Rebbetzin Feige Twerski
The Red Mark on My Forehead
A story is told of a king who was advised by his minister of agriculture that the wheat crop had become contaminated and that whoever would eat of it would become insane. The minister cautioned the king to be vigilant and not to partake of the crop. The king appreciated the warning but insisted that despite the minister’s attempt to protect him, he did not wish to be excluded from the fate that would befall his people. He did, however, have one request of the minister: that each of them should place a permanent red mark on their forehead so that when they looked at each other, they would at least remember that they were insane.
There are those who suggest that the superwomen of today, who both work outside the home and attempt to be effective wives and mothers, have in fact assumed both of the primal “curses.” They have to deal with the “b’etzev teldi banim” – the challenge of giving birth to and raising children – as well as the curse of “by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread.” An objective observer, new to the scene and unbiased by current values and mores, might look around for a “red mark” on someone’s forehead; there is something intrinsically insane about this picture. The problem is that we have all eaten of the poisoned produce and have come to accept what we are at a loss to change.
Arguably, a stay-at-home mother is in a position (if she so chooses) to give both her children and her husband what her hassled and stressed counterpart could not. Dennis Prager, a social commentator, astutely notes, “The human ability to rationalize is infinite. When well-educated parents choose dual-career marriages, instead of acknowledging that a price in childrearing has to be paid for this choice, some of them develop the notion that what children really need from their parents is ‘quality time’ and not quantity of time… Fathers and mothers need to acknowledge that when it comes to time with children, quality cannot be fully separated from quantity. What does ‘quality time’ even mean? That a parent and child who spend little time together will have a very meaningful conversation for an hour? Children open up when they want to, which is usually after much “non-quality” conversation and time have been spent with their parents.”
At a convention for educators a few years back, HaRav Ahron Feldman, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisroel, stated that the caliber of children raised in our times is vastly inferior to those of his day and age. The reason, he cited, was that mothers were working out of the home and not raising their own children – albeit, he quickly added, for economic reasons. It cannot be denied that the unbelievable burgeoning of Torah learning in our times has been made possible, in large measure, by kollel women who, with great mesiras nefesh, try to do it all. The caveat, however, is that this is a humanly impossible undertaking. Despite all the advances in technology, nobody has yet figured out how to be in two places at once, and to be everything to everyone. The fallout – the price exacted from children raised by babysitters or daycare centers and the unmet needs in the marriage relationship – are huge.
In my many travels lecturing and counseling over the last number of decades, I have encountered the same scenario over and over again. After my talk on the imperative of being an engaged and forthcoming wife, women invariably line up and, with little variation, describe their grueling schedules. Their day begins with preparing children for school, dressing and feeding them, dropping them off at daycare or babysitters, running to work, rushing home to prepare supper, cleaning the house, doing homework with their children and getting them ready for bed. Finally, exhausted and spent when their husbands come home at 11:00 PM from night seder, they are expected to be interested and attentive to their needs. With what energy, they want to know? They confess that they are living on the edge, stressed and burnt out, barely keeping their heads above water.
Additionally there is the psychological issue of diminution of respect for husbands who function within the circumspect daled amos (four ‘cubits’) of Torah while the wife has stepped out into a secular world that has no boundaries. What’s more, she is now the one that brings in the money, and that is of no small consequence. Arguably, in an ideal world, we would hope that the value of Torah learning would outweigh all other considerations. In reality, however, this is, unfortunately, seldom the case. In my experience, these have been just some of the extensive occupational hazards faced by women who are compelled to carry the burden of employment outside the home.
A number of years ago at an educators convention, I suggested to a hall full of women that, in view of the above-articulated concerns, perhaps our communities and schools should consider reinstating the honorable place that Zevulun had enjoyed in Torah hashkafa and in the Torah text. Yissachar, the tribe of Torah learning, and Zevulun, the merchants who supported their Torah, were on a par – equally valued for their contributions. Implicit was the acknowledgement that neither could exist without the other. It was a partnership.
