Tuesday, May 27, 2008

career vs. family: does halacha demand women make a choice?

I have noticed that simply avoiding reading Jewish magazines, periodicals, and opinion blogs leads to a much more positive feeling toward Judaism. Chazal and halacha are far more reliable sources about what Judaism is about than the latest _____ Magazine or newspaper editorial. Nonetheless, I fell victim last week to reading two pieces, and I will just extract two quotes as representative sampling (who said them is irrelevant, as similar statements can be found in many, many publications):
The Jewish woman's career is tending to the needs of her family as a loyal wife, mother and homemaker; and, if she must go to work, the purpose is to help support the family, and not to look for a career outside her home.
The second author has an even bigger soapbox and is far more grim:

But pretending that men and women are identical and interchangeable in their life-roles – the much-cherished “egalitarian” approach – not only offends Jewish tradition, it may bode demographic disaster…Jewish women can choose to embrace
contemporary society’s game-playing in the guise of egalitarianism and squander their specialness. Or they can answer life’s “role-call” with a resounding, Abrahamic, “Here I am!”
The problem with these approaches is that they assert a false dilemma, a tactic I discussed once in the context of Zionism, but which rears its logically fallacious head over and over. The argument assumes that there is a necessary contradiction between career and home and then forces the reader into making a choice. Yet, even those who espouse this view are forced to confront reality: many women have careers (and yes, even teaching kindergarten in Bais Ya’akov is a career of sorts) and still maintain Torah-true homes. Rather than abandon the argument, instead, these folks claim that motive rather than deed is the true measure of (wo)man. As long as our veiber pledge allegiance to the home, the reality of working 9-5 and having the kinder watched by a babysitter need not concern us.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know of any issur for a woman to pursue a career. One of the follow-up comments argued that of course the husband must work because he is bound by the kesubah to support his wife. Ironic choice of proof, because Chazal actually legislate that a wife has the express right to say “aini nizones v’aini oseh”, I will forgo being supported by my husband and take charge of my own finances! Sure, the Torah emphasizes the importance of the home and family, but who does the chores and who goes to work is not subject to halachic mandate. Even if one must make a choice between career and home, working out a proper balance is a topic that must addressed by a husband and wife together in the context of their individual relationship, taking account of their joint responsibility to home and family as well as their individual career aspirations. There is no one cookie-cutter answer that halacha directs every couple to follow.

These attitudes make their way into our children’s world of chinuch. To quote another blogger’s post, her daughter was told by a well-meaning teacher, "Your daughter is smart, but you don't have to worry. She's not so smart that she'll have a problem getting a shidduch." After all, one would not want to risk having a girl who might be more intelligent than her husband, or who might want to use that intelligence to pursue a career or even to take a leadership role in Judaism. Best to squash this notions from the beginning and dumb down our daughters.

Fortunately, my depression was lifted slightly when I read an article about the new girls’ HS, Midreshet Shalhevet, opening in the 5Towns. The Jewish Star reports (p. 7) on the mentoring program the school intends to initiate to expose the girls to role models who manage to balance home, career, and family. Dr. Blau, the principal, is quoted, “We are here to… prepare women academically, professionally, and personally, and to install in them the confidence to do all they desire in the future. We want our girls to be Jewishly and secularly educated in a first-rate way, participating in Jewish communal life and taking on significant roles to fulfill their potential.” Rabbi Friedman, the head of Machon haTorah, the umbrella organization the school is under, further commented, “The whole world is open to them, within the framework of halacha.”

Of course, not every school fulfills the lofty intentions it sets out to achieve, but it is heartening to note that there is no false dilemma philosophy here, no artificial ceiling on success. One can only hope that these young women absorb the ideals of their chinuch and in turn can serve as role models for others.

