Can Orthodox Jewish Women Work?

“I’d like to be more religious, but having a career is very important to me. If I became Orthodox, I wouldn’t be allowed to work,” Rachel explained to me over the phone.

“Really?” I responded. “Which commandment in the Torah states, ‘thou shall not work if you’re a woman?'”

Rachel, of course, had no source to back up her claim because there is no prohibition in Jewish law for a woman to work. A man is commanded to support his family, but for a woman – there is a choice. The ironic thing is that in my Conservative family growing up, my mother never worked, mostly because my non-religious, but traditionally-minded (read, slightly chauvinistic) father didn’t want her to. (Fear not! Since my father – like the rest of my family – became Orthodox, he has become much more sensitive to women’s issues!)

Growing up in a single-income home made me not so career oriented myself. Ivy League college was a goal. THAT was something my parents stressed, so that was something I worked towards. But graduate school or a fancy career afterwards was never particularly on my radar, so much so that at one point in high school, I dreamed of getting into Harvard and then getting straight C’s. Why? Because it was the end of the line in my mind.

Many of the Orthodox women I know – who were raised religious – are more career oriented that I ever was. Probably because they were getting a different message growing up than I did. Another point of irony: my husband who was not only raised Orthodox, but Hasidic even, told me after we were married that he had always assumed he’d marry some big career woman – like a doctor or lawyer type. And little old, formerly bacon-eating me never DREAMED of going down such a road!

I don’t know if there was ever a period in Jewish history (like secular history) that women didn’t work outside the home, but even as far back as the Bible, we see King Solomon, who speaks of the ideal woman – the “woman of valor” – as a businesswoman! “She plans for a field, and buys it. With the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard…She knows that her merchandise is good.”

How prevalent are working women in the Orthodox world nowadays? I’d venture to say that the majority of Orthodox women – from across the spectrum of Orthodoxy – have jobs beyond their homes and families. In many cases, it’s an economic necessity. In lots of cases, it’s a matter of a woman wanting to contribute her talents to the world and have an outlet outside of her kids. The role of the woman as the spiritual foundation of the home still exists – but some women want, need (or both) to work outside of the home as well.

In the ultra-Orthodox (yeshivish/Lithuanian) circles, where in many households the couple has decided that the husband will learn Torah full time, the woman is the sole bread winner. This set up only works if the woman is happy with the arrangement. I’m sure there are instances where women are the sole bread winners, but are not happy about their situation, but according to the women’s marriage contract (ketuba) a husband must support his wife and family unless she lets him off the hook.

The most common careers are probably in areas like education and therapies (OT and PT) because of the amount of schooling required and the flexibility of the schedules. But there are many Orthodox women who have less “typical” careers too. I opened the question up to JITC fans on Facebook, to see what interesting careers Orthodox women they knew had, and I was overwhelmed by the diversity and success of women in fields including:

chemists, nuclear physicists, doctors, dentists, lawyers (including partners in big firms), psychologists, artists, musicians, journalists, magazine editors, best-selling authors, clothes designers, actuaries, sex therapists, chefs, CEO’s, veterinarians, music producers, a head of a law school, engineers, marketing, judges, college professors, television reporters, supreme court clerks, fire fighters, tv producers, radio show hosts, knesset members, and even a captain in the U.S. army!

Someone noted that most women must have gotten into these atypical careers before they became observant. Of course, there is some truth to that. But that’s not a women only phenomenon. Nevertheless, higher education is being valued more and more within the Orthodox world, so many people who were born and raised religious have opportunities for exciting careers. The first group to embrace secular knowledge was Modern Orthodoxy – who as part of the Yeshiva University (YU) community – believe in the concept of “Torah U’Maddah” – Torah with Secular knowledge, or in other words, one’s knowledge of Torah can be enhanced with (kosher forms of) knowledge and exposure to the secular world.

There is another camp, to the right of YU, who is not as keen on secular knowledge for the sake of enhancing one’s Torah experience, but recognizes that higher education is necessary in order to secure a parnassa (livelihood). This camp believes in the principle of “Torah eem Derech Eretz,” based on Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch’s teaching that, Torah needs to be balanced with a livelihood.