Unquestionably, it was in an effort to save Torah in the postwar years that the “kollel for everyone” system was devised and launched. In the process, however, the Zevuluns have been marginalized. Young girls in seminaries have been indoctrinated to believe that their life’s calling requires dedication and self sacrifice to a long-term learner exclusively. Concerns about how it will play out down the line with a houseful of children are seldom, if ever, addressed. Young men, on the other hand, are instructed to seek either a father-in-law willing and able to support them or a young lady with enough earning power to facilitate his lofty Torah endeavors.
Suffice it to say that in prior generations, the principle that Torah can only be acquired through mesiras nefesh was understood to mean the sacrifice of the learner himself – of awakening before dawn on cold winter nights, putting in his hours of learning, going to work and then returning to the beis medrash to learn some more. Today, it is parents and in-laws who are put upon and from whom mesiras nefesh is demanded. Their golden years that were supposed to be, at long last, stress-free and relaxing become debt ridden to keep their children “in learning.”
The most troubling aspect of this plan is the “es kumpt mir” (entitlement) attitude that this weltanschauung has fostered and fomented. Unquestionably, there have always been long-term learners supported by wealthy parents and in-laws, or worthy “yechidey segulah” (special individuals) – young men particularly suited and qualified in this regard who were sponsored by their communities. Personally, I would like to see an approach where Roshei Yeshiva, Rebbes and Rabbeim would, without judgment, select those individuals who should be in it for the long haul and release the others to a commitment of several years of full time learning followed by a combination of “kevias itim” (a regular learning schedule) and gainful employment. Zevulun would be appropriately reinstated and women could choose to return home to raise their own children and focus on the needs of the husband-wife relationship with greater menuchas hanefesh (peace of mind). There was a thunderous applause in the hall when I concluded my remarks and throughout the Shabbos women thanked me for daring to suggest the unspeakable – that perhaps it was time for men to go to work. Predictably, the organization viewed my comments as bordering on heresy and I was never invited back again.
Following the convention, a Rosh Yeshiva of note called me and said that, while my comments were on target, public pronouncements of this kind were not the way to go. He asserted that changes were beginning to happen incrementally. Yeshivas that combine Torah learning with preparation for a trade were becoming more prevalent and accepted. At last, “Torah im derech eretz” was gaining some momentum. Be that as it may, he advised that patience was required and that change would come organically because the old system was imploding – collapsing under its own weight and rendering itself unviable.
“You can never go home again,” a statement made popular by a secular writer, is one of the bigger challenges awaiting women. Even if a paradigm shift occurs and the wherewithal to function primarily as mother and wife becomes a possibility, having tasted “freedom,” can working women realistically return to the path that we know intuitively is more consistent with who we are? Can we return to the road less traveled? It will require great strength if it is to happen. It will demand setting priorities – family first and then personal endeavors.
Among my daughters-in-law are two exceptionally gifted young women who were extremely successful in the workplace. After their first children were born, respectively, they decided on principle to be stay-at-home moms. They wanted to be the ones to raise their children – but they admitted that it was the greatest and most difficult adjustment of their lives. They persevered because, at the end of the day, it resonated as being the right decision for that season of their life.
My daughters, biological and otherwise, have confessed that working outside the home gave them an immediate, identifiable and doable goal which, when navigated successfully, provided them with a huge boost of self-esteem. Simultaneously, however, they admitted that they came home physically drained and, not surprisingly, their patience and interaction with their husbands and children had suffered. It was just not the same as when they had been at home.
An alternative plan could be that women who want to be home but need the extra income or the creative stimulation might consider conducting their professional business out of the house. Others might choose to work part time and make a point of being there when their children return from school. If there is a will – that is, an appreciation of the critical nature of a mother’s input in the formative years of a child’s life – perhaps they can find a way.
There are experiences in our lives that confirm the verities by which we live. One such occasion took place when I was asked to address a group of older, secular, professional singles. In an effort to break the ice, I went around the room and asked each one to introduce themselves by their Jewish names and to give some background information about themselves – where they came from, siblings, parents, etc. I also asked them if they had grandmothers (I was trying to find the Jewish connection). What emerged was fascinating. They differentiated between their grandmothers and their “Bubbies.”
