The Changing Role of the Mother and Wife in Orthodox Society
Mama Rochel – the image conjures up the comfort and embrace of our mother, ever tuned to her children’s pain, continually beseeching the Almighty on our behalf. Even her place of eternal rest emphasizes her role as mother, rather than as Yaakov’s wife. The original image of Kever Rochel (Rachel’s Tomb) is a symbol of the Jewish people’s hope for, and belief in, their ultimate redemption. Today’s image, with the fortress that surrounds it, is an apt symbol of the contemporary Jewish mother: deep inside is the mother we once knew and counted on – but the outside has been altered. The bunker speaks of her need for protection from hostile, outside forces, and perhaps hints at the fact that her newly configured exterior may increase her challenge in understanding her own essence.
The Jewish mother is under pressure in American Orthodox Jewish society. Some of this pressure is internal, as the pull between who she thinks she should be and who she enjoys being erupts. Some of the tension is imposed externally – by the shift in the mores of frum society, which now require most women to work outside the home and which often leave them feeling it is impossible to be both a good wife (that earns income either out of need or to support her kollel family) and a good mother. As a result, she is suffering – and there is an impact on her husband, children and the community at large.
I don’t presume to have solutions. Even the ability to completely articulate the problem eludes me. I will therefore share some observations of the shifts in society that I think are important for us to consider in addressing this issue.
At a shalom-bayis (marital harmony) class I recently gave to a group of young mothers, I took a question from the audience: “What about the fact that I feel like a person and I have satisfaction when I am out doing kiruv, teaching classes and speaking to college students? When I am home with an endless parade of diapers and dishes, I am just not happy.” There was passion and frustration in her words.
As much as we proclaim the all-important value of internal, spiritual development, and no shidduch was ever agreed to without some assurance of the excellent middos of the prospective match, these words are too often nothing but lip service. The value of internal development – though perhaps accepted on an intellectual level – too often fails to travel that huge distance from the head to the heart. Emotionally and practically, we value concrete and objective achievements. Even in serious yeshivas where Torah is learned on a high level and is revered as the ideal, the administration will often honor and speak with great pride of the alumni who went to Harvard.
Our educational system reinforces this by constantly rewarding achievement with tangible prizes that are meant to create delight in the recipient. In preschool, it is smiley faces and stickers, in middle school bicycles and electronic gear and in high school the feel-good rewards are often trips. This creates a subtle reinforcement in which concrete or objective accomplishments are rewarded with a tangible prize.
I can’t comment on how this affects young men but the negative effects on young women are significant. We have been training young women in a system of prizes and thrills. The measure for achievement is quantifiable and the rewards offered connected with physical pleasure. When she comes home from seminary and is either working or in school, disposable income (which is usually whatever she earns or has saved from gifts and the like) is used to keep herself comfortable and happy. Clothing, trips with friends and personal grooming are all on the list. It is not that any of these activities are problematic on their own. Of concern is the conditioning that there are “food pellets” as a reward for every task successfully performed in the challenging course called life.
When a few short years later, if she is fortunate, she finds herself with the 24/7 responsibility of a home and children, she realizes that there are no tangible prizes in the game that is motherhood. She often feels depleted by the daunting responsibility and the incessant demands. If she has a particularly tuned-in husband, his awareness of her constant efforts, and his ability to be appreciative of them, will serve as something of a balm to that need for recognition and reward. If there is some disposable income that she can spend on personal items, they may soothe her to an extent. But what if he is less emotionally responsive, and/or they are just scratching by financially – which is so often the case? And what of the need to see satisfaction from measurable achievement, which is what she has been trained for? What has prepared her to invest years of sleepless nights and to confront challenges for which the rewards are intangible and not guaranteed?
Clearly, part of the chinuch of our daughters has to be a cultivation of an appreciation for the reality of what spiritual development looks and feels like. As Rebbetzin Heller recently put it, “The biographer of Avraham Avinu’s (our forefather) life would have written of fiery furnaces and wars with kings. Yet Rashi teaches us that when Avraham sat at the entrance to his tent waiting for guests to appear on the horizon – at that moment he was sitting at the entrance to Gan Eden.” What was he doing? Waiting, yearning to fulfill Hashem’s will and take care of His creations, while gently imparting to them knowledge of profound truths. Spiritual development is a myriad of small, patient steps, inglorious and often repetitive, with time spent yearning and waiting, sometimes for guests that never show up, or for children that never quite fulfill our expectations. It looks and feels like what a mother’s day-to-day life is about.
