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25 Sivan 5759 - June 9 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
The Goal and Duty of Jewish Women
by Rav Yisroel Lorberbaum

Of late we hear the voices of some women who have doubts about how to find both satisfaction and a clear purpose to their lives. They strive earnestly to reach a clear understanding of their specific duty in Judaism as women. Such doubts, like many others which have appeared in contemporary times, are a result of the inroads of western culture and its value system within Jewry.

To offer a proper reply to these misgivings I think that I should first clarify two points that are actually principles in Judaism: (1) The objective of man in Olom Hazeh ("man" in this sense means both men and women), and (2) The distinctive role of a woman within the general purpose of man in Olom Hazeh. I hope that clarifying these topics will illuminate life from the Jewish perspective.

Man's objective in Olom Hazeh is discussed at length in Derech Hashem (ch. 1) of the Ramchal, HaRav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (who also wrote the Mesilas Yeshorim). I will cite his main message: The aim of the world's Creation was so that Hashem could benefit others. In direct proportion to a person's striving to come closer to Hashem is he assisted by his Creator. Man is created from ruach (spirit) and chomer (matter), from neshomoh (soul) and guf (body), from yetzer tov (a good inclination) and yetzer hora (a bad inclination). The guf and the yetzer hora tempt man to indulge in the material while the neshomoh and the yetzer hatov induce man to follow spiritual quests.

In every situation in life man has free will, and he can equally choose the physical or the spiritual, the inclination of his guf or the inclination of his neshomoh. Man has only one objective in this world: Strengthening the power of his neshomoh as opposed to the power of his body, that is, to choose what the yetzer hatov desires and refrain from following the yetzer hora, to aspire to spiritual goals and to distance himself from material ones. Man's objective in Olom Hazeh is becoming more spiritual and less material, more man and less animal! When man reaches this goal he is closer to the Creator and naturally receives more benefit from Him, in direct proportion to his achievements.

I will translate the above to clearer and more practical, everyday concepts: Man's objective in his world is praying to Hashem with kavono and making brochos with true kavono before and after everything he eats, as well as judging anything that happens according to Divine Providence, engaging in chesed, acting properly when interrelating with others and engaging in many other details of which the common denominator is an aspiration to ruchniyus.

On the other hand, a person must make an effort not to live a life of luxury, and to forgo some of what he might gain when, for example, he goes to hear a mussar shmuess. He must also dress plainly, refrain from running after money, food, cars, and a comfortable lifestyle. He must also correct bad character traits such as anger and pride. These and other details all have in common their not following the materialistic path.

As we said, all this applies equally to men and women. We therefore see that a man's objective in Olom Hazeh and a woman's are absolutely identical. A man must withstand temptations in life and so must a woman. A man must pray with kavono and act correctly with others and so must a woman, and so on.

There are areas and many details in which the means to reach this objective are divided into separate paths. The Ramchal later explains that the Creator instructed man how to use what is physical so that it will help him aspire to the spiritual and to refrain from being attracted to what is materialistic. The instructions on how to use what is physical to gain this goal is the performance of mitzvos. By means of mitzvos a person can reach his goal in life.

In this point we find a difference between man and woman. A woman is freed from some mitzvos such as those performed only at specific times. There are really only a few of these, but they are very prominent.

But how can a woman reach the same objective as man if she has fewer means? Furthermore, the Ramchal writes that Hashem gave the male a means that is higher than all others: Torah study. Since a woman is not obligated to study Torah, how can she possibly reach man's objective in Olom Hazeh without this important means?

The Ramchal (Derush al HaTorah) answers this fundamental question and presents us with a key that sheds light on numerous topics. Women, the Maharal explains, are in a qualitative sense actually on a higher spiritual level than men. From the way they were created, they are nearer to Olom Haboh! Women are closer to fulfilling man's objective in Olom Hazeh than men are. Therefore, explains the Maharal, with just helping to promote Torah study (by helping their husbands and sons study Torah, as the gemora in Brochos 17 explains) they reach the same spiritual level of a man who actually studies Torah. (We encounter this pivotal principle in other commentaries too, such as the Chida, HaRav Zalman Sorotzkin, and others).

This principle likewise casts light upon why women are exempt from time-dependent mitzvos. HaRav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that women are free from time-dependent mitzvos since they already have a strong clinging to Hashem, as well as devotion and enthusiasm to acknowledge their goals. Women do not need to be prompted again and again about their goal in life (which is exactly the essence of time- dependent mitzvos -- a continual reminding, at specific times, for man to concern himself with his real goal in life).

As a result, the objective of man and woman in Olom Hazeh are not different at all. A man must aspire to ruchniyus and so should a woman. The two different courses they follow lead to an identical result. There is a difference between the means that men and women use. A man, because he is spiritually inferior to a woman, was given extra means to overcome his handicaps, while a woman who is spiritually superior received fewer.

We do not find any essential difference between the two paths as far as basic spiritual values are concerned. One is no more important or preferable than the other. The two courses lead to the same objective -- which is man's and woman's objective in Olom Hazeh. In this respect there is no difference between a man who rises in the morning to study Torah and a woman who remains at home or chooses to engage in some other endeavor. They both aspire to ruchniyus -- to pray with kavono, to eat with moderation, to strengthen themselves in seeing Hashgocho protis, to reflect on the miracles of Creation, and to act as befits their surroundings. They likewise both must refrain from being drawn toward the physical, dress simply, overcome bad character traits, and not run after money and luxuries. If they have done all this, they -- both men and women -- have reached their objective in drawing closer to HaKodosh Boruch Hu.

Both man and woman reach an identical goal albeit through different means and through different duties. Within the framework of reaching his objective, a man has one responsibility to fulfill and a woman another. Both of these responsibilities have the same aim. Indeed a woman's task in life is today a little more problematic since she is often inserted in a normative system that is influenced greatly by the values of western culture.

