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?"

7 comments:

mother in israel said...

One thing I would add, and will say if I ever get around to posting on the topic, is that Judaism is a package. Some of the things don't always seem fair, or make sense to us. Maybe in some cases the halacha is applied too strictly, in which case it needn't be if people are uncomfortable with it (i.e. women's megilla readings are one example of a partial solution). But in many cases, not only regarding women's issues, we accept what doesn't always fit in with our modern sensibilities because we are committed to Judaism as a whole.

Charnie said...

Linked here from your recent comments are defining Torah Judaism on BeyondBT, and saw this article.

What all bothers me about these discussions about "roles" of women is that it is almost completely synagogue focused. So if our Judaism consists of a few hours once a week in shul, then fine, this would be a big issue. But for those of us who call ourselves "Orthodox" (not a term I like too much, but whatever), our observance is present in every facet of our lives, from one end of the day to the other.

When I've had these discussions with non-frum women, I've often used the analogy of apples and oranges. They are both fruits, they are both very good, but they are also different from one another.

rickismom said...

Interesting blog. Thanks for stopping by....

English Major said...

The problem is when you look at the perspective that one who is commanded to do more = better. That's not what Judaism is about. Judaism knows those 613 commandments are a pain. That's why men are required to do more, because they are more inherently flawed.

Example: Your son is flunking algebra. So he's got to put play time away to really study. Every spare moment he has to spend with those books. Your daughter, on the other hand, is sailing through with flying colors. She gets to enjoy herself in her spare time.

So what is this conversation about "Can't get to do enough religious stuff?" You want to crawl out of bed in the wee hours of the morning to daven with a minyan, then go back out again two more times a day? And that's the least of it!

God cut women a break because they have children to raise, and He knows it's not easy. So why look a gift horse in the mouth?

Mr. Cohen said...

I can not travel through a cemetary or marry a divorced woman because I am a kohen.

Different Jews have different jobs to do.

To receive quick easy Torah quotes from a variety of classic Jewish Torah books, please go to:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DerechEmet/

For Jews ONLY! Thank you!

Mr. Cohen said...

A recent google search on the phrase "Conservative Judaism is dead" yielded about 229 results.

Where I live in NYC, several Conservative synagogues have permanently closed and have been replaced by Orthodox synagogues and schools.

The one remaining Conservative synagogue in my area has around 200 people on Saturday morning, but 99% of them are over age 55.

To receive quick easy Torah quotes from a variety of classic Jewish Torah books, please go to:
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DerechEmet/

For Jews ONLY! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

What persuaded me was hearing about how men are supposed to be modest and humble also (in synagogue life and beyond). If Judaism is not all about getting honors in Syanagogue, what then? A book with weekly thoughts on the Parsha might be one place to turn. Another is "Life is a Test" by Esther Jungreis.
May you find what your looking for!