Broadening the Tent: Hearing the Muted Voice of Charedi Women

Response Article To "“Noble Women”: Matter and Spirit in the Lives of Charedi Women"

Before we address the concrete needs of Charedi women, including a connection to the Jewish spiritual world that Torah study can offer, we need to start listening to women's voices. Listening, in turn, requires us to stop assuming we know exactly what they want and need, and to refrain from the apologetic clichés that strangle any attempt at serious discussion.

Tevet 5781, January 2021

“Feminism.” The word is so charged in the Charedi lexicon that it constitutes a slur. Charedim tend to view feminism as some kind of malicious demon, threatening to penetrate our homes and dismantle our society, emptying it of Jewish and traditional values.

Of course, fear of the feminist movement is not limited to the Charedi public. Due to its more radical expressions, many associate feminism with hatred of men, a desire to break up families, abusive conduct in the name of affirmative action, and other militant positions. Charedi society, like all conservative societies, has good reason to fear feminism in its current (dominant) form; it hardly aligns with traditional life. But on the other hand, every woman who lives in the twenty-first-century benefits from the achievements of feminism. Who can now deny women’s right to enter higher education or work in various professions? Who would dare oppose equal education for women, women’s right to own private property, or even women’s right to vote in democratic elections? It is important to note that all these rights are achievements of feminist struggles, fought by those infamous “militant women”.

In a sense, even the current Charedi lifestyle owes its existence to feminist achievements. Access to higher education, the capacity to work in a variety of professions and earn a decent salary, the ability to open a bank account and own a credit card, and so on – all these exist thanks to feminism. Such changes enabled Charedi society to encourage thousands of men to stay in Kollel while their wives assume the role of breadwinners. In the pre-feminist era, teaching was a professional option for single women only (with rare exceptions), and few other professions were available for women at the time – to say nothing of the enormous pay gaps between men and women.

Charedi society has justifiably developed a high-degree sensitivity to any whiff of feminism. But we ought to realize that the feminist connection is not necessarily a sign of imminent danger; it can sometimes herald a positive and necessary change. The point I wish to make is that notwithstanding the need for vigilance in the face of feminist influences, the last thing we should do is silence female voices – which is often done by reference to the feminist demon. We need to pay close attention to what women tell us, for failing to do so risks missing developments that are, on the whole, positive. Yes, we must be wary lest we fall into the progressive radical trap of some women’s movements; but ignoring women’s voices could also cause enormous harm, and at the very least lose opportunities for the entire community.

Such is the voice of Mrs. Lerner, as aired in her article on Gemara study for women. Hers is not the voice of a radical study group, driven by liberal-progressive motives whose connection to the Torah world is coincidental at best. It is also not the voice – or more precisely, the absence of a voice – of a Torah study initiative with technical motives: a need for halachic knowledge or the desire to help a son in his studies. It is the voice of Charedi women seeking to study Torah due to a mixture of spiritual thirst and unease concerning their place in Charedi society – a representative voice and a common mindset within our community, even if not often expressed in the field of Gemara study.

In the present article, I will try to clarify two common responses to Charedi women’s demands, which cause such voices to receive less attention than they deserve. I term the former “the response of excessive glorification” and the latter “the attention deficit problem.” After presenting these responses, which I consider mistaken, I will argue that we should lend an ear and listen – listen to the voices simply as they are.


An Overly High Pedestal

The Charedi public becomes outraged, justifiably so, at claims of “exclusion of women” directed to the separation of the sexes in various circumstances of the public sphere. The “exclusion,” they argue – again, with complete justification – serves women most of all. Time and again, Charedi apologists note that there is no place where women receive more respect and protection than the Charedi community. The Charedi woman is royalty; she is the Eshet Chayil; she is the heart of the home. What does the secular world, objectifying women relentlessly, have to offer in comparison to Judaism, which protected women’s rights thousands of years before anyone thought females have rights? What can it offer to a society in which women can cultivate a sense of self as creations of God and not as social ornaments?

Such apologists are not incorrect in their arguments. Few and far between are the Charedi women beholding the non-Charedi street and desiring the “liberated” life experience of the average secular woman. But apologists, as the title itself suggests, also suffer from short-sightedness. Abraham Maslow’s pyramid teaches us that people’s needs do not end with physical and nutritional security, or even with having family and friends. Physical security, alongside communal and familial belonging, is indeed closer to the base of the pyramid. But after these needs are taken care of, which Charedi society achieves admirably, dealing with the fourth and fifth levels remains outstanding: the need for social esteem and self-fulfillment. While not excluding women, Charedi society tends to ignore – usually due to ignorance and inattention – some of these basic needs.

