Rabbi Dovid Weinberger
The Ever-Changing Jewish Family: New Problems, Possible Solutions
The basic structure of the Jewish family from time immemorial was one in which husbands were the primary breadwinners and wives took primary responsibility for childrearing. That model no longer describes all, or even most, Orthodox families, and we must begin by analyzing why that is so.
The first reason for the change is economic. One income is often insufficient to meet the expenses of raising a large family with large tuition bills. Today, many married women contribute significantly to the financial stability of the family, even after all the children are married. In many kollel families, the wife takes on principal responsibility for supporting the family during the time the husband is learning full-time in kollel.
In addition, very few girls today desire to stay home and just take care of their house and young children. Once, childrearing was considered the glory of an aishes chayil; today being a “stay-at-home mom” has become an embarrassment. Even when the husband earns a substantial income, or the parents are in a position to assist so that the wife does not need to work for economic reasons, young women feel that they have to “do something” or they will be viewed as failures. These attitudes have infiltrated our Torah community and brought many negative consequences in their wake.
As a Rav, I have been very involved in marital counseling for close to thirty years. Over that period, I have witnessed dramatic changes in family life as a consequence of changing social norms. My kehillah (congregation) is part of one of the more affluent Orthodox neighborhoods in America and I’ve dealt with women going to work for a wide variety of reasons. I remember vividly a mother who entered the workplace due to financial constraints on her family at the time when her children were quite young. I met with the husband and wife and discussed some of the challenges she would face in the modern-day office. I expressed my concerns for the impact on the chinuch of the children as a consequence of their mother working late.
Both husband and wife assured me that my concerns were unfounded and that they had everything under control. A few short years later, they once again came to my office, this time to discuss difficulties they were facing with their children and compromising situations in which the wife found herself at work. My recommendation was for the wife to reduce her work schedule to part-time so that she could be there for her kids. I also urged her to switch jobs to a more “kosher” environment where she would have lesser ‘nisyonos’ (challenges). I thought I had reached them, and hoped that I had injected an element of balance and sanity into their lives.
The couple were not congregants so I didn’t keep up a regular connection. Five years later, I learned that they were divorced because of an affair on her part, and three of their five children were members of the growing “kids-at-risk” population. Although this unhappy story is not typical of every family in which the mother works full-time, neither is it entirely unique. It suggests some of the dangers that go with the changes in our traditional family structure, and the need for continual vigilance.
In other cases, there is no such dramatic familial dysfunction but the mother’s kochos (capabilities) are depleted, leaving her, at best, a 50-60% mother. On one occasion, I learned in a casual conversation at a simcha that a certain woman was going back to school at age forty to pursue a career. When I questioned the husband in a nonchalant fashion, he told me, “B”H, I’m making a nice living, but my wife insists that we buy an apartment in Miami and one in Israel. To which I responded, ‘I don’t have the money for that, but if you want it, go earn it.’”
For the next number of years, as she pursued her dream, this woman watched her teenage children decline spiritually and her marriage suffer. She came to see me about a year prior to her expected graduation and detailed the tensions in the home and the lack of shalom bayis that resulted from her quest.
Still, only with great difficulty did I convince her to give up her life’s dream (for now) and focus on the crucial task of raising teenagers and solidifying her relationship with her spouse. She has still not finished her degree. But she has successfully married off almost all of her children, has a solid relationship with her husband, and is enjoying tremendous nachas from her family. She still dreams of the apartment in Jerusalem. But whenever we speak, she thanks me profusely for my intervention and helping her make “the right decision.” There is nothing more gratifying for me as a Rav than being able to help couples reaching out for guidance and being able to help them make the right choices in today’s difficult world.
A Sphere of Ruchniyus
Once, the wife was always there for her husband and children. Rebbe Yossi’s oft-quoted statement, “I don’t call my wife “my wife” but “my home” reflected the wife’s role as the “akeres habayis” (principal of the home), around whom everything in the home revolved. Today, the wife has been removed from her spiritual haven and sent out into a merciless world. Surrounding society has had its inevitable impact on her and has diminished the time she can spend in the realm that is uniquely hers. Even such mundane tasks as preparing dinner have become stressful because of a lack of time. Time spent with children and spouses has diminished, as well.
Chazal teach that a woman is exempt from time-bound mitzvos for two reasons. First, her primary responsibility to her husband and family precludes the fulfillment of these commandments. Second, because she is not as vulnerable as the man to the deleterious influences of the outside world, she does not require the same degree of protection. What are we to say today, when women have entered the world and face the same corrupting societal influences as men? While no one is suggesting that women, who are so stressed by a lack of time already, take on more mitzvos, the deviation from the norm anticipated by the Torah cannot be ignored. Nor should we expect that those changes will be without impact.
