Are Orthodox Jews Sexist? (The Blog Version)
I recently released the latest episode of “Jew in the City” with a guest appearance by Mayim Bialik. The video has gotten an overwhelmingly positive response, but there have been some negative comments posted on various websites too. I was called an “apologist” in at least one place, but I must set the record straight – and my husband will vouch for me on this one – I generally do whatever I can to avoid apologizing.
I would, however, like to clarify something about the video since we cut out a small section for artistic reasons (as it was dragging on), but that I wish was left in content-wise. I mentioned that of course there are some sexist Orthodox Jews out there, just as there are, unfortunately, a certain number of liars, cheaters, and thieves within the Orthodox community.
The main point that I hoped to get across, though, is that except for a few isolated instances, in the dozen years since I’ve become observant, I’ve seen tremendous respect and honor given to women, mothers, and wives in the Orthodox world. In my Conservative Jewish household growing up, my parents had and still have a great marriage, but my father was a bit old-fashioned in his view of women. He didn’t want my mother to work once she had children and was never particularly helpful around the house. (In his defense, he wasn’t around very much because he worked so hard, but he did provide a nice life for his family.) Both of my parents (as well as my two sisters) became observant a decade ago (after me), and ironic as it sounds, since my father has become Orthodox, he’s been more helpful and attentive to my mother’s needs than ever before.
I considered myself a feminist, even at an early age. I never studied feminism in a formal way, but it always seemed logical that as a woman I’d want women to be treated well. My older sister went off to college a year before me and minored in gender studies which basically sealed the deal that I would NOT do the same. (Hey, we middle children have to define ourselves in some way!) So though I never took a single feminism class in college, I remained committed to living a life where I felt free to make my own choices and find a husband who valued and respected me (and was more helpful than my father!).
I was initially wary of Orthodox Judaism and its treatment of women. I was raised to believe, as many people are, that women are subjugated, second-class citizens in Orthodox society. But then I started meeting religious Jews and my experiences were vastly different than the rumors I had grown up with. At one of my first Shabbos dinners at the local assistant rabbi’s house, I remember being blown away by how helpful the rabbi was during the meal. He served the dishes, cleared the plates, was very involved with the kids. I remember whispering to my friend, “I can’t believe how helpful he is.” And then a moment later he playfully came over and whispered to us, “he also has excellent hearing!”
Not only have I met respectful, attentive husbands, I’ve also met strong, educated women who voice their opinions, have jobs outside the home (if they choose to), and seem quite content with their lives. Do they do all the same things that their husbands do within Judaism or life in general? No – but neither I nor any of my friends have ever felt that our differences within Judaism held us back in any way.
Are there Orthodox women out there that do feel slighted in some way and want to have religious roles more similar to men? Definitely, but from what I’ve seen, these women are in the minority and many have found an outlet for their needs through left-wing Orthodox groups which try to create leadership and prayer roles for women (similar to men) within the boundaries of Jewish law. (My goal is not to tell anyone here what to do or not do, but the personal conclusion that I’ve come to concerning these groups is that I’m happy with the way things are already, and even if something is technically allowed within Jewish law, I feel most comfortable when tradition is kept in mind as well.)
When I was first becoming religious, I was trying to work through various gender differences in traditional Judaism. I thought about how I would never want my husband to sit at the head of our Shabbos table because that would imply that he had some extra power or prominence over me. I decided that we’d get a round table, with no head, so everyone would know we were equal. I also thought that it didn’t make sense that the husband customarily makes the blessings over the food for everyone during the meal if I, as a woman, could make them too.
And then I met my husband, who’s probably a bigger feminist than I am. He would have been fine with any shaped table. He would have been fine if I made some of the blessings during the meal, but when it came right down to it, I realized that I didn’t actually care! I didn’t need to sit in a certain spot to know that I was elevated in my husband’s eyes. And I knew that he secretly liked sitting at the head of the table, in the traditional patriarch-of-the-family-spot, so I enjoyed letting him have it. (Incidentally, he always gives me the most comfortable chair whenever there’s ever a choice!)
During the first few years of our marriage when my husband was in school and around much more often, he did the majority of the shopping and quite a bit of the cooking and cleaning, but I still liked baking the challah myself every Shabbos and having him make the blessing over it. It was just this nice way for both of us to share in the experience. Yes, it was completely traditional to do it in such a way – he could have baked it and I could have blessed it – there’s no law that says it can’t be done like that – but something just felt nice about doing it more traditionally.
And since my husband started his job a few months ago, leaving more of the Shabbos preparation up to me, it’s my pleasure to cook him his favorite foods. Not because I have to, but because I love him and I know how happy it makes him when he catches the smell of Shabbos even before he walks through the front door. He brings home the most beautiful bouquets to me every Friday afternoon on his way home from work in honor of Shabbos. Again – so traditional, but other than the occassional frustrations that everyone has, this system seems to be working quite well for us.
Perhaps my feeling happy and comfortable with such a traditional set-up is that I was able to strike a balance that worked for me. I could have had a career outside the home. I could have been a full-time stay at home mom. I could be part of the left-wing Orthodox groups or I could have chosen to never have become Orthodox in the first place!
I did my best to educate myself and see what was out there before I made any decisions, but I fear that too many people base their opinions of Orthodox Jews on rumors and stereotypes. So I wanted (as a real, live Orthodox woman) to get a chance to explain what my personal experience has been, and I encourage everyone to take the opportunity to see it for themselves and come to their own conclusions.