Spiritual sensitivity is an acquired taste – one we cannot expect will emerge spontaneously with marriage and motherhood. An appreciation for the value of the small steps, the patience to defer our own needs for the sake of a spiritual goal without resentment and the sensitivity to find pleasure in intangible spiritual accomplishments needs to be cultivated. As a highly-intelligent young woman remarked, “I was taught the value of motherhood. I know it is an important job. I was not taught, however, how to find the joy in the daily experience that is motherhood.”
Our mesorah (tradition) was always transmitted Rav to talmid (mentor to student), father to son, mother to daughter. It was never only about the message. For that, books suffice. It was, and is, also about the messenger, whose impact is twofold. Firstly, our values and sensitivities are transmitted on the wings of relationships. In kiruv rechokim (outreach, and kerovim – inreach) it is the same. Well-thought-out classes may open a door to spiritual exploration, but it is mostly through the vehicle of caring relationships that a person garners the strength to change. Secondly, the role modeling of the messenger is essential as well. As one woman, who became observant after living in a religious neighborhood, once told me, “I saw all those religious women and they looked so happy, so I asked myself, ‘what do I have to do to get into that club?’”
Are we putting messengers in front of our daughters who embody the message we want to convey? We have learned how to combine ‘with it’ and ‘knowledgeable’ in our teachers, group leaders and camp counselors so the girls will be inclined to learn and imbibe the values and materials being taught. But what about being developed as individuals, embodying compassion, joy and inner serenity?
When a woman in today’s world is asked, “what do you do?” answering, “I am a wife and a mother” is not a respectable response. People may be polite, but, mostly, they seem to be thinking, “too bad, that’s all you get to do with your life.” This recalls the parable of the man who leaves his family to make a living for them. Shipwrecked on a remote island, he discovers that diamonds are as common as sand. He cannot believe his good fortune! As time passes and he is not rescued, he realizes that the natives disdain the diamonds, for which they have no use. What they value most is salt, of which there is a shortage. Slowly the man adapts to his environment, until some years later, as he sees the ship that will rescue him on the horizon, he makes sure to fill his pockets with large quantities of salt, leaving behind troves of diamonds.
We are living in a world of people who value salt, and who see no use for diamonds. But in our value system, diamonds are priceless. It is imperative that we do a better job educating young women not only in the value of our holy Torah, but in the long-term value of their contribution to the continuity of the klal, and in their unique ability to bring the Divine Presence into our homes on behalf of the Jewish People.
To this end, here are some hashkafic points that could use emphasis in our curriculum:
- The value of a human being. If a human being is the most valuable entity in the world (e.g., vatachs’reihu me’at mei’Elokim – You have made (man) only somewhat lesser than G-d: Psalms 8), then the opportunity to bring someone into the world and raise him or her to carry on our tradition is an invaluable privilege. Many women want to have children for many emotional reasons, but how many are clear on the spiritual grandeur of the endeavor?
- The unique ability of the (wife and) mother to actualize the potential of the (husband and) children. Again, we are not speaking about giving Saraleh piano lessons to actualize the budding wunderkind, but rather gearing a woman to use her multifaceted intelligence and talents to cultivate the character of Saraleh so she will have the tools to become an ovedes Hashem (servant of G-d). This cannot be accomplished by a babysitter.
- Middos development as it relates to the role of wife and mother. One of the frustrations of motherhood is the huge amount of time demanded by their children, and the accompanying feeling that she has so much else she has to do. A curriculum should be developed to cultivate menuchas hanefesh (peace of mind), based on the principle that every moment has its tafkid (purpose), and a moment well spent becomes spiritual energy that lives on for eternity (Sifsei Chaim, Rabbi Chaim Freidlander, quoting his mentor, Rabbi E.E. Dessler, quoting the Vilna Gaon). The vital lesson here is that each moment has only one tafkid, and we can achieve that inner sense of harmony and satisfaction when we bring all of our energy and focus to bear on the task at hand, out of a realization that this is what our Creator wants of us at this moment.
What I have described until this point is the challenge from within. Another challenge to the Jewish mother of today is the expectation that she will be able to manage her triple role of wife, mother, and earner. The role of wife needs its own focus, but suffice it to mention here that it was never harder to create a satisfying marriage. Many observant people have lost the vision of what a Torah marriage is even supposed to look like.
