Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What Can Women Do?

I'm working on Part III of the science/Torah/constitutionalism series, but it's not ready yet.

ny debate on the blogs about Chareidi education for girls will always devolve into an argument about how Chareidi women are stifled and viewed as less equal than their husbands, fathers and brothers. Frankly, I think that argument is meaningful, as we should try to lay out what Chareidi Judaism or Orthodox Judaism as a whole consider valuable.

I have a number of problems with how Chareidi ideology views women (some, if not all, of these problems exist in the Modern Orthodox world as well). One issue is the primacy of Torah, but the prohibition against women learning Gemara, which is considered the highest level. In fact, I'm not even sure women's Tanach learning is considered valuable itself, rather than just as a means of indoctrinating girls. If a Chareidi woman penned a perush on Tanach, would any Chareidi Yeshiva even carry it? Even Nechama Leibowitz's work isn't carried or read in most Chareidi venues (I'd love to be corrected on this).

So the society values Torah learning as the highest ideal, but deprives its female members of participation in that endeavor. Women serve as enablers, helping their husbands or sons learn Torah. The Gemara in Kiddushin even says that women receive the merit of Torah by sending their husbands and sons out to learn and waiting for them to return. But what of women who never married? How do they merit protection?

In fact, what exactly does Chareidi Judaism have to offer an unmarried women? To be more precise, what can the deep Chareidi world, the society that denies women (and men) the ability to acquire a higher education, do for a single girl besides find her a husband? She can't have a career and is limited to working at a menial job. But since she isn't married, that's all she can do, unless she wants to teach, something not everyone is cut out to do. So what exactly is her purpose in life? At least an unmarried man can learn. She can't even do that. I guess she can do Chessed, but no one seriously values Chessed as much as Torah learning. So this woman is worse off than her male counterpart.

Moreover, Chareidi women carry the majority of the household burdens. I'm not just talking about doing the dishes or laundry. Women have to work full-time and then come home and take care of the kids/house. I hope the men help out when they aren't in Yeshiva, but I'm not very optimistic.

The Modern Orthodox world doesn't suffer from these problems as much. Firstly, some promote Gemara learning for even women, but even when they don't, they recognize the value of women's Torah learning. Second, MO men are usually more cognizant of the need to help out around the house. We tend to be more involved with culture, and our culture promotes a greater amount of burden sharing. Lastly, they allow people to find a career, so the woman can be fulfilled by her work. There are more choices. I'm not saying MO society doesn't have these problems also (as well as its fair share of other problems), but I think it has done a lot to mitigate them.

In essence that's the primary function of society: to provide choices. Most people do not fit into a mold and must be given options. Forcing all women into the homemaker/secretary mold cannot be a successful.

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