10 comments:

  1. Reb Chaim, It is interesting that you view my point about the woman's ability to be mochel her husband's obligation to support her and proof for the lechatchila sameness of the parnasa/home roles for men and women in Yiddishkeit. Just the opposite! The fact that mechila is required shows that halacha's lechatchila, ideal, is that the husband should financially support his wife, and not the other way around. The fact that mechila is possible shows that Hashem intended these roles, while still being the ideal, to have some flexibility.

    You could have quoted/linked to the article I posted or my comments thereon that you quoted directly.

    I would posit that it is you who have fallen prey to asserting a false choice: total sameness of parnasa/home roles between men and women on one hand, and rigid differential of the parnasa/home roles between the genders on the other hand. Perhaps you would do well to consider a middle ground. Yiddishkeit reflects the ideal which is that the men should ideally support their families and that women should ideally be free to devote themselves to the home. However, Hashem's hashgacha decreed that this is not always possible or appropriate for every family and so different set-ups are appropriate for different families on a case-by-case basis. Though this does not change the ideal setup as a lechatchila.

    -Dixie Yid

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  2. I can't respond to an argument I never made.
    What you attribute to me:

    >>>total sameness of parnasa/home roles between men and women

    vs. what I actually said:

    >>>working out a proper balance is a topic that must addressed by a husband and wife together in the context of their individual relationship, taking account of their joint responsibility to home and family as well as their individual career aspirations

    Secondly, since when are issurim subject to mechila? Can I be moichel your shemiras shabbos? Can I be moicehl if my wife wants to not cover her hair? So what kind of strange issur is it (and since you use words like l'chatchila, which makes no sense in the world of dinei mamonos, you must be talking about the world of issur v'heter) that lends itself to the caprice of individual choice?

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  3. Reb Chaim,

    It sounds like on a l'ma'aseh level we agree since your approach also takes into account individual families' needs. The only thing I would say that your approach lacks is an appreciation for the ideal situation, wherein the husband supports the family and the wife is free to run the home without the burden of also having to make a parnasa. However, on a practical level, there's not much of a nafka mina, it would seem to me.

    But speaking of arguments that one has never made, the "issur" that you repeatedly make reference to about women working, that seems to be the target of your arguments seems to be a straw man that you may have inadvertantly invented in order to have an easy target to knock down. I don't know what the other anonymous article you quoted said, but neither Rabbi Morgenstern nor I ever said anything about women working being "asur." I therefore don't intend to defend something that I never said.

    As to the use of the word lechatchila; I was a little puzzled by your black and white charactarization of everything in Yiddishkeit as either "dinei mamonos" or "isur v'heter." Fortunatley, there are more categories than only those. For *example*, there are concepts of "V'asisa es hayashar v'es hatov" and "Raba mangid al man d'mikadesh b'biah." More specifically for our case, Hashem set up the husband/provider/wife/homemaker system as the ideal (I used the borrowed term lechaticha) using such dinim as the husband's default obligation to support his wife and the woman's p'tur from mitzvos aseh she'hazman grama as the vehicle to this end. However, this setup is not written in stone, as you know. So Hashem davka didn't set it up as an "isur v'heter" issue, but rather as an ideal way of doing things, but with built in flexibility.

    -Dixie Yid

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  4. I would argue with the first quote but in the entirely opposite direction.

    You quoted: "The Jewish woman's career is tending to the needs of her family as a loyal wife, mother and homemaker; and, if she must go to work, the purpose is to help support the family, and not to look for a career outside her home."

    Isn't the same true of her husband? Isn't his career to transmit the mesorah to the next generation? To learn and to teach, to perform chassadim and leave the world better than how we found it?

    I would therefore argue that men in the workplace must also enter it only with the attitude that this is the only way to have the resources to do the above. Not to build a career.

    (Although, building a career assists in earning more in the future. Don't take this dichotomy of job vs career too seriously.)

    Regardless of gender roles, no one of either gender should be thrilled about having to spend all that time working just because some remote ancestor I never even met stole a fruit.