In order to illustrate the problem better we will briefly describe (non-religious) woman's status in Western society. It is well-known that for centuries women were considered by Western culture to be substandard beings, and even in modern times in which women have gained largely equal status with men, they are still discriminated against in several areas. The heart of the problem is explained as follows by a feminist researcher: When the division of functions between men and women is based upon who is worth more and who is worth less, discrimination is the result. Men are naturally inclined to be active outside their home (which we will term, for lack of a better phrase, "activity in the public domain") while women are more inclined to home-work ("activity in the domestic domain").

In the Western World, where a person is measured according to his achievements, the public domain of activity is considered more rewarding, more prestigious, to have better status, and to be more worthwhile. Home-work is considered totally worthless. When women are tied to household chores (providing meals for the family and raising the children) they suffer from a lack of esteem and are discriminated against.

It is important to point out that this learned researcher discerned this as a problem of how society itself defines different types of work, but not a problem without a solution. After society changes its ladder of values in relation to domestic chores and considers them as important as work in the public domain the problem of discrimination against women will immediately end.

Unfortunately much of the vanity of western culture has penetrated our own camp and among them the popular perceptions of prestige and honor. As everyone knows, Judaism directs men to activity in the public domain and women to the domestic domain. For hundreds of years men and women marched together, each one doing his or her particular duty, towards fulfilling man's obligation in Olom Hazeh. During that time we never heard of any problems of equal rights, discrimination, lack of recognition of the importance of a woman's work, and the like. In reality, western society brought these problems into our camp problems which, as mentioned, were created because of distorted foundations.

Today even Orthodox society measures man according to his achievements, his prestige, and his social status. Accordingly the public domain in general and the business area in particular, are considered worthwhile, prestigious, and as having status, but home-work has become valueless and lacking importance because it lacks the outward trappings of prestige and honor. The result is that men are connected to seemingly important occupations and prestigious ones, while women's occupations lack that importance and value.

Moreover, even in the Torah world it may seem that there is a distinct contrast between the occupation of a kollel student, a rosh kollel, and the like, and that of a housewife. The duties connected to engaging in Torah study are perceived as having immense importance and eminence, but the domestic chores in their homes are perceived as inferior by comparison (even though they may actually show abundant devotion to Torah as far as the woman is concerned). As a result, the value and importance attached to a housewife's work can plummet, and women can indeed feel a lack of esteem and importance. (Naturally the husband should emphasize to his wife her mesiras nefesh for Torah and by doing so he will definitely elevate the value of her housework).

In contemporary society, as shown above, it is feasible that many women will sense a lack of esteem and understanding for their duty in life, and will lack satisfaction and a clear goal. [Naturally there are many, many, exceptions to the rule!]

The second subject which needs clarification is the duty of a woman in Judaism. Let us try to draw general lines that characterize the role of women in Judaism. Also here we will be forced to contend with maladies of western culture that have penetrated our camp.

Man and woman together were created "in the image of Elokim" and "a male and female He created them" (Bereishis 1:27). Man and woman are physiologically, psychologically and spiritually different. Hundreds of research projects describe immense differences between men and women in many areas, such as their psychological nature, grasp of reality, connection to society, and structure of mind and senses. As a result a man and woman naturally engage in different functions that are appropriate for their personality. Man functions in the public domain while a woman in the domestic domain.

This is indeed the difference between kodesh and chol, between the tohor and the tomei, between Yisroel and the other nations. While western culture extends importance and great value only to work in the public domain, Judaism considers important and esteems the area of activity in one's home even more! In Judaism there is therefore at least an equal respect for the work of man and woman, each one in his/her area.

As mentioned, the home is greatly esteemed in Judaism. The character of children is built and shaped at home and it transmits and bequeaths the tradition of Judaism to succeeding generations. HaRav S. R. Hirsch writes: "Hashem gave over the future of our nation to mothers' hands."

The Jewish home is the most important social center in Judaism in sharp contrast to the attitude of modern western culture. Major events, both in quality and quantity, of our spiritual and social life take place in the home around the Shabbos table, on the yomim tovim, by means of the continual connection between parents and children and joint study of Torah. There is no place in which so many of the experiences of the Jewish Nation are so concentrated (except for a beis knesses and beis midrash) as the Jewish home.

The woman is in charge of this tremendous fortress, as Chazal (Yoma 2) write: "His house -- this is a wife." The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 44:14) writes: "It is a splendor for man to dwell in his home -- a splendor is his wife."

Furthermore, research dealing with labor relations shows that the conditions influencing satisfaction and motivation at work are: The perception of the work being important and valuable, of filling a full role and not a partial one, of having the right to make one's own decisions, of being informed of the results of one's efforts, and a feeling of responsibility (as a result of having a right to decide and bear a full role). All these are so obviously and fully met in the home that it is clearly only the vanity of Western culture that generates the feeling of dissatisfaction and lack of esteem in women.

To summarize: The objective of man (meaning both men and women) is spiritual achievement and distancing oneself from the material. Reaching this makes a person nearer to the Creator and helps him receive an abundance of benefit from Hashem. Through their different paths, both men and women reach man's objective. These paths merely use different means, such as are suitable to the spiritual structure of each person. Both men and women need to make brochos with kavono before drinking in the morning, both should greet their neighbors politely, and aspire to lead their homes with simplicity without a drive for luxuries. If they are zoche in their efforts, they will have attained the objective of the Creation of both worlds.

(The author of this article has completed a research project in the topic of "Women's Status in Judaism" and delivers lectures in this topic. For additional details, please contact: Rabbi Lorberbaum, 10 Sha'arei Torah St., Yerushalayim, tel. 972-2-6436656.)

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