Making It All Work

Listening to an old recording recently, I was taken aback by a statement in passing by of one of the participants. Kol kevudah bas melech penimah,[1] he opined, meant that women should keep themselves far away from the influences of the external “street” because they have a harder time than men remaining above its influences. That was a take I had never heard before!

It also seems entirely counter-factual, at least in my experience. Whether judging from the latest infidelity stories, or from the level of conversation of some people a few years out of yeshiva, the corrosive effects of the workplace are writ large all over the males. Frum women – more than men – seem to be asking the right questions and taking the right steps to hold on to their penimiyus – their inner sense of dignity, not allowing it to be abraded by the hours they spend daily in a morally challenged job environment. If anything, their performance argues for one of the competing takes on the bas melech passage: that the true honor of a woman is in her inner qualities, rather than external appearance or activities. Baruch Hashem, our women seem to do a better job safeguarding their penimiyus than the men do with their outwardly-oriented avodah.

All this makes Making It All Work: Women Surviving and Thriving at Work by Ari and Miryam Wasserman not only a gem, but a must-have for every Torah family in which a woman works outside the home. Our community is so often reactive to new challenges, waiting till a problem turns into a crisis before beginning the serious interventions. Here is a book that wisely anticipates the problems, deals with them, takes cues from those who are in the field, and empowers women well before things get out of hand. (Full disclosure: Ari Wasserman was a student of mine many years ago, and later a chavrusa for learning Tur/Beis Yosef on parts of Yoreh Deah.)

It does so much that is right. It doesn’t preach. It offers a range of solutions regarding common problems, without dictating practice, recognizing that readers come from all over the halachic and hashkafic landscape. Most importantly, it doesn’t rely on conjecture and assumptions. It listens to women. The Wassermans spent years interviewing scores of Orthodox women about their experiences, their challenges, and their successes and failures.

The treatment is comprehensive. The topics include: kiddush Hashem in the workplace; choosing an occupation; honesty at the interview; a husband’s obligation to help at home; preparing for Shabbos; socializing with men on the job; special challenges in the frum place of employment; the single woman; issues relating to working in healthcare; socializing on the job, including drinking and office parties; avoiding vulgar speech; shaking hands; casual contact; hair covering; tzniyus in professional dress; staying connected to kedushah; dealing with failure.

Ari Wasserman’s earlier work for men (A Practical Guide to Halachah in the Workplace) should have been a failure. Jewish bookstores already had multiple similar works on the shelves. Its runaway success (and popularity in different parts of the Orthodox world) testifies to his talent as a writer and researcher, and as a fully-engaged ben Torah dealing practically with practical issues. (His full-time learning after high school kept pulling him to the beis medrash through the years at Penn and Harvard Law; he is one of those rare people who took the best of competing worlds, rather than the worst.) If that book succeeded, all the more so will this work, which has no competition. Mishpacha splashed the earlier book; they’ll have little choice but to do so for this new one. (Without pictures of women, of course.)

Making It All Work (distributed by Feldheim) should be hitting the bookstores just about when you read this review.

  1. Psalms 45:14

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10 Responses

  1. joel rich says:

    In the real world, workplace issues usually involve a number of interrelated complex Halachic and hashkafic considerations. One also has to have a good understanding of workplace dynamics, culture and expectations. Trying to extrapolate the best approach from a series of unidimensional vignettes is no substitute for speaking to someone who knows both sides of the street.

  2. Raymond says:

    I think I have a sound way for a man to avoid trouble in his workplace when he finds himself attracted to one or more of his co-workers, and that is, to have some perspective. For those of us who love art, when we visit art museums, we spend our time admiring that work of art, but always from a distance. We can look, but with the implicit understanding that we cannot touch. Or take some beautiful scenery from nature, such as a sunset. We can enjoy the sunset all we want, but of course we can never touch the actual sun.

    Well, the same thing goes for the attractive women we men encounter at the workplace and elsewhere. I see nothing wrong with admiring the summit of all beauty, which of course means beautiful women, just as long as we do it with the understanding that the pleasure our eyes experience, does not extend to our limbs. I admit that even that level of self-control is quite a challenge, and so I suppose that if what i have said so far is not enough of a deterrent, that one can then remind oneself that we are not entitled to all that we want. Each of us men get, at most, one woman, that is, if we are lucky.

    • Yehoshua Kahan says:

      Rabbenu Yona writes (Shaarei Teshuva 3:138) that merely gazing at another man’s wife when she is unclothed is in the category of “yeharag v’al ya’avor”–that is, one must die rather than commit this sin.

      Ramchal writes (Mesillas Yesharim 11) the following:

      Chazal have said (Berachos 61a) “Hand to hand, the evil will not be cleansed.” (Proverbs 11:21) One who counts coins from his hand to hers in order to gaze at her wi (ll not be cleansed from the judgement of Gehinnom. And also (Shabbos 64a) “Why did the Jews of that generation require atonement? Because they feasted their eyes on nakedness.” Rav Sheshes said (Berachos 24a): Why did Scripture (Numbers 31:50) enumerate the outer ornaments along with the inner ones? To teach that if one gazes at a woman’s little finger, it is as though he gazed at her nakedness. And also (Avoda Zara 20a) “And keep yourself from every evil thing” (Deut. 23:10)–a man must not look at a beautiful woman even if she is unmarried, nor at a married woman, even if she is ugly.”

      See there at length, where he discusses the fact that any involvement with a woman that is not your wife, whether in the form of looking at her or not, is strictly forbidden.