    Looking toward my career takes an edge off viewing "bezei'as apekha" and the time it consumes from doing more directly valuable things as the qelalah it is.

    -micha

    PS: There would be no kollel culture were it not for women's lib making it possible for the wife to earn significant money. And as the old punchline goes, "If he is going to leave me with Adam's qelalah, will he assume Chavah's?"

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  5. And then it no longer argues against women in the workplace, since it's no more a distraction for women (something they have to put up with to fulfill their role in life) as for men (something we have to put up with to fulfill their role in life).

    -micha

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  6. Reality check: not all women who stay home are really "devoted" to housekeeping and childrearing. Those whose husbands earn enough often do not deal directly with cleaning and childcare full time; they have live-in or at least regular help for that. I know a few women that fit that description -- and treat themselves to such help even with only one or two young children (not twins). Then there are those of us who do some form of work and only get babysitting to cover for work time and cook dinner rather than bringing home takeout, etc. But let me clarify that I do not think it is a woman's highest praise to say that she has no interests outside her home. Certainly, one's family is top priority for mothers as well as fathers. But each individual has his/her own skills, talents, and even interests.
    I truly believe that women's ability to be self-supporting today is what the men who are so quick to disparage female career paths etc. feel threatened by.

    But if you know your history and sociology, Dixie Yid, and, yes, I have read up on the subject, the notion of the male role as sole breadwinner and the female role as a lady at home is an American construct. The Jews in Eastern Europe did not have that same normative assumption.

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  7. Just for the record, my post was about the daughter of my friend.

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  8. Anonymous1:02 PM

    "Reb Chaim, It is interesting that you view my point about the woman's ability to be mochel her husband's obligation to support her and proof for the lechatchila sameness of the parnasa/home roles for men and women in Yiddishkeit. Just the opposite! The fact that mechila is required shows that halacha's lechatchila, ideal, is that the husband should financially support his wife, and not the other way around. The fact that mechila is possible shows that Hashem intended these roles, while still being the ideal, to have some flexibility."

    I think it's strange to assume that the halachic setup is due to "ideals." I think the requirement of mechila is due to the social reality, that many women would need to be supported. Requiring mechila makes certain that the husband couldn't foist this arrangement on a wife, who oftentimes would not have a ready means of support.

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  9. DixieYid: I think your use of "lechatchilah" as ideal isn't 100% correct. Yes, he clearly has an obligation to support her, which she can let him out of. But there is no indication that either of her choices are more ideal.

    Rather, the wife has a choice as to who supports her, and he does not. This does make the roles assymetric, but weakens your closing argument drastically.

    Chaim: I also do not see any obligation for them to "talk it out". The choice is clearly hers; short of his decision to give a get.

    BTW, back in the old country, my greatgrandparents owned a textile dying factory and also ran a kloiz. My greatgrandfather was the rav of the kloiz; the women managed the plant.

    R"n Kagan (anyone know what her name was?) supported the Chafeitz Chaim by running a small store.

    But I am not sure these represent a norm, replaced by some American invention. Rather, this was a precursor to kollel life -- people who better served the world in kelei qodesh got their handouts from their wives, not their in-laws.

    -micha

    PS: Sorry "Anonymous", I wrote and grew too attached with the above to consider aborting it before I saw that you already posted a variant on this theme.

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  10. Aviva Jacobson5:13 PM

    There were certainly many choshuv women who supported their husbands while they learned. Over all, however, I think most husbands worked and learned, or simply worked very hard to keep a little bread on the table. The standard of living was much different then.

    One poster made a point that men are threatened by women's economic independence. There is a slightly different way to look at it. Think about a man who is considering divorcing his wife (something she would not be open to). If she has a steady parnassah, he might feel less guilty about such a decision. If she were at home, he might think twice before doing such a thing. So her homemaker status essentially serves as a more protective device than the parnassah.

    I am, however, aware there are no guarantees with such matters of the heart.

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