in their ability to get close to God. This claim seems to be as follows: God created men and women different spiritually and emotionally as well as physically. These differences mean that they should have different roles and different Mitzvot, forever. This much I could maybe accept. The problem is that the different roles and different Mitzvot lead in practice to differences in status and power. This is hard for me to swallow.

A friend suggested an alternative argument: The system now is far from perfect. It does meet the needs of some women, but others feel dissatisfied. However, for women and for the Jewish people, it's better than the alternative. The Jewish people as a whole does better to ignore the needs of the minority of women who are dissatisfied. Judaism is not about our individual fulfillment, so much as it's about fulfilling our responsibilities to perpetuate the Jewish people and our unique role among the nations. This argument at least is honest, and it has some potential.

When we focus on "what do I get out of Judaism?" we may end up neglecting our responsibilities. In parenting, we focus on our responsibility to our children, not on our individual fulfillment. Paradoxically, we often find fulfillment and growth through the daily routine of doing everything we have to do for our children, even when we don't feel like it. Perhaps Judaism is similar – we may find fulfillment and growth through the daily routine of doing Mitzvot, even when we're not in the mood. So even if the system has glaring problems, we stick with it, do what we're required to do, and work within it to fix things.

Or as M put it,
"Among egal congregations, in my experience, there is less emphasis/acceptance of the idea of religious *obligation*. Leading davening, getting aliyot, etc. are looked at primarily as honors or privileges, not obligations. What has been lost is the idea that eligibility for the privilege only flows from accepting the obligation. I believe that was the original intent of the Conservative movement's decision to ordain women. If the women accepted upon themselves extra mitzvot, then they should be entitled to the same privileges granted to men who were similarly obligated. But, in practice, I don't think this was ever enforced. So now we have a lot of congregations where men and women feel equally not obligated and are equally eligible for special honors. Is this progress?"

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Modest or Something Else?

Buying clothes for my daughter can be challenging. Fashion today dictates clothes that are revealing and tight, even for little girls. When Y was younger, I used to buy her clothes that were several sizes larger than her true size, in order to get clothes that fit properly. As she got older, finding her clothes got even harder. So when my friend C told me that her daughters heard from a friend that there were nice shirts available for reasonable prices at a well known clothing chain, I decided to take a look.

This clothing chain is known for its fashionable labels, and their clothes are usually outside our budget. Even the murals on their walls have sometimes been so suggestive as to leave me embarassed . Still, if there was a possibility of finding attractive shirts, it seemed worthwhile to check it out.

I should have known better.

At the store I looked around a bit but didn't see anything like the shirts C had described. I tried to explain to the saleswoman what I wanted: an attractive shirt for my daughter, not at all tight. She held up a shirt for me to examine. It was completely wrong – much too tight and revealing. "No," I tried again, "I'm looking for something ... nicer." She showed me another shirt, fancier than the first but no more appropriate. I indicated that it wouldn't do, and she showed me several more. Each was more suggestive than the one before. Finally, I blurted out, "this is for a religious girl!"

"Oh!" she replied, "why didn't you tell me?" She then showed me one or two other shirts which would have been acceptable had they not been so expensive. I thanked her and left the store.

It took me a few hours to realize the answer to her question. Why hadn't I told her that the shirts were for a religious girl? Because I wouldn't have dressed my daugher in those clothes if we didn't observe any Mitzvot at all! It seemed so unfair. Why did secular girls "have to" dress in ways that exposed their bodies and suggested sex? What, only religious girls have the right to cover themselves adequately? For me it wasn't a religious issue, just one of personal dignity.

I've never been comfortable with the word Tzniut. I probably have higher Tzniut standards than most of the mothers in my daughter's class, but I never use the word "Tzanua" or "modest". Clothes are "appropriate", "loose enough", or "long enough", but never "modest" or "Tzanua". Why not?

A post by MotherInIsrael on Tzniut got me thinking about this again. Somehow, Tzniut always seems to me a matter of following externally-imposed rules, some of which make little sense to me. "Appropriate" clothes, on the other hand, cover the body without clinging to it. Somehow skirts are considered modest, although I frequently see women's underwear and upper thighs when they wear even long skirts. Of course this doesn't happen with loose pants, which I consider "appropriate" if not "modest". I often see women who wouldn't consider exposing their elbows, wear tight long sleeve shirts. The rules don't seem to be about personal dignity. At best they are a way of identifying which religious community a women is part of. At worst I feel like other people want to dictate to me what I should wear. I want no part of that.

Many books and articles about Tzniut claim that it is about personal dignity. But focusing on covering as much as possible doesn't seem to shift other people's focus to a woman's inner personality as the books and articles promise. It all seems to be about what other people think of her, not what she thinks of herself. When too much emphasis is placed on Tzniut rules, it seems to me to have the opposite of the intended effect: women get judged based on small details of their outside appearance, rather than on their personality or inner qualities. It seems to emphasize the exterior, rather than the interior.

Still, why should "modest" be "their" word only, and not mine? Can I use it to mean what I want it to mean or will I just be misunderstood? Is it time for me to reclaim the word "Tzanua"?