Jewish World Review June 2, 2003/ 2 Sivan 5763

Confessions of a
religious feminist, Part II

By Dr. Debby Schwarz Hirschhorn | Although the flood of email responding to my initial article (linked below) was mostly positive, some readers raised points that I feel require good answers.

It occurred to me that instead of repeating myself several times in letters, I would publicize my answers and, hopefully, address most concerns at one time. The topics I want to address more deeply are (1) The problem of Tzlefchod, (2) Participating with the men in the service, (3) A woman's sexual obligations, (4) Dealing with small minded people

Tzlefchod (Numbers 27) did not have sons. When his daughters complained that at his death they would lose all their inheritance, the decision was made for this to not happen. A couple of people thought that since the reform of daughters inheriting would not have happened were it not for the chance that Tzlefchod had not sons, it did not "prove" anything about our Jewish tradition being forward-thinking and "feminist." Here are three reasons why I believe these writers are wrong.

First, on the most superficial level, if you look at ancient times, the idea of a woman addressing the leaders of the community in this way is in itself remarkable. Look at modern Islamic countries to get a sense of what would have happened to women of any other culture. That their request was taken into account and heeded was breathtaking.

Second, for the Jewish people to be a "light unto the nations" we can only be a step or two ahead of others. Even so, we have been punished and persecuted throughout history for what appears to the world to be arrogance when we try to show a moral light in the darkness. I also got lambasted by one or two people for an earlier article in which I said the Jewish people excel in kindness. The same clarification here: If we are moral and If we are kind, it is not because we are inherently better than others but that, for the most part, we as a people follow the moral restrictions in our Torah. However, we are human with human tendencies to listen to our yetzer hara (bad instincts). Thus, if G-d had given us restrictions that were way out of line for the times in which we lived, we would have been even less likely to follow them. For that period, the behavior of the women and the Rabbis was light years ahead of the world.

Third, it is always important for people to take a step back and bring G-d into any argument. There is the mystical, spiritual element of what Life is about that must be considered. Why did Tzlefchod have no sons? Why were Tzlefchod's daughters so brave? Perhaps this was G-d's way of setting up the scene for improved moral decisions. In fact, if you look at the whole of your own life in proper perspective, you can see many events where G-d could have made it easier for you but did not, and precisely because of that it forced you to grow morally and spiritually. That, in fact, is the essence of life: to struggle and grow because of it.

When one makes an argument of the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus type, one always runs the risk of making gender stereotypes. However, if you believe that the Torah was given in its entirety to us by G-d, then you accept innate gender differences described in it as true. The internal spirituality of women is one such characterization. That is, women need no cue-cards to remind them of the presence of G-d in the world and in their lives; they simply carry it around inside. Their devotions are personal.

Now, the argument goes, why should that prevent them from expressing their devotions by leading the service or reading the Torah? To this I ask: For whom are they reading? The answer, of course, is the congregation, not themselves. At the moment there is a listener for whom they perform, the personal quality of their prayers has been altered.

The response to this is: But men are required to daven (pray) for and before one another and this enhances their prayer. Yes, that is correct. That is because men inherently are competitive. Bringing them together for a quorum of ten would automatically lead to divisiveness (which, sigh, it does frequently anyway) but by creating sweet melodies for G-d, it channels that energy in a positive fashion.

It is not that there is something inherently wrong with women davening together in the manner, but it distracts them from their real purpose in being in the synagogue which is connecting with G-d.

I pointed out that in the Marriage Document, men are obligated to give their wives sexual pleasure but the same from women is not required. One individual noted that the Talmud refers to cases where a man can divorce his wife if she will not have sex with him. These are two wildly different situations.

The marriage certificate creates obligations on the man in the hopes that if he follows them, a happy marriage will ensue. The reason no similar obligation is placed on the woman is because that would be like telling her she must put on her makeup and comb her hair. Well, of course. It says in Bereshis (Genesis) that women will crave their husbands. Look at any co-ed 6th grade class if you have doubts about who does the chasing. Women inherently want to connect; men want their own satisfaction. The Torah comes along to ask us to go against our nature so as to benefit from the joy of giving when that act was difficult and against our inclination.

Now, can things go wrong? Absolutely. Dvorah (Deborah) sat under a palm tree and counseled people all day because nothing is cut and dry, and I, a modern day Devorah, do the same. In the case where anger and spite have taken over the marital home, it is incumbent on everyone to resolve disputes and go to sleep in Shalom (peace).

Although the ideal is for sex to be an expression of the love that is already there, another truth is that acting kindly, generously, and lovingly towards one's mate can frequently stimulate feelings of warmth for him or her within oneself. Thus, if either member of the couple refuses to do even that much, it could very well be grounds for divorce. There are equal numbers of cases in the Talmud where the man is rebuked for his unkindness toward his wife and told to free her with a get (divorce document) so that she may move on.

I remember as a child raised in a Conservative home going to an Orthodox shul up in the mountains with my mother one winter day and being turned away because she had a pocketbook. I believe this is what G-d was thinking when he stated that one day the lion will lay down with the lamb: We will put aside our differences to reach out in love to one another. That man at the door could easily have asked my mother to store her purse in some safe location in the building and then proceed inside.

This gets right back to the premise I have made all along, that, if confronted with choices, we have the chance to grow. Or not. That's how we were made. We are not robots who are pre-programmed. The insensitivity of people like that does not come from the Torah! Clearly, the Torah asks us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It seems to me a lame excuse to reject Torah Judaism because of some am-ho'aretznicks (ignoramuses).

If this discussion accomplishes anything, I hope it causes you to search further.

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JWR contributor Dr. Debby Schwarz Hirschhorn is an Orthodox Marriage & Family Therapist. To comment, please click here. To visit her website, please click here.


05/14/03: Confessions of a religious feminist
04/16/03: Kindliness and Blood: A Passover Thought
03/25/03: Arguing: It's a Jewish thing

© 2003, Dr. Debby Schwarz Hirschhorn