Friday, August 25, 2006

female role models for avodas Hashem (II) - cross currents and gender stereotypes

Earlier this week, I challenged, “If you have daughters, take a moment and think of 3 contemporary female role models who inspire your daughters with their wisdom, insight, and intellectual acumen in Torah. I would bet you couldn't name three.” Almost too good to be true, my point was underscored when the very first comment came in (and I hope the author is not offended by being quoted – if you are, I will change this post and ask mechila) – “However, for what it is worth, I can name you some compelling and "inspirational" female rolemodels, who are also very intellectually-minded yet promote personal growth and a love of Torah: Rebbitzen Tzipporah Heller..., Rebbitzen Shira Smiles. There is also a Rebbitzen, I forget her name…”
I don't count as three names Rebbetzin Heller, Smiles, and what’s her name… My point was that no one would have the same degree of trouble naming three Roshei Yeshiva, male role models. And as I wrote, “…I do take issue with those who do not see the harmful effects produced by the dearth of role models and lack of serious learning opportunities open to young women.”
Contrary to my view, Avi Shafran weighs in this week with the following: “There is certainly no dearth of Orthodox women role-models who shoulder important responsibilities in bona fide Orthodox communities.” Indeed! So where are these inspirational leaders and role models? Shafran explains, “They fill the fundamental, vital positions of homemakers (in the word’s most literal and sublime sense), wives and mothers…” Yes, inspiration in the kitchen! There is the sublime of the laundry and dirty dishes! What can be greater avodas Hashem then doing laundry, baking challah, and scrubbing the floor when you are done? I shouldn't be so cynical, but the fact that anyone can write this stuff is amazing.
Chores are not avodas Hashem - they are chores. My wife happens to do much of the work at home, but is not naive enough to believe that this should be the totality of her religious experience. The fact that she reviews parsha with a different peirush every year, learns and knows Nach better than I do, and I know where to find the good R' Tzadok's in Pri Taddik based on her underlining in the sefer says far more about her avodas Hashem then the fact that she bakes good challah. This is certainly not the derech for every women. I don't know if it is the derech for most. I do know that whatever her derech is or the derech my daughers choose for themselves when they get older should not be based on gender stereotypes that come from the world of 1940s TV sitcoms. A person needs to seek out his or her own path to fulfillement. For some, baking challah is enough. For others, women as well as men, a more intellectual approach is yearned for. For these women, the kitchen is not the answer to religious fulfillment.


  1. My goodness. I had no idea I was a role model. :)

  2. Wasn't this phenomenon of the passive discouragement of female intellectualism and its effects on their frumkeit the reason that the Chofetz Chaim, among others, saw fit to support the Beis Yaakov movement?

  3. With regards to the CC, I don't think there was a discouragement so much as a general laize faire attitude based on the assumption that all that needs knowing can be gleaned from the home. It seems to me that that has morphed in our time into active discouragement.

  4. Anonymous10:13 PM

    For my daughters, I took out the book: Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by women by Catherin Thimmeash (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000) I would like to quote from p. 26: "Nine years before her invention of Scotchgard, Patsy took a genral-interest test in hgih school. In 1947, girls and boys tooke separate tests. Despite the fact that she wanted to be a scientist, her test indicated that she was well suited to be a housewife. Unsatisfied, she demanded to take the boy's test. The result? A career in dentistry or chemisty." She chose the latter, and, as a result, we have Scotchgard. But in the RW world, the tests are still gender-specific, so the results are predetermined.

  5. Anonymous10:52 AM


    I do not mind you posted my initial comments on this topic. While it is funny (or sad, according to your view) that I could not name Rebbitzen Asaf as the third intellectually-inclined woman of note, and I do recognize your point, I do not disagree on the essential point you blogged on this post. That is, that there are many different types of women and there should be no "cookie-cutter" approaches to inspire women. Therefore, you are probably correct that the intellectual side of the ledger can be emphasized for women so to allow those women, who wish to learn in depth to do so. However, the caveat is that direct learning of Talmud is something I am against

  6. Anonymous10:57 AM

    Sorry, I cut myself off.


    simply based on the fact that gedolei yisroel are against women learning Talmud, for various reasons. If that makes me a "right-wing, mysoginist, wanne-be chareidi", that I wear that insult with pride. I least I am not doggedly pursuing the goal of fitting my Judaism to the degraded social models of our 21st century American (and Canadian) society, a society which pushes drastic and destructive social and cultural change, as can be seen by an clear-thinking Orthodox Jew. Thank you for allowing me to rant.

  7. Thank you for allowing me to quote you to make the point. Unfortunately I do not have enough female readers - I am curious if they were asked to name 'jewish role models who inspire', would their gut reaction be to name women or men.

  8. The issue of learning gemara is complicated because of the Mishna in Sota, which I why I chose not to directly address it. Anyone who would attribute those who are reluctant to be matir simply to mysoginy are mistaken - the topic has to do with how to learn the mishna in sota, and like every area of halacha, needs to be approached with intellectual objectivity and integrity and without a preset agenda.

  9. I would have to disagree slightly with your post.

    I think your mistake is in not realizing that not everyone is created the same way. While you are speaking to one type of personality, Rabbi Shafran is speaking to a different type. Neither are wrong, it's just two distinct mehalchim.

    For example, my wife does not review the parsha with a different peirush every year, she does not learn Nach and she definately has never underlined a R' Tzadok in the Pri Taddik. What she does do is take care of and raise the children in a bayis ne'eman b'yisroel. She instills in my children and inffuses the house with what I would call the "spirit" of Judaism. My children learn from her not from what she learns and studies but from the way she acts and from the chesed that she does. Yes she goes to shiurim and is interested in learning but that is not the essence of what she is transmititng. I believe Rav Aharon Soloveitchik writes ( I think it is is in "Logic of the Heart") that a man's job is to give over teh content of Sinai and a woman's job is to give over the essence of Sinai.

  10. Anonymous2:12 PM

    I'm following this discussion with great interest, as it's something I've thought about alot.

    As for the narrower (& IMO less interesting) topic of Torah Sheb'al peh to girls/women, while of course you're right that it depends how to learn the mishna etc., but in essence it's simpler than that. The core difference between Bais Yaakov on one side & tefilla groups on the other is the Chofetz Chaim supported the former & the latter has no support by recognized gedolim. Of course there are many substantive reasons for this difference, but for anything new to catch on, you need a real talmid chacham to back it. So as to where on this spectrum women & gemara falls, I think depends on a- who was the Rav? & b- what did he say/mean. That's one reason why the stakes of these two questions are so high & the battles fought so passionately. If he's just some modernish rabbi who went by his first two initials, than women's learning gemara seriously is basically the same as the tefila groups. If he was a gadol hador, who endorsed it l'chatchila then it's closer to the Bais Yaakovs.

  11. >>>Of course there are many substantive reasons for this difference, but for anything new to catch on, you need a real talmid chacham to back it.

    This is true, but is a function of sociology and politics more than sincere avodas Hashem.

  12. Anonymous5:12 PM

    >>>This is true, but is a function of sociology and politics more than sincere avodas Hashem.

    I guess somewhat. A more charitable view would be religious caution & humility.

  13. 3 role models for women: Nechama Leibowitz(obm), Rabbanit Chana Henkin, Tamar Ross. If you want them all to be currently alive, can add the woman who was just appointed as spiritual advisor at KOE.