The Egalitarianism Has Landed

My computer cautions me against fooling with certain manufacturer-determined system settings. Doing so, it warns, could create serious problems.

Riskier still is messing around with Judaism’s system-settings, determined by the ultimate Manufacturer.

That lesson might be the one being learned the hard way by contemporary Jewish religious movements which, unconstrained by the Jewish religious tradition, chose years ago to remove the slash that Jewish tradition places diagonally through the equal sign flanked by “men” and “women.”

Both genders, of course, are equally important to G-d. Women should be paid equal amounts for equal work on a par with men, and they should be respected no less than males. But pretending that men and women are identical and interchangeable in their life-roles – the much-cherished “egalitarian” approach – not only offends Jewish tradition, it may bode demographic disaster.

A soon-to-be-released report entitled “The Growing Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life,” by Brandeis University sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman, will present statistical evidence to confirm what has been widely suspected in recent years: males in non-Orthodox communities are opting out of religious activities. Professor Fishman fears that as non-Orthodox Jewish men become increasingly estranged from religious and communal life they are more likely to intermarry and become “ambivalent at best, if not downright hostile to Jewish tradition.”

Could the exodus of non-Orthodox men from communal religious participation have some relationship to “progressive” Jewish groups’ efforts to erase the idea of gender roles in Judaism?

I don’t mean that non-Orthodox men feel insulted, having been displaced by their female counterparts in practices and positions that were once their lot. No, I mean something more subtle: that messing up the system settings, well, messes up the system.

Roles are part and parcel of Judaism. Just as, among Jewish men, Cohanim and Leviim have prescribed roles, so are there roles that are gender-specific. Some Jewish women were led to believe that a title or public “privilege” would somehow ennoble them, that a tallit or kippah would render them more important or worthy. Others, however, more in touch with Torah, regarded the “equality” campaign with curiosity and just resumed the vital business of their Jewish lives.

The Talmud (Ketuvot 67b) tells of a great scholar, Mar Ukva, who, each day after study, would surreptitiously leave some coins near the door of a poor person in his neighborhood. One day, Mar Ukva stayed late in the study hall and his wife came to accompany him home. Together they walked, making Mar Ukva’s usual detour to leave the coins in the regular place. As he began to place the coins, the poor man approached the door. The couple, realizing they would be spotted and wanting their charity to be (as is best) anonymous, took flight; the poor man, wanting to identify his benefactors, gave chase.

The couple ducked into an excellent, if unusual hiding place: a large outdoor oven. Unfortunately, it had recently been used and was still hot. Mar Ukva felt his feet begin to burn. His wife, noticing his discomfort, told him “Put your feet on top of mine,” which he did. She did not seem to feel the heat. And thus they successfully evaded their pursuer.

After the incident, Mar Ukva was depressed over the fact that he had not merited a miracle as had his wife. She, though, understood. “Don’t you see?” she explained. “I’m in the house so much more than you, so I have many more opportunities than you to be charitable toward the poor who come to our doorstep. And the food and drink I give them can be enjoyed immediately, unlike the money you give. And so, with regard to charity, my merit is greater than yours.”

Mrs. Ukva thus conveyed a quintessential Jewish attitude: What counts over our years on this earth is not the prominence we acquire but the merit we achieve; not our particular roles, but what we do with them. It was precisely her “limited” role as a Jewish woman – a homemaker and child-rearer – that had allowed Mar Ukva’s wife to merit a miracle denied her scholarly husband.

The concept is really not so strange. Is the undercover agent less important than the foot soldier? The bass player than the drummer? The researcher than the surgeon? Whether roles are loud or quiet, prominent or behind-the-scenes, has no bearing at all on their ultimate value.

Jewish women can choose to embrace contemporary society’s game-playing in the guise of egalitarianism and squander their specialness. Or they can answer life’s “role-call” with a resounding, Abrahamic, “Here I am!”

