Chemotherapy As a Metaphor
No one in their right mind would knowingly ingest poison. Unless, of course, he or she was diagnosed with the dreaded disease and the doctors prescribed chemotherapy.
But even after the decision has been made that chemotherapy offers best hope of destroying the malignancy, doctors continue to monitor the effect of the toxins on the patient. There is no point to administering a “cure” that is worse than the disease.
And if the chemotherapy proves successful, the patient’s physicians do not simply ignore the adverse side affects. Everything possible is done to alleviate those side effects.
To what does this moshol refer?
Let us think of the destruction of the major centers of Torah learning during the Holocaust as the “disease.” The body of Klal Yisrael could not go on after the Holocaust without its heart – the talmidei chachamim produced in the great yeshivos. Time was of the essence, for how long can a body survive without its heart?
As a hora’as sha’a, in the wake of the Holocaust, the Torah leaders of the post-Holocaust generation advanced a societal model that had no obvious precedent in Jewish history. That new model was one of long-term, full-time Torah study for virtually all males.
A necessary corollary of the model of long-term Torah learning for all men requires wives to become the primary breadwinners – at least for the period during which their husbands are sitting in learning. The only alternative would be for the parents of young couples to undertake to support them and their offspring as long as the husband is in full-time learning. While there might be some parents who can afford to hold out a number of sons and sons-in-laws in such a fashion, the number is obviously small. And so women working became the norm.
(The phenomenon of women working today, of course, is not solely a function of husbands learning. Even where husbands work, many Torah families find that the expenses of large families can only be met by both parents working.)
The societal model adopted in the wake of the Holocaust was a radical departure from all pre-Holocaust models. In pre-War Lithuania, for instance, usually only one or two boys from each town were sent off to one of the great famous yeshivos. That is why yeshiva bochurim were known by the name of the town from which they came; there was rarely anyone else from the same town.
And the model of women bearing the principal responsibility for parnassah is not only new, it is seemingly in radical contrast to the Torah model. Adam, not Chava, received the curse that he would wrest his livelihood from the earth by the sweat of his brow. The husband gives his wife a ketubah in which he undertakes to support her. The woman, in Torah literature, is always described as the mainstay of the home and as bearing the principal responsibility for the nurturing her children.
The radical therapy adopted in the wake of the Holocaust worked. The Torah world was not only saved but rebuilt to a remarkable degree. The number of those learning full-time today dwarfs the numbers of pre-War Europe. And Torah is now the possession of the masses to a degree unknown in Europe.
At the same time, we would expect a radical departure from the “natural order” described by the Torah to have untoward consequences/side effects. The impact of wives serving as the principal breadwinners has implications in three areas: with respect to the shalom bayis of the couple; with respect to the effect on child-raising; and with respect to the well-being of the woman herself, who is torn between her ambition to facilitate her husband’s growth in Torah and her maternal instinct to devote herself to the nurture of her children. The societal model also produces certain secondary or tertiary side-effects – e.g., the emphasis on money in shidduchim.
Needless to say, the vast majority of Torah homes in which the wife is the primary wage-earner enjoy admirable marital harmony and the children are flourishing. There is nothing inevitable about the strains in any given family nor is every strain incapable of being overcome. Since Gan Eden, life has never been easy, and each generation has its challenges.
And we have witnessed the emergence of many “super-Moms” who appear, at least to the outside eye, to pull down large salaries, whose children always look tip-top and happy, and who seem to effortlessly manage their homes and serve tasty Shabbos meals.
But those super-Moms may be setting a standard that most women cannot meet. Rebbetzin Faigie Twersky has spoken forcefully of the tension caused by the multiple tasks under which today’s wives and mothers labor. The head of an Israeli project employing many chareidi women described to me cases of women deliberately underperforming so that they would be fired and could return to taking care of their families. The phenomenon is not widespread, but neither is it limited to a single case.
I remember hearing a lecture 20 years ago by a prominent woman attorney, in which she described how she balanced the multiple demands on her time. A young woman in the audience, listening to the speaker describe staying up to 3:00 a.m. making Purim costumes, asked her: “But how do you manage to do everything?” With tears in her eyes, she answered: “You can’t.”
What’s the point?
Simply this. Just as a patient facing death will ingest poisons to save himself, so too did the great Torah leaders advance a radical societal model in response to a crisis of unprecedented proportions. But just as physicians have to continually monitor the effects of chemotherapy, so too do we have to continually assess the side-effects of our therapy. Even where the costs are unavoidable because any other approach can only lead to death, we still have to know what they are so that we can act to lessen their effect to as great an extent as possible.
An example of such ameliorative efforts (whether successful or not) would be the curricular reforms imposed last year on post-high school Bais Yaakov studies in Israel. Those reforms were predicated, in part, on the fear of young women becoming “careerists,” with all the attendant implications for their roles as wives and mothers.
Divorce rates are rising in the Torah community, particularly among young couples, and we witness increasing numbers of our young leaving the fold (often only for a period of time) and many others who toe the line but without any evident enthusiasm.
How much has the inversion of the normal roles of the sexes contributed to these trends? What has been the impact of overstressed and absent mothers been on children? I have no answers to these questions. And I doubt anyone else does either.
But we cannot afford to ignore the questions or fail to attempt to ascertain the answers.
This article appeared in the Mishpacha on January 2 2008.