Aishes Chayil: Lost or Found?
As a young elementary school student, I arrived home each day at 5:00pm. As I walked in the door, I would behold a table set for supper, with little wedges of cantaloupe at each setting, waiting for us to sit down and eat. Some nights, when my father was teaching a late-night course in college, he wasn’t there with us, but most nights we were all there together. My mother, a brilliant, cultured woman who never attended college, seemed quite content running our home and taking care of our physical and psychological needs. Our home was calm, with everything in its place. Once, a friend of my mine, describing Friday afternoon said, “Did you ever notice that no one is ever just sitting around waiting to light candles?” Not true. In my childhood home, that’s exactly what it was like. And I suspect that my experience was not unique.
Fast forward to a discussion I had just recently. I was speaking with someone about shidduchim (matchmaking) in the yeshiva world. “Well,” she said, “the girls must have some sort of skill or profession.” She recounted that someone she knew – a mother of a family without a lot of money – recently brought her daughter to meet a shadchan (matchmaker). When the shadchan heard that the family had no means and that the young woman was not in college, she told this mother that she simply could not even accept the name of her daughter. Apparently, there are no prospects in the yeshiva world for a young woman of no means and no profession. If you want to “just” be a mother, you are out of luck.
Our world has changed dramatically. It’s not just about feminism. Tzipporah Heller, of Neve Yerushalayim, speaks eloquently and brilliantly about the technological changes of the last half century (Our Bodies Our Souls. Audio recording, Aish HaTorah, Jerusalem, Israel 1988). Much of the very necessary work that women did at home has been taken over by machines. Washing machines and dryers, wrinkle-free clothing, dishwashers, crockpots and microwaves have changed the lives of women more than any ideology.
As for ideology, the Akeidat Yitzchak (Rav Yitchak Arama of the 15th century), speaks compellingly of the need for women to contribute to the world in roles beyond that of mothering. Indeed, he remarks that Yaakov’s angry response to Rachel’s “Give me children or else I die” (Genesis 30:1) can be explained in the following way: “The two names – ‘woman’ (isha = from man) and ‘Eve’ (chava = mother of life) – indicate two purposes. The first, which teaches that woman was taken from man, stresses that, like him, she may understand and advance in the intellectual and moral fields. This was evidenced in the matriarchs, other prophetesses and in many righteous women, and it reflects the literal meaning of Proverbs 31 about the ‘woman of valor’ (eshet chayil). The second alludes to the power of child bearing and rearing, as is indicated by the name of Eve – the mother of all living. A woman deprived of the secondary power of childbearing will be deprived [only] of the secondary purpose but will be left with the ability to do evil or good, just like a man, who is barren” [italics added].
Yaakov expressed anger toward Rachel “in order to reprimand her and make her understand this all-important principle – that she was not dead as far as their joint purpose in life simply because she was childless, just as it would be true in his case if he had been childless” (Akeidat Yitzchak, Breishit Sha’ar 9. English Translation by Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit, Jerusalem, Israel. p. 334). Of course, the ancient text of Eshet Chayil, (A Woman of Valor, Proverbs 31:10-31) itself testifies to the fact that women have long been involved in many roles in addition to parenting.
Is it possible that the idyllic scene that I described from my childhood was a passing moment in history, unique to the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties in post-World War II America? Perhaps it was only at that special time that, because of technological advances, women experienced freedom from many of the traditional duties at home and, thanks to an aligning of the economic stars, had no financial obligations outside the home. Tzipporah Heller suggests that it was this very idleness that may have contributed to the women’s movement of the nineteen-sixties.
Like the Akeidat Yitzchak, she claims that everyone is responsible to make a contribution. Of course women felt worthless if they were doing “nothing” most of the time! It is no wonder that women started to feel a need to do “something.” “Something” may be volunteering in community organizations or school PTA’s or political organizations. “Something” may be higher education in the secular world or the world of Torah studies. “Something” may be a career or a job. When the economy demands it, and women are not required to be home all day, women will want and need to do “something.”
I recall when a part-time job fell into my lap just as my youngest child began attending a playgroup two mornings a week. I was about to be home alone most of the time and here was this teaching job – two mornings a week! Until then I had been very meaningfully engaged in volunteer work at my children’s school, but I was ready now to really prove myself. Nothing, however, can compare to the feeling I had several years later when I saw the look of relief in my husband’s eyes when I told him that the opportunity I had to work for more hours was going to remove most of the burden of paying high school tuition for our children.
Women have gained tremendously by the changes that have occurred in the last several decades. Our housework is easier, and we feel better about ourselves because we are making serious contributions to the world at large, to the economic well-being of our families, and to the world of Torah (I remember when there was no such thing as a woman principal of even a Bais Yaakov school. Now there is almost no such thing as a male head of a girls’ school!). We are no longer afraid that if we find ourselves alone, G-d forbid, that we will be destitute.
But there are losses. We still want to do it all at home. We want to be there to teach our children to make brachot (blessings before eating food), we want to make sure that we are home when the school bus arrives, we want to feed our children the sumptuous suppers our mothers fed us, we want to listen patiently as our children speak, we want to be known as the ones who do the homework, we want to be home when our children have fever, we want the house to smell of challah and chicken soup each Friday, we want to extend ourselves to families in the community, we want the house to be spotless. And we find we just can’t do it… We become harried, impatient, filled with guilt. We remember how someone once told us about quality time – but we found that there can be no quality time when you are thoroughly exhausted.
Having said this, there is no question that the culture has changed. There is no doubt, for example, that fathering is different today than it used to be. I have seen fathers, even in yeshiva communities, involved in a way that they almost never were when I was a child. I know men who have organized their job responsibilities and hours around the school bus departure and arrival. I know young men who are comfortable taking care of even the smallest needs of their children.