There are then groups, to the right of this camp that in theory do not believe in higher education, so most of the community members have jobs in businesses or areas that require vocational training rather than academic degrees, but nevertheless, exceptions to the rule exist, as hasidic attorneys and doctors are out there and even some hasidim with multiple PhDs! (There is apparently a Satmar woman, married to the head of a yeshiva who has two PhDs, seven kids, and is the chairman of a university department!)

How do these Orthodox career women “do it all” with generally larger families than non-Orthodox women and weekly preparation for Shabbos needed? They work hard. They recognize that life is a struggle. There’s no simple answer. But what should be known is that although people often associate religious Judaism as a thing that holds you back – especially if you’re a woman – that phenomenon of the working mother trying to figure out “have it all” is all over the place – including the Orthodox world.

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  • Avatar photo shoshana says on July 12, 2012

    Wow! I never knew that they were “sex therapists and US Army captains!), LOL, but really very good article, makes us think… I come from the camp, and very blessed at that, my hubby said just the other day, when talking about jobs for women in general…that it wasn’t about the woman working or not…but if its to add to the house “monies” for bills and such, NO WAY! He said, “I am supposed to be the breadwinner.) B”H! My first husband, who was raised Orthodox, was the opposite…He said, get a job, we need the money… and then took every dime I made.( I would have been ok with helping, but every dime???) So evidently , he was from a different “camp” altogether..

  • Avatar photo Stacy Lansey says on July 12, 2012

    I’m currently attending NYU Stern Business School at night while working during the day, I’m a frum lady, I have two kids, one of which was born during B-School. The girl who sits next to me is a frum lady, a rebitzen actually has the same arrangement working during the day and going to school at night, she’s pregnant with her third kid right now. I can safely say that neither one of us feels that our torah lifestyle is at all at odds with our professional drive. I don’t think we’re any less successful then our less observant, usually childless classmates, I do think our lives are deeper, richer and have more meaning.

  • Avatar photo Jacob says on July 13, 2012

    Stacey what a great response to JITC! You and your colleague are setting an excellent example for your own family and in particular the young Jewish girls in your communities. This is a form of Jewish feminism at it’s finest. I love to see frum women fulfilling their goals and making their family happier (and more financially sound)!

  • Avatar photo Matt says on July 13, 2012

    I know a Rabbis wife who lectures( I think law) at a university! I sometimes see her around the campus. She is a God fearing woman- Tznius, and she wears a Sheitel!

  • Avatar photo Devora says on July 17, 2012

    WOW! I LOVE this posting Allison. Finally something super positive that I can wrap myself in. I am probably not the type of Jew you are addressing as I am Chozer b’a sheelaa but never the less I am still very attached to my Jewishness and amusingly enough I am sometimes “too observant” for many secular Jews who I have dated. It is a great challenge to maintain a from lifestyle and work in the secular world while raising a family and I have the highest of admiration for those amazing women who not only pull it off but manage to make it look so flawless. I have had shabbat meals in the homes of such women and my admiration knows no bounds.

  • Avatar photo Tzirelchana says on August 22, 2012

    As a stay at home Mom who still doesn’t think she could manage an outside job this post and the ocmments make me feel inadequate. Why is work only defined as salaried work?What about, laundry, ironing, grocery shoppping, cooking, baking and trying to bring up young and not so young children? Doesn’t that count too? Frankly, I don’t see how a woman can have a whole bunch of kids and a thriving career outside the home unless she has (a) a nanny, (b) a supportive spouse and (c) an extended family standing behind her. Otherwise, it just doesn’t work. Are your familiar with Anne Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic piece?

    • Avatar photo Observer says on October 4, 2013

      I never had a nanny, and although my family was supportive in the emotional sense, they were in no position to take the burden off me in day to day issues. (A couple of weeks after a baby was a different story.) But, OF COURSE, I always had help in the house. Just as part of the cost of working outside of the home is transportation and work clothes, so is the extra household help. So what? I’m not sure why that’s even something to comment on.

      Beyond that, you are missing the point of this article. The issue is not that a woman “should” have a non-household job, but that it’s fine if she chooses to do so. Leaving the laundry and floor washing to outside help is not a compromise of her role or position.