      See also the Mishna Brura (75 sub-paragraph 7), who says the following.

      …However, concerning the prohibition of gazing, all authorities agree that when one stares even at a woman’s little finger in order to enjoy the sight, he transgresses the prohibitions of ‘Do not go astray after your eyes.’ They said that even if he has accumulated Torah and good deeds, such a man will not be saved from Gehinnom. A mere glance, without intention to enjoy the sight, is permitted, but it is better to avoid this. The Minchas Shmuel says that a distinguished man must certainly be careful about this. The Pri Megadim says that it is forbidden even to glance at parts of the body which are supposed to be covered, such as the upper arms. The authorities write that nowadays all of this applies even to unmarried girls, because they do not immerse in a mikvah and they are niddos from the onset of puberty.

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    R Ari Wasserman’s book was a wonderful book that was long overdue for any male working in the business and professional world today. I am sure that Mrs. Wasserman’s book is equally as well written

  4. Tuviah says:

    Raymond, I appreciate and admire your desire to keep a distance from illicit relationships. May all of us have the strength to resist them.
    However, every Jew should know that Jewish law actually forbids gazing at women for pleasure’s sake. It is a major challenge, especially in our time, when ads and other images proliferate, but the challenge must still be met.
    May you and I go from strength to strength. Stay strong, man.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    Although political correctness has a lot of drawbacks, its enforcement in the US workplace by zealous HR people seems to have reduced the amount of harassment working women face. Everybody now has to go through anti-harassment training, complete with videos of what not to do. The entertainment industry, though, may still play by its own rules, and is a good thing to avoid.

  6. Shades of Gray says:

    ” It offers a range of solutions regarding common problems, without dictating practice, recognizing that readers come from all over the halachic and hashkafic landscape”

    Rabbi and Mrs. Wasserman were interviewed in Ami Living this week by Mrs. Rechy Frankfurter. He mentioned that the imputus for the book came from R. Yosef G. Bechoffer’s mentioning in the Jewish Action review of the first book on the halachos of the workplace, that it didn’t apply to women.

    R. Wasserman mentioned in the interview the issue of using first names vs. only last names for the other gender, quoting R. Asher Weiss that there’s no issur in first names. R. Wasserman distinquished between a chareidi and non-charedi workplace, calling the stringency “minhag hamakom”. R. Wasserman says if one works at a secular environment such as Goldman Sachs or Sullivan & Cromwell and would call the other gender by the last name, they will think such a person is strange or crazy(a relative of mine who worked in a modern orthodox institution was similarly told by a charedi poseik that were she to insist on last names they will think she is “crazy”).

    At one of my first jobs after I left yeshiva, I worked in a frum office where the atmosphere was informal and people used first names. There was one married young woman who was very religious(her father is a rosh yeshiva), and would address the men by the last name, even though they called her, in turn, by the first name. I followed the informal “minhag hamakom” for everyone else, but made an exception when I addressed her. I think it paid off to be respectful of her practices, because she suggested that I look into a shidduch with one of her friends(another relative who worked in a yeshivish environment where they informally used first names asked her boss if she could be called by her last name as she learned, and they were happy to accomodate her).

    I think of the previously discussed issue of pictures of women in magazines similarly. Mishpacha et. al, even if Litvish, have a right to adopt what today are chassidish chumras/gedarim of no pictures of women and should be respected. On the other hand, others have different needs and a different “minhag hamakom” for appropriate pictures of women and should be accomodated, such as in a different magazine.

  7. dr. bill says:

    An alternate view. I strongly believe that theoretical knowledge in specific areas of Torah is possible and likely. I claim such expertise in a number of areas. 🙂

    Nonetheless psak, practical halakha is NEVER isolated to a particular area. For example, better than most I can differentiate the beginning of bein ha’shemashot from the possible beginning of Shabbat on a biblical level or when Shabbat ends at a biblical versus rabbinic level. However to pasken for different situations regarding those times requires a broad understanding of level of tzorech, sakanah, etc. best left to a broadly based posek. I find psak manuals a bit overdone for this reason.

    A manual for workplace issues is a (regrettable) step beyond even manuals on topics much less dependence on context. Even our VP’s advise shows limited real-world experience.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      Mispacha Magazine had a special issue and lots of letters thereafter about the transition from the Beis Medrash to the office and how it affects both sides of a marriage. Well worth reading for the issues presented and discussed.

  8. DF says:

    You (RYA) are pandering and thus patronizing to women, as well as putting the entire sex on a pedestal when you write that ” judging from the latest infidelity stories…the corrosive effects of the workplace are writ large all over the males [whereas] frum women – more than men – seem to be asking the right questions, etc.” Men have a testosterone that women don’t, and hence infidelity “stories” could never be a proper barometer to judge relative commitment, even if the stories had any actual merit (and most of the time, they dont.) So women get no more “points” on that score than anyone alive today does for not falling prey to idolatry. The same is true with the type of “conversation” you hear among men, whose language in every age and society has always been coarser than among women. (And of course, as a man, you don’t necessarily hear all the things women do.) נשים עם בפני עצמן הן. They are judged, and judge themselves, with different standards. They are also more prone by their nature to “ask questions” than men do.

    How about we just avoid the identity politics altogether and say its not a competition. There are different challenges not just for men and women, but also for different jobs, in different cities, and at different levels of responsibility. If the book is helpful to some of the people, in some of the challenges, some of the time, then we can already say Dayenu.

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