In our new circumstances, it is imperative that working mothers develop a sphere of ruchniyus that will inject spirituality into their daily lives. Each woman has to find the spiritual nourishment that suits her. For some, it might be attending a weekly hashkafa shiur (class on ideas and values) or a brief daily learning session with a friend. Others might prefer a more direct approach, such as one of the tzniyus support groups that have become popular in many communities, where she can discuss her challenges openly and freely with other women and seek meaningful solutions. Having witnessed the compromise of the pristine neshamos (souls) of b’nos Yisrael (daughters of Israel), we must find means to combat the spiritual effects of those compromises.
Therapists are too busy to take on all the clients seeking their help. The increasing vulnerability of our children to spiritual pollution from an ever-growing number of sources makes the need for solid families greater than ever. Yet the stresses on families multiply on all sides. It can be argued that the additional income earned by working mothers lessens some of that stress. But childrearing by substitutes may only be generating new stresses, and raises many difficult halachic issues – e.g., kashrus – aside from issues of chinuch.
Given the new norm of women working outside the home – whether for proper or improper reasons – our girls’ high schools and seminaries must devote more time to preparing them for what they will face in the workplace, even as they uphold the ideal of the wife as the akeres habayis. Seminaries must emphasize halachos of the workplace, such as how to conduct oneself with employers and co-workers, the laws of yichud (seclusion), etc. Working women must be familiar as well with the kashrus issues raised when a non-Jew has primary responsibility for preparation of meals while the mother is not home.
Choosing a Career
There is a limited number of positions available in chinuch, and many young women will require an advanced secular education if they are to provide the principal support for their families. What schools of higher education and what programs are appropriate for our young women are issues that must be addressed by parents and children in consultation with their Rav prior to embarking on a career path.
Allow me to delineate in broad terms some of the issues that I speak about with parents and daughters, when they consult me on the latter’s choice of career. After hearing from the young woman about what interests her, I outline some of the issues regarding the type of employment that is appropriate for a frum girl. For example, nursing is a popular choice today. But nursing can take place in a wide variety of venues – a hospital, a clinic or the office of a private practitioner. Each venue has its own dynamic and potential pitfalls. In a hospital setting, one works with all types of doctors, of different ages and different religious persuasions. A young women beginning her career as a nurse is very vulnerable in a hospital setting in which she has many superiors. She cannot easily say no to any request that is made of her. On the other hand, hospitals have the advantage of providing a setting that is more public than a private office. And relationships developed while working with a large number of people are likely to be less personal than those that develop when working in a limited environment. The age of the employer and the office arrangements are just two of the relevant considerations with respect to working in such a setting and parents must know the strengths and weaknesses of their child in particular. This type of analysis must be applied to any work situation.
Recently, I’ve been invited to speak on some of these topics in a number of seminaries who have educational programs designed to help their students enter the workforce. I am happy to know that these issues are being addressed in a serious way, and that frum women are being provided with some picture of the stark realities awaiting them when they enter the working world. It is imperative that every community have regular seminars and community-wide shiurim to address the issues facing working women of all ages and the impact it has on their lives and families.
One very sensitive halachic issue which must be addressed in this context is the inability of many Torah families to properly care for, and bear the costs of, large families. Despite their bitachon in Hashem (reliance on G-d) to provide for their large families, the reality is that many are struggling to do so.
The question of family size is a highly personal one that requires the guidance of a Rav, and often the decision of a qualified posek. Too many couples are not consulting rabbonim on the sensitive issue of birth control, and are making complex, halachic determinations for themselves, which they are ill-equipped to do. Rabbonim today are very sensitive to the needs of young couples and the specific situations that might mitigate in favor of a temporary heter (allowance) to avoid pregnancy. Every young couple must seek out a Rav and not decide on their own when or if to have children. Rabbonim meeting with couples before marriage should have a candid discussion with them on issues of family size in light of their particular circumstances. The Rav must be proactive in bringing up this topic during the engagement period.
One final point. We live in a time of great affluence, and this has led to a sense of entitlement. Many young people expect to live a lifestyle far beyond what their parents ever dreamed of at their age – even while they are still in school or kollel. Being mistapek b’muat (satisfied with less) is a forgotten concept for many. Yet the very unwillingness to live a simpler lifestyle is one of the primary reasons many women are leaving the home to work. In such cases, we are witnessing a loss of the proper priorities and a devaluation of motherhood.
True, there are many families who have the wherewithal to permit their children to live luxurious lifestyles, even early in their married lives, without the wife working. But most families are incapable of doing so. I would urge even those families capable of maintaining their married children in luxury to downsize their children’s lifestyle. Though this is usually for their own good as well, it is especially needed so as not to create a standard of living that will pressure other young women to work long hours outside the home, with all the resulting familial tensions we have discussed.
It is my fervent hope that the Torah community is finally addressing the crisis of the family that has resulted from the growing numbers of women in the workplace. Doing so will require deep introspection at the communal level about our priorities as we seek to transmit our precious mesorah to the next generation.
Rabbi Dovid Weinberger is the Rav of Congregation Shaaray Tefila, in Lawrence, New York.