Essays on Judaism

...and thoughts on Torah life

Boruch Clinton

Gender Assumptions and Torah

What follows is an essay I was asked to write to help someone clarify some difficult Torah ideas - to give him a glimpse into a thought-system that's normally distant and inaccessible. As a non-observant friend tells me, I seem to enjoy attempting to "defend the indefensible." You'll be the judge of how well (or poorly) I've done in this case. If you find something here that makes sense, use it. If you really don't like it, tell me about that too.

Men and women in Judaism. Their roles are so very different and, to the Western eye, so unfair. We'll try a different perspective.

Before we start, though, a quick word about the truth. The fact that an idea or lifestyle stands distinct from some current popular social trends doesn't prove it's wrong. Actually, since most modern ideas claim authenticity only through communal consent (in other words: they're true only because lots of people agree they're true), their "truth" extends only as far and as long as there's a community that consents. My community, from time to time, is among those that don't. So I feel no obligation to measure the legitimacy of the Torah system against any particular subjective social standard. Let the Torah stand or fall on its own merits.

That'll do for a disclaimer. Now let's play a game. Let's pretend that God actually appeared to the entire Jewish people at Mt. Sinai and gave us the Torah. He told us that He was the one who created this world and that we owed our very existence to His generosity. He then told us that He expected us to keep all of His commandments. Otherwise, we're toast.

Does He really have the right to demand our obedience? Of course. How about if some of the commandments are cruel and demeaning? Even so, we'd have to listen. He's God. He's got the lightning bolts all plugged in and ready to go. So according to our assumption (we're still just playing the game), it's prudent to follow God's suggestions concerning gender roles even if we personally don't like them. Now if this assumption of the Torah's divine origin is correct, Orthodox Jewish behavior makes at least a bit more sense (this assumes that the laws governing gender roles are verifiably part of God's Torah...but that's a different discussion).

The truth is, though, that while some commandments might seem difficult or burdensome, we're told that they're actually precious (Psalm 19; 11), profitable (Deut. 6; 24, 10; 13, Jer. 32, 39) and even pleasant (Proverbs 3; 17). Furthermore, the physical world itself is really a reflection of the Torah's principles: we're told "He (God) gazed into the Torah and (from that blueprint) created the world." This suggests that our physical and psychological selves are best defined and understood in Torah terms...and that our lives will be their most natural, fulfilled and successful if we respect those terms.

So from the perspective of a believer there are all kinds of incentives to keep the whole thing. But I will argue that the system can make lots of sense even to the non-believer.

What really bothers you?

I think it's fair to say that men and women are no more "equal" in any measurable sense than are any two human beings. Some folks are born without legs, some with unusual intellectual capacities. Some people are born to families of wealth and others to families able to provide great spiritual nourishment (...and then there are my kids). We are neither identical nor should we always be treated the same way (thank God, I don't need a wheelchair so it would be silly to demand assistance in purchasing one just because the government helped my neighbor).

Now don't get excited: I'm not comparing women to impoverished invalids. But I will suggest that the basic and distinct ranges within which most men and most women find themselves, uniquely equip them for distinct roles.

So maybe we're not equal, but shouldn't we all enjoy equality of opportunity? I'm not sure: which society could afford to guarantee any two people such equality? No matter how talented, sensitive and intelligent a given 35 year-old, poorly educated Somali refugee might be, he's not going to get equal attention from the hiring board when it interviews for head of neurology at the Children's Hospital. It's not his fault. He just doesn't have the background. Is it fair? Maybe not, but it's the way things have to be. There aren't many "egalitarians" who would argue with it either.

Because I know that at least one reader will cry out "are you comparing a woman's intellectual capacity to someone who's education was tragically cut short?" I'll restate: if our enlightened and modern society has no trouble discriminating against classes of people who are, for whatever reason, generally better suited to role "b" over role "a", then why can't a Judaism that claims to have inside information on basic human nature similarly discriminate?

But how about providing a level playing field to all equally qualified candidates, regardless of gender? Ok. I'll buy into that.

Now let's look at Torah Judaism. Which playing field isn't level? The synagogue. It's undeniable: women can't lead services, be called to the Torah or act as rabbis. They're held back. It's true. But does that really matter?

"Huh?" you cry.

Let me explain. If your identity as a Jew mostly revolves around the synagogue then it's a pretty significant inequality indeed! But I would suggest that a quick review of Judaism's legal and philosophical literature will show that, relative to all that the Torah demands and offers, the synagogue represents only a tiny, tiny fraction of what Judaism is all about! Certainly not a defining amount and nothing worth getting excited about.

So which areas does the Torah emphasize? The home (this is the big one, there are too many categories of commandments to list), the mall (the various commandments surrounding honesty with money, materialistic restraint and others), the office (complex commercial, property, partnership and corporate laws among many others), prayer (which, in many circumstances, needs no connection with a synagogue). I couldn't put my finger on any discrimination in these fields. So maybe it's only at the peripheral where there isn't complete equal access.