One thing is clear: marriage is an institution that is built day by day through the continued effort of husband and wife. We are accustomed to the image of the exhausted husband coming home from his day of slaying the dragons, in whatever realm that might be. Add to that image an exhausted wife waiting for him (or not home yet), and you have a recipe for marital difficulty.
A woman’s job taking care of a home and children is no less exhausting than any other. But going out into the world requires a certain recharge that a home provides, as the world outside blurs the distinctiveness of the individual. A Nobel laureate waiting for his train in Grand Central Station is only another commuter. It is in a person’s home that his individuality and uniqueness need to become evident and be appreciated. It is where he needs to be acknowledged for who he is in his relationship with his Creator, and for the essential qualities he has, not just for how he makes a living. This is a nurturing a woman can provide for her husband IF she herself is sufficiently nurtured. Home is more than a place to take a break and rest up from work. It is meant to provide an environment in which the potential of the soul can have an expression. When she comes home equally weary and in need of the same restoration and rebalance, who will pick up the slack?
The statement of R’ Yossi in the Talmud that l’olam lo karasi l’ishti ishti, ella baysi (I have never called my wife anything but my home) speaks of a reality in the Torah’s perspective of a home. A home is the vehicle for translating the precepts of Torah into the reality of this world. A Torah-based home is meant to be the entity that resolves the paradox of Hashem’s infinite presence in a finite world. Creating this arena is a critical part of the spiritual job description of the wife and mother in the home.
If one studied the entire meseches Shabbos, one would not yet know the taste and texture of Shabbos. The lashon rakka (soft speech) that Rashi explains was directed to the “Bais Yaakov” (the women of Israel – identified here as “the home of Jacob”) at the time of revelation is the calling to translate eternal truths into experiences that can shape the next generation within the context of their homes. Kugel, chulent, Shabbos treats and the warmth of a Jewish home are the tools we have to transmit our mesorah (tradition) to the next generation, as well as to the uninitiated of our own generation.
Another point to consider: There is spiritual benefit to the man when he engages the challenges of the outside world and overcomes them, as it says, “It is good for a man (gever) to carry a burden in his youth” (Eichah 3:27). “Good” in the Torah indicates that something is in harmony with the purpose for which it was created, just as the word is used in the creation narrative. But what is the burden? The Midrash on this verse (Eichah Rabba) illuminates: the burdens of Torah, of a wife and of work (melacha).
There may be a need for the woman to work in the world, or she may desire to do so, but there is no spiritual benefit accrued to her as a result. Her Divinely-ordained ability to create an environment in her home that is conducive to the spiritual, emotional and physical development of those who enter that home was not an exemption from the challenges of the world, or a restriction on her participation in society; it was rather a mandate that the Jewish woman direct her considerable talents and abilities primarily toward the building of that home. In the process, she ensures her own spiritual development, and makes possible the actualization of the potential of a husband and children. When the mother of the Vilna Gaon was about to depart this world, she asked her son what she should say to her Maker when He asks her what she did with her life. He is reported to have answered, “Just say you were a wife and a mother.” Have we fallen prey to a system in which everything else in a woman’s life gets the best of what she has to give, and her family is getting only the shirayim (leftovers)?
A positive step would be to develop creative initiatives within the community that can provide a framework for women who have to, or wants to, work, that offer modified hours that allow her to be emotionally and physically available to her family. There are several U.S.-based companies that outsource work to kollel wives in Israel – they could serve as a model that can perhaps be transferred to different industries.
We cannot eliminate the need for today’s women to contribute to, or in some cases carry, the financial burden of their families without a major shift in the structure of Orthodox life. What we can do is educate our young women to understand the bigger picture. That would enable her to appreciate more deeply her role in the transmission of our heritage and in bringing the Shechinah (Divine Presence) into our homes. It is vital that she not lose sight of the primacy of that role as the basis of her identity, whatever her involvement outside the home, whether work or community related. A woman who has internalized that vision will find a myriad of ways to convey this to her family. And finally, we need to better educate young men as to the value of what women contribute in their role as wives and mothers – not only to the functionality of the home, but to the Jewish family as the building block of the Jewish People.
Mrs. Debbie Greenblatt is a founder of the Women’s Division of Gateways and lectures often across the country.
 This is not meant as a critique. Our educational system is responding to a society of broken values that has come to equate happiness with acquisition, and to whose effects we are not immune. But like medicine that is administered in response to illness, it sometimes heals one thing while the side effects harm something else.