They described their ‘grandmothers’ as competent working women who, given their busy lives, would need to ‘schedule a meeting’ to have a visit with them. ‘Bubby,’ on the other hand, seemed to live for the moment they would call. Anytime was a good time. Moreover, by the time they arrived at Bubby’s house, their favorite cookies would be in the oven and her embrace made them feel loved, cherished and equal to life no matter what challenges would arise. It was at this point, when they described their Bubbies, that they choked up, their voices cracked and tears streamed down their faces.
At the end of the day, who makes the greatest impact on our lives? Personally, I knew that as long as my children described me in their compositions as “the best cooker and baker” I was still on safe ground. However, when they would launch into a description of my travels and teaching, it would serve as a cue for me to reign in my outside activities, to reassess and make sure that my professed priorities weren’t taking a beating.
My community in Milwaukee is primarily comprised of spectacular baalei teshuva. In their past existence, many were professional women from all walks of life. In their quintessential dedication to Yiddishkeit, they seek to reconcile all the pieces of their person in a way that is consistent with Torah hashkafa. Toward this end, my husband, shlit”a, has recommended an “annual spiritual” whereby inventory is taken and evaluations are made in the presence of the Rabbi and Rebbitzen. They would ask questions such as:
1) Should I pursue my PhD program at this time or should I be home with my toddler?
2) If I feel I am a better mother when I go out to work and come home invigorated, am I rationalizing and, in fact, merely feeding my ego?
3) I am working to support my family while my husband is in kollel or out of a job. The physical, emotional and psychological burden is enormous. Am I obligated to have more children under these circumstances?
Due process has to be invoked by the presiding posek or rabbi, taking into consideration all of the complicated variables. Every situation is unique and hadracha (guidance) needs to be given on an individual basis, obviously based on Torah guidelines. The bottom line is that in our times, more than ever before, one must put into place the “asey l’cha Rav” – acceptance of a rabbi to be one’s guide. One must have a halachically-conversant resource person who is wise, caring and who will understand the individual in a holistic way and advise them accordingly.
The choice of having dual incomes vs. the sole income of a wife to allow her husband to learn in kollel or pursue other idealistic ventures must be balanced against the wellbeing of children and the marriage. It may be that the schools and communities benefit from dual incomes but there may be a price: the cost of mental health interventions has grown and appears to be in part a byproduct of communities losing the solid ground that stable, intact families with clear role definitions had provided.
The pendulum swings back and forth until it reaches a tipping point. Betty Freedan, one of the early, strident voices of the women’s liberation movement, reversed herself when she saw the devastation her view had wrought. Barbara Walters, a major television personality, has stated that after life on the public scene, her idea of liberation is going back home. Ann Richards, a political figure from the South, has stated that while she has had disappointments in her life, races lost, and ups and downs on the political scene, the only failures that affected her to her core were the ones in the realm of relationships – husband-wife, children, friends, etc. Ultimately, women draw their energy and their life force from relationships. Temporarily, we may be blindsided by the lure of instant gratification and positive feedback that is so much more easily achieved in the world out there – in the world of illusion. The question, however, is at what price?
Until such time as the issues are sorted out, when the dust settles and clarity prevails, women going out into the workforce need to be apprised of the current dangers. Working side by side with men, regardless of whether or not they are frum, requires exquisite vigilance. The natural sexual tension between the genders cannot be overstated. On a practical level, this would mandate that if a woman were to sense an attraction towards a male coworker or boss or vice versa, in that one of them is paying her undue attention, she should be advised to run for her life. These situations are all too prevalent and wreak havoc with the lives of young girls and married women. Support groups, whether in person or on the phone, should be put in place so that women can receive chizuk (strength) from each other. Torah classes on a steady basis and chavrusa (study partner) arrangements should be strongly encouraged.
In conclusion, as we engage the world of dissimulation, please note the red mark on my forehead, and I will look for yours so that we may be cognizant of the fact that our world is in need of a brighter future. In so doing, we will hopefully move forward, step by step, towards carving out a more sane world for ourselves and our families.
Rebbetzin Feige Twerski lectures worldwide on a myriad of Judaic subjects, and serves as the Rebbetzin alongside her husband, Rabbi Michel Twerski, of Congregation Beth Jehudah of Milwaukee.