By portraying Judaism’s assignation of special roles for men and for women as offensive, and
selling Jewish women the idea that their traditional Jewish roles are raw deals, the non-Orthodox movements skewed Judaism’s system-settings. They may even have undermined their own futures. What’s certain, though, is that they deprived their followers of a vital Jewish truth.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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17 Responses

  1. Garnel Ironheart says:

    As I have noted before, the underlying assumption, based on Western secular liberal principles, is that if two things are different, then one MUST be superior to the other. Thus the egalitarian approach to Judaism: Men and women are treated differently and since the man’s role is in the showier, public side of things, which self-flaunting Western culture wholeheartedly endorses, theirs must be the superior. Thus the inevitable conclusion – women must do what have traditionally been men’s roles or be labelled inferior.
    The thought that women have traditionally been the guardians of the foundations of Jewish life: Shabbos, kashrus and taharas mishpachah, does not carry any weight in this philosophy. After all, such things are private and out of sync with Western values. But it’s those Western values, augmented by the presence of an impotent, all-approving godhead, that form the basis of the heterodox Jewish movements.

    However, I would caution Rav Shafran about comparing Judaism with Windows. After all, there’s no website to get new fixes and features. If the system crashes, we can’t just reboot it and I’d hate to think what our blue screen of death would be like.

  2. Ruth says:

    A friend of mine, who has moved from an egalitarian Conservative synogogue to an Orthodox one, noticed this as well. Her husband, she says, was very happy to let her get the aliyahs and do the hard work of preparing to layn the Torah when that was the custom. She thinks most of the other men were also OK with taking it easy and letting the women do the work. Now, however, her husband has to take a more active role, participate in davening, make brochos on the Torah, etc. And although he never yearned for these honors, he does enjoy shul much more because he is an active participant.

  3. Benjamin E. says:

    Of course, the other side is also quite common: I know women who have come from egalitarian (Conservative) communities to Orthodox communities for all of the usual reasons who are pained that they cannot participate in reading from the Torah, which they feel guides their lives as well, or lead the community in meaningful davening. One has told me that she still is frustrated that she performs all of the same duties as a Jewish woman as she did when she was part of a Conservative community, only now she feels more limited in her ability to serve Hashem and be a full-fledged member of the community. Just pointing out that it does go both ways….

  4. Benjamin E. says:

    It’s an interesting thought, that messing up the system setting messes up the system…I don’t know; it seems like Judaism has suffered much bigger “system shocks”, like the destruction of the first and second Beit HaMikdash…now *that* resulted in a total paradigm-shift in Judaism, and we survived that fine. Even if we think it’s not a good idea for other reasons, gender roles seems like much smaller beans in the perspective of our history.

  5. Danie says:

    This year I have been teaching at a Conservative shul. One of my 8th grade girls asked me (as an Orthodox person) “How come in Orthodox Judaism, women have less rights.”

    I told her that neither men nor women have RIGHTS in Judaism. We only have OBLIGATIONS. And that the obligations for any given Jew changed depending on many factors – male, female, doctor, child, lives in Israel, lives in Diaspora, Rabbi, King, etc.

    But seeing, as I’m a man and have limited perspective here, I also built the following webpage for my student and her female classmates.

    There are articles, videos, and mp3’s linked on the page, most of which are by women in response to this topic.

    I also have a couple of e-mail responses from some observant, married women.

    I think this is a major issue for a lot of people who would otherwise be inclined to become observant.

    Additionally, the assistant-rabbi at the Conservative shul emphatically (although quite incorrectly) tells his students that the only difference between Orthodox and Conservative is their views on women. It’s like telling a child that the only difference between an amusement park and a swing set is the waiting in line!

  6. Moshe says:

    It is not only men’s participation that is being sacrificed to the Scoliodox goddess of egalitarianism. Precious Jewish traditions are also facing the chopping block.

    Almost a year ago, on May 25, 2007, Conservative Rabbi Neil Gillman, who is a kohen, wrote an article in the New York Jewish Week noting “The Beauty of a Lost Blessing.” He began:

    “Beginning with the year prior to my bar mitzvah and until I left home for college, it was my practice to recite the Birkhat Kohanim, the Blessing of the Priests, together with my father, in the synagogue on the festivals and the High Holy Days. That practice continued through most of my years at the Jewish Theological Seminary until recently, when the authorities determined that this ritual had no place
    in a service which conferred no distinct honor to the kohanim or to the levites in the Torah reading.

    “Indeed, I have rarely performed this ritual in recent years. Though I have heard of Conservative synagogues that have reinstituted it, by and large its use has faded with the spread of egalitarianism. Paradoxically, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement ruled recently that the daughters of kohanim are permitted to join their fathers in performing this ritual. My daughters did join me in reciting the blessing on two or three occasions in the seminary synagogue. For me, it was an unparalleled high!”