Ok. So what about general social structures? The Torah does discourage women from playing overly public roles (this, of course, relates back to the synagogue issue as well). For example, Psalms (45; 14): "A king's daughter's whole glory is internal." But is a life under the withering public eye really important (or safe) enough to be considered an "inalienable right" worth pursuing with any vigor? Could a desire for public success not be a front for self-serving conceit (among both men and women)? Run an honest cost-benefit analysis and you may find that there's more to be gained and accomplished from behind the scenes.

Consider also the possibility that, among the many factors that make women different, might be a greater natural aptitude for success at private life. What we see as the Torah's preferred role may simply be an expression of that existential truth (please, dear reader, believe me: I never really wanted to use the word "existential" just sort of happened by itself. It's not my fault).

Now, how about Torah study? Ta da! You've hit the jackpot. Torah study is vastly important and yet there's a gender gap so great you could fall into it and never hit ground. Here's inequality according to all definitions (even mine) and here it really counts. This is where we separate the men from the boys (oops, sorry).

Difficult (and stupid) question #1: Why do women want to study Torah like men? I'll give you a few lines to think about it...

. . . Good. Now I'll tell you some answers I've heard over the years: "Because it makes me feel good." "Because I have the right to do whatever men do." "Because I need the intellectual stimulation that Torah offers. If I'm not stimulated here, I'll look for it elsewhere and my connection to Judaism will weaken." These answers all make sense and I accept their logic.

But what if I asked another difficult (and stupid) question: "What's in it for God? What does He get out of it?" If God didn't command women to study the same way that men must, it might mean that He doesn't need it done that way. Are self-fulfillment and pleasure really the only measures of truth? Why should we create our own "commandments" (are we perfect at keeping the ones we've already been given)?

Ok. How about this one: "Because I want to come closer to God."

Better. But how can we know what will actually bring us closer to God? Perhaps "closeness to God" is a product of following His commandments the way He gave them (again: proving that he actually gave them this way is another discussion)? How likely are we to hit the "closeness" button by simply guessing or wishing?

What if (as we suggested above) men and women were (by and large and allowing for overlap at the edges) different - both physically and psychologically? What if our Creator has given us tools aimed at fixing what ails us? But, since what ails us is not always the same, the cure must be different from person to person, class to class, age to age and (gasp) gender to gender. Doesn't that make sense?

The Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) actually likens Torah study (the flavor peculiar to men) to a powerful potion. If used properly, it becomes an elixir of life. Used incorrectly, it's a deadly poison. We're told that many thousands of people in America die every year from botched medication. Why become a statistic?

Now, we must draw a clear distinction between ideal and model lifestyles on the one hand and baseline halacha on the other. Let's remember that not every person is meant to fit a single Torah-mold. On the contrary, each of the twelve tribes comprising the Jewish nation at its birth enjoyed a distinct culture, style and goal in its own unique application of Torah values. How far, however, can a woman go before her search for personal meaning takes her beyond the fringe of authentic Judaism?

It's obvious to anyone who's ever studied halacha with any care that there are limits to the latitude allowed an individual Jew facing unusual circumstances. Sometimes the answer is simply "no." Still, for someone who might not feel she quite fits the "standard version," there's lots of variety. The legitimate expressions of Torah Judaism are varied enough that a woman would be hard pressed to name more than a couple of career choices or intellectual pursuits (including Torah study) that are categorically closed in her face (though gladiator training school is probably one no-no). The trick is to discover those legitimate expressions by way of an individualized, honest and competent examination of the Torah literature.

Wrap-up time.

The Torah, if it really was delivered at Mt. Sinai and if it really is the word and thought of God, is binding on Jews. All Jews. Always. Because it comes from the very core of our existence, it's also the most accurate expression of a person's humanity. And it's pleasant and effective.

Equality is a principle whose logic is best (the phrase "all men were created equal..." is, in the words of my tenth grade history teacher, one of the world's most infamous mistakes). By and large, equality of opportunity is not an entrenched feature of modern societies, nor does it seem right to make it so.

Providing a level playing field, while a virtue, is not a universal feature of Judaism. Where it doesn't exist, however, its absence is offset by qualifying factors; an objective definition of gender differences being high on the list.

The obligation to study Torah, like all Torah obligations, should be seen more as an opportunity to live up to the eternal standards of Judaism than as a shot at self-fulfillment. Ignoring the inherent gender inequality found in Torah study is no guarantee of success on any measurable level, but it is a symptom of an innately subjective and secular attitude to God and religion.

The Torah is worth having; worth fighting for. But stripping it of its social and historical context can leave us with a poor and mangled version...a Judaism without heart and mind.