  • Avatar photo Zahara says on September 19, 2012

    I’m currently in the process of conversion (with a Conservative rabbi and shul), and though I was attracted to many of the aspects of Orthodoxy (and I do keep mostly kosher, attend shul, and observe Shabbat as best as I can), I wondered if a woman in my career could possibly be Orthodox and still do what I do – which is being a professional opera singer. That requires constant travel from opera house to opera house, in cities all over the country and world, costumes, wigs, makeup, and staging that is pre-determined for singers. I won’t give up this amazing gift that G-d has been so generous to bless me with, but I wonder if I could actually ever lead a more Orthodox way of life.

    • Avatar photo Allison says on September 23, 2012

      Thanks for your comment, Zahara. There is certainly an idea of not wasting a talent that God gives you, but for Torah observant Jews, the idea is that halacha (Jewish law) comes first, and everything else fits in around that. DuDu Fisher – the famous Israeli singer – was able to be Jean Val Jean in Broadway’s Les Mis, without breaking Shabbos. But for a woman in theater, there are more things to contend with besides Shabbos – like issues of modesty and kol isha.

      There are many Orthodox female singers who do all women concerts and record albums meant just for women. There’s obviously something they’re giving up in terms of their careers because they’re adhering strictly to Jewish law, but these women are hopefully getting more in return for their sacrifices. To understand more what I mean by the trade off being worth it, please read this: http://www.jewinthecity.com/2012/08/mayim-bialiks-car-accident-and-the-illusion-of-a-stable-world/#more-3664

  • Avatar photo Ahavah says on March 15, 2013

    To Tzirelchana: I have a lot of respect and admiration for stay-at-home moms, Orthodox or secular, Jewish or not. Mother and Housewife (or Father and Househusband) are jobs, as far as I’m concerned, and are just as legitimate a choice as any other job or career. The key word is choice, and understanding the changing cultural norms in various sects of the Jewish community.

    Over the past few decades, more women have chosen to work outside the home for a variety of reasons (the availability and acceptance of women working is a big one). In the Orthodox Yeshivish and many Chassidish communities, the idea of men pursuing Torah scholarship and being financially supported by a working wife has become an ideal, and thus, many women from Ultra-Orthodox homes chose to pursue careers. Meanwhile, choosing to be a Stay-at-home Mother has gained something of a revival in Modern Orthodox circles. It’s ironic, maybe even a bit funny. My Chassidish cousins work. My MO sister stays at home. They respect one another’s choices and lifestyles with love–we’re all family!

  • Avatar photo C says on June 9, 2013

    I am ultra-Othrodox (Litvish-yeshivish), bais Yaakov educated teenager and I want to be an actuary. One of my parents was not raised religious yet came to it later and as awhole both of my parents encourage me. I am part of the “Torah eem Derech Eretz,” camp. In my school there are girls planning on being, engineers, genetic scientists, vets, psycologists, writers,
    Truthfully, I am a creative-artistic-intellectual and while I love kids and want them, the idea of being cooped up all day in the house cleaning toilets is not for me. I am an extrovert so I also need an outlet and my parents are very happy to encourage me. They understand that I am not the type to be a housewife and as long as my career options are in line with the Torah and I will always put my family first then its okay. However if my career would be detrimental to my family I will leave it.

  • Avatar photo Jennifer Brower says on February 21, 2014

    🙂 love this!

  • Avatar photo Beth Jacobs says on December 26, 2017

    Who is the Satmar woman? She sounds like a fascinating person (though she is a chairperson or chairwoman, but definitely not a chairman) (sorry for nitpicking). As an Orthodox (slightly to the right of Torah im derech eretz) young woman I can honestly say that the only reason my parents don’t want me to be a doctor is because doctors go into debt for schooling and don’t make much money anymore… definitely not because I’m a woman. The most widely accepted Jewish magazine, Mishpacha, had an article in their womens’ supplement a couple of weeks ago about Orthodox (across the spectrum) women who are doctors. The idea is that careers and higher education should serve a purpose – an outlet, supporting one’s family, etc. – but should be done with thought and not mindlessly “because OF COURSE you have to _____”


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