    See how the goddess first gives, then takes away. First, gender equality says that since “in Scoliodoxy there is neither male nor female,” the daughters of a kohen have just as much right to duchen as a kohen has. But then the goddess, invoking an absolute abhorrence of distinctions based on birth, comes along and tells these same daughters, “No, you are no different from an Israelite or a Levite, you don’t have the right to duchen, after all.”

    We were warned at Mount Sinai: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Surely this includes the goddess of egalitarianism.

  7. Steve Brizel says:

    Many years ago, a prominent secular Jewish author and person of letters whose career would not normally be quoted on this or any other Torah oriented , wrote one of the most devastating critiques of feminism. I can’t use the full term of his critque, but it is sufficient to state that this author invoked “envy” of all things male by women and the denial of anything uniquely female as the underlying principles of feminism. It is unfortunately true that such an ideology is not only alive and well in the secular world and the heterodox Jewish world-one can see its impact in the LW MO world as well. I would call it “mitzvah envy” for lack of a better term.

  8. Noam says:

    Steve has very nicely demonstrated the very effective rhetorical device that is used to oppose any changes in the role of women in orthodoxy. First, he makes wide sweeping(and very debatable) claims about feminism. Then he claims that anyone, including the “LW MO world” are feminists in the exact same way, and hold the exact same beliefs and views. The only problem with this approach is that it isn’t true. Of course, that hasn’t stopped Steve from repeating it on multiple occasions in different venues.

    There are many God fearing women who accept the yoke of mitzvot and wish to serve Hashem within the boundaries of Halacha. The fact that Mr. Brizel does not agree with the psak of their rabbis should not imply that these women envy certain male body parts.

  9. Steve Brizel says:

    Noam-the facts on the ground are obvious. You have posted that anyone whose daughters don’t learn Talmud and don’t participate in TWGs , which probably includes the Rov Binyan and Minyan of Torah observant women,are simply brainswashed, or words to the equivalent. One cannot deny that one of the core elements of feminist theory is the denial of all differences between the genders except for childbirth and sweep this fact under the table by simply calling WTGs and similar activities that mimic mitzvos for men that women are exempt from as consistent with being one who accepts “the yoke of Mitzvot and wish to serve HaShen within the boundaries of Halacha.” WADR, the issue is not the “boundaries of halacha”, which sounds like a First Amendment claim as to how far one can push the boundaries, but rather can such activities be reconciled with how Chazal, Rishonim, Acharonim and Poskim understood women’s obligations within halacha. Can you name one Gadol who sanctioned WTGs on a Lchatchilah, as opposed to a bdieved basis? The facts are that RYBS never approved of such groups on a lchatchilah basis.

  10. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    Having attended two JOFA conventions and listened to quite a bit of what was being said, I must question Noam’s characterization of Orthodox feminists as “God fearing women who accept the yoke of mitzvot and wish to serve Hashem within the boundaries of Halacha.” Unfortunately, while this may be how they characterize themselves, it presumes a definition of such terms as “mitzvot” and “halacha” more in keeping with the Conservative movement than what has traditionally passed for “Orthodoxy.” I still remember Tamar Ross of Bar Ilan University, a very respected figure in Orthodox circles, looking forward to the day that the Torah world realizes that when Chazal said something was dioraisah, they were simply advancing their own political agendas. (I was also told that when she made this statement at an Israeli conference, she was sharply rebuked by Rabbis Aharon Lichtenstein and Michael Rosenzweig, neither of whom could be considered right wing.)

    Furthermore, all too often, what Noam refers to as “does not agree with the psak of their [Orthodox feminist] rabbis” is either bases on misquotes, quotes out of context, or simply erroneous information as to what is being asked of them and who is asking. Rabbi Avi Weiss, in “Women at Prayer,” seeks to permit a certain practice which both RYBS and Reb Moshe Feinstein (according to his granson) considered totally forbidden on the grounds that the two gedolim were concerned that a WTG group might think it consitituted a valid minyan, when this wasn’t a really a problem. The problem with Rav Weiss’s explanation for his position is that what he doesn’t think is a problem really is a problem, as evidenced by groups that are saying kaddish and borechu, even though, to paraphrase a prominent WTG activist, “this isn’t currently accepted as being within the framework of halacha.”

    All of this having been said, I find Steve Brizel’s allusion to Sigmund Freud to be inappropriate, offensive, and out of order. There is more than enough in Freud’s opinions and theories for the Torah world to find him totally outside the pale, and he has no place in any discourse about Jewish law.

