Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb
Expanding Women’s Roles While Maintaining Halachic Boundaries
There are several points which need to be made, and emphasized, when considering the role of women in the Orthodox Jewish community. First of all, it cannot be denied that the Orthodox Jewish community is in need of all of the human and capital resources that can be mustered. Women constitute at least 50% of those human resources. It is commonly assumed, though very possibly incorrectly, that in the traditional Jewish society the role of women was pretty much limited to mothering. Whether or not this is historically accurate, that model is surely no longer realistic, and indeed, no longer exists.
It therefore behooves the community to appreciate the role of women as resources to the general community in ways that far transcend the roles of wife and mother. For example, women in society at large control an increasingly significant portion of financial wealth, and women within the Orthodox Jewish community are no different. Quite often, however, this source of communal support remains largely untapped due to preconceived notions of the role of women. I have been involved with a wide variety of Orthodox Jewish organizations for many years, and I have been repeatedly amazed at how even professional fundraisers stumble in this regard, proceeding as if only men can be important philanthropists.
But the loss to the community extends far beyond the forfeiture of potential donations. Much has been written about the dearth of leadership within the Orthodox Jewish community. Many women possess extraordinary leadership skills, often as a result of the excellent religious and secular educations that they have been afforded by the community. Nevertheless, the community, to say the least, underutilizes women as a resource in leadership capacities. It is not heretical to suggest that the voice of women needs to be heard in the governance structures of our synagogues, schools, charitable organizations, and national movements.
Many women possess enormous intellectual gifts. The pool of intellect available to the Orthodox community, if open to female participation, can be doubled. We are already beginning to see an increased openness regarding the role of women in intellectual projects. It is an open secret that a significant number of women are involved as translators and editors of mainstream Orthodox Jewish publications. Again, the use of female intellectual resources is not heresy. There are ways to allow women to participate in intellectual projects without compromising basic halachic parameters.
Currently, there is a spectrum of practice with regard to the utilization of women in leadership roles. This spectrum parallels the range from liberal to centrist to charedi Orthodoxy. Each point on the spectrum, should it choose to consciously expand the role of women in its leadership ranks, will have to identify halachic parameters with which it is comfortable. This author is in no position to define those parameters. However, he has observed how often the exclusion of women is based less upon purely halachic considerations than upon an attitude of condescension toward women’s intellectual prowess and political skills. There are those who are convinced that this attitude itself finds justification in halachic sources. For those, I have no further advice. But for those who are willing to modify this attitude so that it is more in line with reality, halachic solutions appropriate to each section of Orthodoxy could readily be identified, as indeed they have been in certain settings, particularly in the world of publishing, and in various charitable endeavors and human service delivery systems.
I emphasize that I am by no means advocating a dilution of halachic standards. I am simply encouraging that women’s contribution to Orthodox Jewish leadership, long an important factor and now a growing factor, be explicitly acknowledged and purposefully utilized.
In the interests of stimulating the creative search for halachically acceptable modalities within which women’s leadership roles can be expanded, I point to modern technology. Electronic communications offer a superb context within which all sectors of the community can be brought into verbal contact with each other, with no breach of any standards of tzniut.
Until now I have been addressing the community’s need for various sorts of resources, and suggesting that looking toward women to meet more of these needs is essential.
I now move on to a second point. Women in almost every sector of American Orthodox Judaism have dramatically different expectations than they purportedly had in the past. To some degree, this evolving attitude may be attributable to the egalitarian Zeitgeist and the influence of the feminist movement. More significantly, however, it is also clearly attributable to the superior education that women increasingly receive. The single greatest revolution, nay reform, in the Orthodox Jewish world in the past century has been the development and proliferation of religious schools for girls, in even the most extremely conservative sectors of our community. It is no wonder, then, that our women have an entirely different self image than did our grandmothers, along with a different set of – often conflicting – expectations to live up to.
We erroneously assume that many women enter the workforce nowadays because of financial pressures necessitating dual income. I am convinced that this is but one factor in the phenomenon. Women enter the workforce because it is there that they can find satisfaction for the expectations that we have cultivated in them and continue, implicitly or explicitly, to encourage.
I submit that there is a third important consideration, as we contemplate the changing role of women in the Orthodox Jewish family. This issue’s questions assume that it is only women for whom a career causes role conflict. But, are only women the ones who face daily and ongoing dilemmas as to whether their family roles or their professional roles take priority? Do not men face the same dilemma? Does not a father have considerable paternal responsibilities? Does his work, or overwork, not threaten his ability to be an adequate father or husband? Are the various difficulties currently observed in our children not primarily attributable to faulty fathering, perhaps, even more than to faulty mothering?
The questions under consideration in this symposium are vital questions indeed. But the questions are not limited to the role confusion of one gender. Both genders suffer from the role confusion which is imposed by the forces of modernity and an open society, and not just by the pressures of finances.
I take issue in particular with the assumption implicit in question three. Are we considering it necessary only to guide and advise women about the conflict between their roles at home and their other interests and aspirations? Do not men need that guidance and advice, as well, and perhaps even more urgently?
Similarly, are we to limit our focus on the relevance of our educational curricula to “workforce participation” to women’s schools? It can certainly be argued that the curricula to which women are exposed in areas such as halacha and hashkafa are far superior to the curricula of most men’s yeshivas. If “adjustments” are due in girl schools, “overhauls” need to occur in schools for boys.
There is no question that we live in a world in which the very notion of family is under fire. Parenting skills need to be taught in a wide variety of creative ways. Jewish children need both their fathers and their mothers to excel in their respective roles. The changes within our social environment and within our religious context are both substantial, imposing upon us a plethora of demands that undermine proper parenting. Coping with those changes is the name of the game. And it is a game which involves men as much as, and maybe even more than, women.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, PhD is currently the Executive Vice President, Emeritus of the Orthodox Union.