Two years ago, journalist Sruli Besser published a personal column in the English edition of Mishpacha Magazine, causing the uproar of the year within American Charedi society. Unlike their Israeli equivalents, in American Bais Yaakov schools fathers are generally invited to their daughters’ graduation ceremony. However, for reasons of modesty they must remain outside during the performance, only entering the hall to witness their daughters receiving diplomas. For this humble purpose, the group of fathers agrees to an unassuming location on the wrong side of the mechitzah. But Besser described a situation that went far beyond unpretentious. Fathers were crammed into a small space that the air conditioning barely reached, were given refreshments (two trays of cookies) that paled by comparison to the ladies’ section’s generous provisions, and could barely see the ceremony; they were forced to make do with hearing their daughters’ footsteps on stage. Besser concluded by stating that this was an opportunity to sense what Charedi women feel at many events, and he admires them for it.

In his concluding words, he appeals to his daughter:

You are joining the ranks of the women of our nation, they who uncomplainingly, good-naturedly, graciously endure being relegated to the back of the room. They accept and embrace their destiny — I couldn’t handle it for an hour, yet for them, it’s a way of life… They’re made of special stuff. The she’asani kirtzono is real — there is something of the Divine in that role.

And then came the storm. Among thousands of Charedi women who tried to explain that they certainly do not accept their place good-naturedly and uncomplainingly, one response, penned by a college kiruv rabbanit, stood out: “There is a real danger in placing women on a pedestal so high that you cannot hear their screams. I don’t want compliments for accepting my lot in life gracefully. I want help in making my situation better.”

The danger of pushing women too high, of heaping excessive praise on the wonderful housewives and mothers who love each and every part of their role in life, is the principal danger Charedi society must deal with in its approach to women. For such wonderful women, a cramped and hot women’s section will suffice, even if the show is barely visible; for such exalted women, there is no need to ensure a comfortable space during the Simchas Bais Hasho’evah: they will rejoice in the very knowledge that their son is dancing around somewhere. Such Heavenly women will forgive even the total absence of a women’s section on days that aren’t the High Holidays, praying rather at home or in a distant Shul; indeed, they will not sense there is anything to forgive. Such dear women do not need cultural events on the same scale as men: a few challah-baking ceremonies will suffice. Women are virtually angels, and therefore do not expect good material conditions, credit for their achievements, advancement, or all the other vanities of this world; these should be reserved for earthlier men.

If we listen to the establishment discourse on integrating women into politics, we will hear a similar tone, raising the pedestal ever higher. Charedi MKs regularly explain how Knesset work is like rummaging in trash, and the Charedi community is too respectful of its womenfolk to allow them to engage in such foul labor. If instead of further raising the pedestal, we considered how to better provide for women’s needs, maybe there would be ways to allow them a place in the political world, in ways that are permitted both publicly and halachically. Can’t Charedi parties at least employ women to work behind the scenes to advance matters important to women – for instance, taking care to ensure that Charedi MKs attend meetings addressing domestic violence or screening mammography programs? But if the story we tell ourselves is that women are too angelic for the mud of politics, we will not recognize the need to let them come anywhere near the muck – even via non-parliamentary bodies.


The Attention Problem

The other way in which Charedi society ignores the needs of women is by mimicking certain “women’s rights groups” who seem to always know precisely “what women want,” leaving women themselves no say in the matter. We all like to mock feminist activists who declare that a woman who wishes to attend an event while seated separately from men is “repressed” and needs to be freed from her gendered chains. But we don’t seem to take similar pleasure from mocking people within our own camp who claim to know exactly how the majority of Charedi women feel.

We thus end up hearing how “Charedi women do not want to be involved in politics,” “Charedi women don’t aim for high salaries,” “Charedi women derive most of their satisfaction from taking care of their kids,” and many other statements in this vein. These statements are not entirely absurd, of course; they might be true for many Charedi women. But turning common attitudes into unequivocal generalizations that exclude all who feel differently is deeply problematic. Many Charedi women derive much of their satisfaction from work rather than home, some would love to be involved in politics, and there are more than a few who do indeed dream of a top-tier salary.

Absolutist opinions regarding the feelings and desires of Charedi women are not necessarily born out of conservative views; however, they are often caused by inattention to the voices of women. The fact that in Charedi public discourse, a woman cannot express harsh feelings about having to leave a three-month-old infant in daycare just because she is the sole provider, speaks for itself. Everyone knows that Charedi women are lionesses – full-time providers, full-time housewives, perfect wives, and incredibly diligent workers. The papers are full of these a priori truths, including inspiring descriptions of absolute dedication. How can one conceive that there is some Charedi woman out there who would rather be a stay-at-home mom?

This attention problem prevents us from finding real solutions for real needs: If Charedi women have everything they need, why try to improve things? Yet, the refusal to even listen to what women feel leads us inevitably to the very radical changes we fear. If we wish to fight feminist agendas we need to listen, even at this late hour, to the needs driving them. Feminism is not at fault for every change we don’t like among Charedi women. There are real needs, common even to Charedi women, which led women in the world at large to strive for change. Our choice is to either meet them or suffer the consequences.