Nevertheless, there is a frantic, frenzied tone in the voices of some of the young women I speak with. As women, we seem to be hardwired for care giving, and when we are not convinced that everything is perfect at home, we suffer inside – even as we feel proud of our accomplishments and our ability to provide income. I think all women are struggling with this. I think observant Jewish women are struggling even more.
What are some of the solutions that are available to us? There are many things that will have to happen in our observant world in order to effect real change. Let’s begin with three things that can begin to make a dent.
How do we define success? For many families in all parts of the observant community, success is defined materially and almost always includes a large, beautifully-furnished home, a beautifully-coiffed wife (wigs costs thousands of dollars!) and extravagantly clothed children. Bar and bat mitzvah celebrations cost tens of thousands of dollars, and weddings (despite Agudas Yisrael’s published list of limitations) can cost as much as a home. An acceptable vacation destination used to be the Catskills, or New Hampshire. Now, one is expected to experience, at least once in one’s life, a cruise to an exotic location or a trip to an unusual European city or the Caribbean Islands. It is certainly anyone’s right to spend their money as they wish, but this sort of spending is simply not responsible. We are all under enormous pressure to live beyond our means. Some parents feel that if they do not provide luxury for their children they are not doing their job. In turn, their children feel that if they do not meet these standards of luxury in their own lives, they have failed their parents’ definition of success.
Success is raising a beautiful family even in an apartment or in a small attached home. We must re-emphasize our core values to ourselves and our children. We must remind ourselves that our definition of modesty is not just about halachic standards of dress but a preference for a more low-key style of living and celebrating. Perhaps we need less “oohing and aahing” over houses and more “oohing and aahing” over kind, sincere and respectful children. A Jewish community that has lower material expectations will also be satisfied with more dignified and less extravagant buildings for our Jewish institutions. All this will create an atmosphere where people feel under less pressure financially and will remove some of the burden from working men and women.
Our wealthier community leaders and members must be called upon to tone it down. This, more than anything, will begin a downward spiral of material expectations. Take the extra money and put it into scholarship funds or an across-the-board reduction in tuition at the yeshiva of your choice. Rabbis and educators can work to convince these leaders to begin the process – but without the cooperation of the wealthier among us, little progress will be made.
In our high schools, seminaries and kollelim, we must begin to educate our young people about the realities of marriage, money and parenting. We are fortunate that our children are under our educational influence even in their post-high school years. Let’s take advantage of that.
Sholom Task Force has created curricula for high school boys and girls to educate them about the dangers of domestic abuse. We need to develop marriage and parenting curricula, as well, for the same population. We need to inform young women of the best career choices and how to best access a higher education. We need to prepare young women, who are used to being surrounded by friends, for the sense of isolation that may follow after marriage when they find themselves alone and lonely with only their bashert. What is marriage really like for a young woman who is going to school and/or working?
Young women need to be taught about the ideal of being a Jewish mother but also about the difficulties of parenting, even without working outside the home. They must be taught the parenting skills and strategies that are needed in this generation. In high school and in seminary we need to prepare young women for the challenges they will face in a world where they will likely be working even when they have small children.
Post-high school Torah-study programs for single young men should address realistic expectations from marriage in a serious, organized and pedagogically sound way. Young men need to be prepared to contribute to housework if their wives are working (and even if they are not). They need to learn that a young wife who works is tired and needs help. They need to be taught even about cooking and certainly about helping with children. Young men have to learn what their obligations are – as listed in the kesubah.
Before marriage, engaged couples must be encouraged by kallah and chassan instructors and others to attend the carefully-designed marriage classes of Sholom Workshop. The curriculum intelligently and sensitively discusses expectations and roles, financial planning, “how to argue” and how to make sure there is ongoing dialogue even in the busiest of households. Young couples need to be taught that their relationship comes above all else, even if some preconceived ideas regarding roles have to be sacrificed to preserve that relationship.
In addition to education before marriage, the Jewish community – especially synagogues and schools – must conscientiously and consistently provide programming for men and women regarding the complex roles of each, both at home and in the workplace.
We need to plan ongoing opportunities for men and women to attend classes on marriage and parenting. We must bring rabbis and psychologists into our communities on a regular basis. This will provide education as well as support – not just from outside, but from one another. Through open dialogue, perhaps we can begin, together, to arrive at solutions.
Important issues need to be discussed:
- Part-time vs. full-time careers for women, particularly when children are small
- Proper child care for when parents are not present
- Parenting skills
- Dealing with guilt when leaving children
- Finding quality time with children despite one’s own exhaustion
- Finding quality time for marriage
- The yeshiva tuition crisis
- Viable, low-cost summer camp options
- Halachic considerations regarding birth control for women who are “doing it all”
- Realistic expectations for husbands to have of their wives
- Halachic considerations regarding minyan (praying with quorum of ten men) and Torah study when a husband might be needed at home
- When full-time Torah study must be replaced with an income-producing profession
- Taking a break from our busy lives – whether alone or together
I don’t think we are going back to the halcyon days of childhood in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. I do believe that the observant Jewish world must confront the changes that have occurred in almost every segment of our community. A small moment in history, when most women were home and only caring for children, cannot be considered the normal baseline against which everything which has followed is judged. At the same time, we must return to some greater level of sanity and calm in our households – the calm that I felt as a young child.
I spend a lot of time with young, working, observant women. They are overwhelmed – and I worry that they and their children are paying a price. And that their husbands are paying a price. Together as a community, we must find a way to restore a balance that will create healthy households even in these very complicated times.
Mrs. Abby Lerner is the Rebbetzin of the Young Israel of Great Neck, and the Director of Admissions at Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva University High School for Girls in Holliswood, NY, where she also teaches the senior course, Women in Jewish Law.