I’ve recently been reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. There are parts I shoved aside, deeming them inapplicable today, in part because so many of the things that were revolutionary when Friedan wrote have now become common truths. It’s no longer revolutionary to point out the negative impact that ads with skinny models have on women’s body image, and it’s strikingly out-of-date to complain about classes on how to be a good wife being taught at modern universities.
She finds that the girls believe they face two choices: forgoing marriage in order to wholly dedicate oneself to pursuing a PhD in math or science, or a life of stay-at-home motherhood.
But there’s one scene that nevertheless resonated with me. Friedan visits a high school to research why girls who excel at math and science in elementary school stop excelling during their teenage years. She finds that the girls believe they face two choices: forgoing marriage in order to wholly dedicate oneself to pursuing a PhD in math or science, or a life of stay-at-home motherhood. Since they fear the negative social implications of committing to the first choice, they choose the second option, at which point excelling at math and science in high school seems futile.
I think that this quandary is where many Orthodox women find themselves today when it comes to Torah study. Girls might receive a good Torah education at a young age. However, they know that at a certain point they will be faced with a similar choice. Dedicate themselves to Torah learning and leadership despite the odds stacked against them and the risk of becoming a social pariah, or choose a socially acceptable non-Torah related career. So what would the point be in investing in their Torah education?
The truth is however, that unlike women learning math in the 1950s, Jewish girls in elementary school today are often not given a Torah education equivalent to that of Jewish boys.
The truth is however, that unlike women learning math in the 1950s, Jewish girls in elementary school today are often not given a Torah education equivalent to that of Jewish boys. For boys, Talmud education – the main prerequisite for getting into rabbinic school – is the core of a Jewish education, whereas for women, Talmud may never be present in their elementary, high school, or seminary classes. Girls can expect their gap year in Israel to be the end of their formal Jewish education. They might go to the occasional shiur as an adult. And, depending on their community, there might even be the occasional shiur given by a woman – especially if the shiur is for women and focused on a female topic, like modesty.
Contrast this to the Torah study forecast for men: A gap year at a yeshiva that offers a hesder or semicha program, with the opportunity to spend another year or two at the yeshiva, perhaps even participating in some classes with rabbinic students or learning with them in chevruta. A man can expect a robust shiur schedule in his shul, catering to men of a similar learning background, and taught by men. If he wants to pursue the rabbinate, he already has a fair amount of Talmud under his belt and is well-placed to be accepted by the rabbinic program of his choice. Once he graduates from the program, he can expect to be respected as a rabbi by his local Orthodox community, and begin searching for rabbinic employment options.
Once a woman graduates from an advanced rabbinic education program… she can expect to have trouble finding employment as clergy, and to be actively disrespected and denigrated by her local Orthodox community.
Today, women’s higher Torah education opportunities are limited to barely a handful of programs, including Maharat or Midreshet Lindenbaum’s advanced learning track. But this is analogous to the woman pursuing a Phd in the 1950s. First of all, a woman who has completed a full Orthodox elementary and high school education, followed by a year in Israel, can expect to be turned down from advanced programs because she probably doesn’t have the requisite Talmud education. She might need to spend another few years learning before she can get in the door. But, unlike men, she lacks a wide array of programs to help her make that leap. She also lacks female clergy to act as role-models or chevruta partners, unless she belongs to a specific type of Orthodox community.
Once a woman graduates from an advanced rabbinic education program, she still lacks an official rabbinic degree. She can expect to have trouble finding employment as clergy, and to be actively disrespected and denigrated by her local Orthodox community. Men may not want to date her. Her parents might blush when telling peers of their child’s career choice. She can expect to repeatedly read articles in Jewish newspapers accusing her of betraying the Torah. Like the women pursuing advanced education in the 1950s, women in the Orthodox community who pursue advanced Torah education and leadership can expect to be social pariahs.
Like the women of the 1950s who realized that they could not find meaning in a life of cooking and ironing, we are realizing – and articulating – that we cannot find meaning in a spiritual life defined by listening to men’s words of wisdom from behind the mechitza.
Friedan starts her work by posing the question of “Is this all?” She identifies this as the question “that lay buried, unspoken,” like a “strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction.”
Today, the same question, which Friedan posed in relation the life of the 1950s housewife, can be posed by Orthodox Jewish women in relation to their spiritual and religious lives as members of a Jewish community. Like the women of the 1950s who realized that they could not find meaning in a life of cooking and ironing, we are realizing – and articulating – that we cannot find meaning in a spiritual life defined by listening to men’s words of wisdom from behind the mechitza.
If women are half of our community – if they too, were present at Mount Sinai – then the current system is cutting people out of that covenant by making them choose between their desire to pursue advanced Torah study and leadership, and their desire to be accepted members of the Orthodox community.
So let’s get out of the 1950s.
Shayna Abramson is a native Manhattanite living in Jerusalem, where she works as a grant and content writer and is pursuing an MA in Political Science from Hebrew University.
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