An example of such a change that was pointlessly condemned as a feminist plot was the “yoatzot hilchatiyot” initiative launched by Rabbanit Hannah Henkin in 1999. The initiative was essentially a two-year study program in which women learn the laws of niddah and issues of women’s health. After passing a final exam, women become authorized to serve as halachic advisers to women (though not arbiters) on matters of family purity. The project was a stunning success among religious Zionist communities in Israel. It derived from a real need of women, who required a more comfortable and female environment for advice on these sensitive issues. Meanwhile, the Charedi world entirely ignored the matter, because “Charedi women have no problem talking to Rabbis on matters of family purity.” Naturally.

In a piece published on his Cross-Currents blog several years ago, Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein suggested that there is no real need for yoatzot hilchatiyot, offering two major reasons. First, men are usually the ones asking the questions. Second, there is no reason for a woman to feel uncomfortable to ask the Rabbi herself, and such discomfort does not reflect the modesty Judaism teaches. In response, many women, including Charedi women, claimed that he was entirely wrong. Not only are many women forced to ask themselves – because the husband is away for whatever reason; because he is less religious; because he doesn’t like asking himself – but also a great many purity-keeping women would rather jump off the Empire State Building than directly ask the rabbi.

The feedback on this issue was so unequivocal and so passionate that Rabbi Adlerstein wrote a follow-up column conceding he was wrong. He did not advocate yoatzot as the solution, but he did realize the depth of the existing problem that he was hitherto unaware of. He proposed expanding the training of bridal counselors so they can continue the halachic counseling after the wedding, or train rabbaniyot (rabbis’ wives) who are interested in doing so to work together with their husbands on this issue. This is indeed a legitimate approach: There is no obligation to specifically adopt the yoatzot model. One can certainly find other creative solutions. But the approach that causes women to feel emotionally distant from the trendsetters in Charedi society is the one expressed in Rabbi Adlerstein’s first piece: The presumption to know what women think and feel, without paying sufficient attention to sentiments on the ground.


“Broaden the Place of Your Tent”

Recognizing the parallel issues of excessive glorification of and insufficient attention to Charedi women is a prerequisite for any discussion of a substantial change in their condition or way of life – including the discussion taking place this month on the pages of Tzarich Iyun. One does not have to agree with Mrs. Lerner’s argument that Gemara study is the cure for the ills of this generation; there are legitimate arguments against this approach. But we need to carefully listen to the voices of female Gemara students and avoid clichéd generalizations about what makes women happy. Rejecting authentic voices on the grounds that women are entirely satisfied with how Charedi society treats them and the place it grants them is a dangerous approach.

Careful listening to women’s voices will allow us to understand how there are real problems in the method applied for teaching Torah in girls’ schools, and that neglecting to solve them could lead to excessive materialism and a detachment from spirituality, or alternatively to radical initiatives like women’s Gemara groups. We might discover that many women who end up studying Talmud get there after a real and painful search for a more comfortable place within our society. Such women do not wish to be angels and are uninterested in sentimental hymns of praise. They want their human, legitimate needs to be recognized and respected. This desire does not lead us to panic attacks over foreign fiends of feminism. It is but the expression of a desire to live in a society that follows a familiar Jewish value: “Love thy fellow as thyself.”

Working to improve the status of women in the Charedi community does not require revolutions. In many cases, the relevant processes are already taking place in a delicate and gradual manner; they just need some tweaking, some boosting, or some broadening. Just as Charedi society benefited from some of the social changes led by feminism, Charedi women also derive benefit from universal changes of mindset in areas where there is no reason for Jews to preserve the past. For instance, when I started my writing career a decade and a half ago, Charedi women had to adopt a male pseudonym to write on current affairs. Today, such a demand has become much rarer. Fashionably late, Charedi society is adopting new norms that bring a more objective attitude towards women.

However, things cannot always be allowed to develop at their own pace. When it comes to particularly central issues – the spiritual condition and growth of Charedi women is certainly among these –women will naturally push more for change. After all, if Sarah Schnirer had waited for a “top-down” establishment of Bais Yaakov instead of initiating the movement herself, the cost for the Jewish People would have been unbearable.

The majority of Charedi women will never become even part-time Gemara scholars. But the debate over Talmud study could be an important milestone on the path to finding more relevant definitions of the proper attitude and appropriate status for today’s Charedi woman. En route, it would be to our benefit to listen less to the phantom of feminism and listen more to the living, breathing Charedi woman, who is merely looking for a comfortable place within the Torah society that owes her so much.

Write a Comment

Please write down your comment
Name field is required
Please fill email