  11. Diane says:

    Steve Brizel states, “One cannot deny that one of the core elements of feminist theory is the denial of all differences between the genders except for childbirth.” One not only CAN deny this, one MUST deny this if one has any interest at all in accurately portraying feminism. Gender-essentialist “difference” feminists believe that men and women are completely different — as much as do Orthodox people — they just think women are better in every way. Anti-essentialists don’t think gender is a very meaningful way of dividing up people, at all — they don’t even believe there are only two genders (and of course, the rabbis of the Talmud also didn’t believe there were only two genders). Gender is very complicated — which the Talmud acknowledges, but most people posting here don’t seem to get, at all.

  12. Steve Brizel says:

    Lawrence Reisman-I agree with your post except for the last paragraph. R Meir was able to extract the best of his learning with Acher. FWIW, the writer that I mentioned without disclosing his name is in the Olam HaEmes for famous literary stars and was not Freud, who I would not hesitate to mention here in the proper context. Feel free to contact R Adlerstein , who has my consent to disclose his identity.

  13. Ori says:

    Diane, as somebody who grew up Chiloni and ignorant of the Talmud, can you tell me where the rabbis say there are more than two genders?


  14. Steve Brizel says:

    Diane-one can point to Title IX, litigation about lowering physical fitness standards for such occupations as firemen and policemen and many writings among gender theorists who maintain that the only inherent difference at all between men and women is that women are home to a fetus and deliver a live child after nine months of pregnancy. I would strongly disagree that any aspect of gender theory, whether essentialist or anti-essentialist, can be harmonized with how the Talmud views the relationship between the genders.

  15. Steve Brizel says:

    Diane’s post warrants further discussion. First of all, the Talmud discusses the cases of a tumtum and androgonous and similar species. In fact, one can find these cases discussed probably on every page of a classical sefer called the Minchas Chinuch. However, the Talmud also emphasizes that women have a very strong desire to be married than a man to remain married ( Yevamos 113a, Ksuvos 86a. and Gittin 49b). It is by no means an accident that Chazal view a husband and wife whose house is a Bayis Neeman BYisrael as the ultimate way of man and woman to get back to the spiritual level of Adam and Eve before their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

  16. L Oberstein says:

    I asked one of my daughters in law what she thought of this article and here is her reply:
    “I think the men are becoming apathetic on a general societal level and it has nothing to do with women trying to achieve a closer connection to Judaism. Why wouldn’t the men be inspired by the women instead? I think practicing our religion had infinite room for expression and it is lame to say that women are emasculating the men and that’s why they are home playing video games.”

  17. Noam says:

    I would like to try to clarify one idea. Forget about ‘feminism’ for a bit. People, orthodox Jews included, want to have as much opportunity to achieve, and as few limitations as possible. One would want to attend a top yeshiva for example, and not be excluded for a reason that was not valid. The history of society is one where women have been excluded from many positions and opportunities. The desire for those opportunities does not have to stem from a desire to be just like a man, it can stem from a desire to have the full range of opportunities available, and not be discriminated against just because of gender.

    In halacha, the matter is more complex because we have to identify whether the historical limitations on the activities are halachic in nature, or societal in nature. There are halachic imperatives not to oppress people or put unneccessary limitations on their activities. There are obviously halachic imperatives restricting the activities of both men and women. Halacha is the outcome of the balancing of these imperatives. How a posek balances these imperatives is an outcome obviously of their learning, but also of their society and view of women and gender in general. Psak generally follows society. If you think this is not true, just examine the roles of women in society from the Rambam to today. The Rambam reccomended that wives not leave the house more than once a month. Today wives can be the primary breadwinners and work outside the house on a daily basis. Orthodox women routinely vote in the USA- this was a big machloket with the establishment of the State of Israel. Did the bottom-line halachic information really change? or was the balance of halachic imperatives re-examined and a different calculation made?

    It is unfair, demeaning, and just plain wrong to insist that women who want to learn gemara, or have a women’s tefilla group, or other similar activities are doing it just to be like men. The vast majority of the women I know are doing it because they want to learn, it enhances their kavannah, and they want to serve Hashem as fully as they can. The one way they are like men is that they accept the limitations that Halacha puts on them. They do not want to accept non-Halachic societal limitations. It is a shame that some still confuse the two.

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