When Condescension Masquerades as Respect


by R’ Avi Shafran (Coalition March 1998 – Adar 5758)

[Web Page Last Revised: Friday, April 28, 2006 01:17 PM ]


A contemporary pundit has suggested that "feminism" might more accurately be called masculinism”, predicated, as it so often seems to be, on the assumption that women are fulfilled only when they have assumed the roles of men.

True fulfillment, our Torah teaches us, lies in serving Hashem, which Jewish women, no less than Jewish men, accomplish by living according to what the Torah commands for them. Jewish women, moreover, have a distinctive role to play in the vital realm of family, and in the transmission of Jewish identity and values to future generations. Contemporary expressions of Jewish women’s special strengths are found in initiatives like the Tehillim groups that gather regularly on behalf of the ill, the innumerable special women’s shiurim geared to the study of halacha and hashkafa, and the wealth of organized Bikur Cholim and other chesed efforts that have left countless Jewish strangers speechless with gratitude.

For some, though, it seems that only a mathematical sort of women’s "equality” with men will do.

“Jewish feminists” – some of them no doubt G~d-focused and well-meaning, others perhaps otherwise motivated – have agitated for basic change in the historic role of Jewish women. In so doing, they have come to embrace both the silly – like the wearing of kipos, taleisos, and tefillin – and the sacrilegious – like the essential redefinition of gender roles in disregard of clear and codified halacha.

Until fairly recently, efforts to achieve such Jewish religious gender "equality" have largely been confined to the non-Orthodox communities. Now, though, forerunners of feminism have appeared on our very own doorstep. Jewish leaders sporting Orthodox credentials have made flying leaps onto the feminist bandwagon, and are riding it, roughshod and reckless, over both Jewish ideals and Jewish law.

Exhibit A: “Internal" Matters

When, last December, announcement was made of the appointment of a female "congregational intern" in a well-known Manhattan Orthodox synagogue, the event may not have seemed quite as remarkable as the press sought to portray it. After all, the young woman’s duties were described as services rebbetzins have provided for centuries: visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved and counseling the troubled. When, though, mere days later, a "Torat Miriam intern" was appointed by an Orthodox rabbi in the Bronx, and the delivery of congregational addresses was included in his assistants duties, the subtle but unmistakable breach in tzinus – the Jewish understanding of modesty – inherent in such official appointments of "interns" became more evident, and more ominous.

(A sublime, subtle irony even emerged, in the term the rabbis had chosen for their assistants, a word that contemporary events would soon indelibly link to a shameful disdain for tznius allegedly shown by an ostensibly "liberated" Jewish woman.)

The Fetters of "Freedom"

Then, in January, the Jewish world was informed of a revolutionary new “beis din” that pledged to free Jewish women whose recalcitrant husbands were withholding their gittin. The tribunal in question claimed the ability to rescue such unfortunate agunos through the use of various creative methods, including the retroactive “annulment” of marriages, an approach that has been utterly rejected by halachic authorities.

Shelo Asani Chauvinist

Several weeks later came the grandiloquently (and, in its ordering of words, tellingly) named “Second International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy". Those in attendance were regaled by, among other things, what one observer described as a pretentious deconstruction of Talmudic tradition. The audience witnessed, too, the sorry spectacle of an Orthodox rabbi striving mightily, if awkwardly, for political correctness by suggesting that the bracha of shelo asani isha – "Blessed are You... Who has not made me a woman" – be uttered quietly, so as not to offend.

Though he seemed to expect an ovation from those in attendance, it was evident from some of his listeners’ questions that they were clearly unimpressed by his offer to merely de-emphasize the bracha and not simply abolish it.

Hard to be a Woman

Interestingly, an important insight on the entire issue of “Jewish Feminism” may lie squarely in the lap of the Orthodox feminism conference’s bete noire: the bracha of “shelo asani isha”.

What indeed, does the bracha mean?

A traditional explanation – ridiculed at the conference – is that men must be thankful for the fact that they have more mitzvos than women, a thought that deserves no derision. Might there be, though, other understandings?

One that has often occurred to me is rather straightforward, if uncomfortable for some: women have it harder, much harder, than men.

Not only in the particular challenges presented by their relative sizes and strengths, or by their biologies (and psychologies, which science has finally "discovered" differ markedly from those of men), but in the way they are treated by others – and by society as a whole.

Even in our 'liberated" times, it seems that women in the professions must work harder than men to achieve the same respect – or even the same wages. In cases of spousal abuse, women are still overwhelmingly the victims. Women’s images are routinely and grossly demeaned in ubiquitous advertisements, and by entire industries catering to the most base of male instincts.

None of which is, of course, in any way justifiable or defensible. What it is, though, is undeniable – and, despite all the considerable studies made by feminism, legitimate and ludicrous alike, there are few signs of truly meaningful change on the horizon. Larger society may consistently hail women as the equal of men, but in reality it denies them not only parity but basic respect.

Could that be one meaning of shelo asan isha? A simple, forthright recognition of the disturbing but indisputable fact that women bear incredible burdens which men do not? Perhaps yes, perhaps not. But in either event the facts remain.

Which leads to the lesson, and what might well be the ultimate irony here.

Reading Between the Lines

Calling a woman an "intern" or a "rabbi” – when halacha proscribes her from many traditional rabbinical duties is not a show of respect, but pandering. If her role is simply the honored one of Jewish women of action from time immemorial, then the formal bestowing of an official title is nothing more than a gratuitous movement away from the tzinus that has been the Jewish woman’s deepest expression of dignity though the ages. Creating a public religious role for a woman in a shul that includes many men is hardly a tribute to true Jewish womanhood.

A rabbi’s expression of embarrassment over a prayer that is part of the Jewish sacred heritage out of fear of hurting women’s feelings is an abdication of rabbinical responsibility; it further implies that women are incapable of anything more than simple-minded understandings.

And twisting the halachic process to yield carte blanche for women entangled in bad marriages – creating potentially horrific situations for the women involved and their future children – shows no more respect for women’s true interests than it does for halacha (One need only listen to one of the "beis din" heads’ words to perceive an attitude of arrogance toward those very women he seeks to "free". Asked by the New York Jewish Week about accusations that he is causing women to sin, he dismissed the charge, asserting that "Nine out of ten women who come to us are already [consorting] with other men before they come to us.")

And so, the bottom line: By pushing (if not tearing) the envelope of tzinus, by sowing cynicism toward their spiritual heritage among Jewish women, and by assuring some of them that they are no longer married when in fact they are, Orthodox feminist "advocates" – like wider society itself – are hardly affording their "clients", or any women, for that matter, respect. They are treating them – again, like so much of society unfortunately does – in what can only be called a patronizing, even condescending manner.

True respect for women lives elsewhere. It entails treating them as cherished partners, not mirrors of men; offering them truths, not paternalistic reassurance of their worth. And it means recognizing that role is a holy, not an ugly, word, that Hakodosh Boruch Hu created a wondrous, variegated world including two types of humans – each with its own particular talents, challenges and missions, in perfect and beautiful reflection of both having been made kirtzono, "according to His will.

Rabbi Avi Shafron is Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America and Coalition’s Editor.

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