A Married Woman’s Obligation

I went to a friend’s wedding in Baltimore on Sunday. I was thrilled to be able to come, despite living on the other side of the ocean. The wedding was lovely, but the cultural atmosphere took a bit of readjusting, and I’m not just talking about the Israeli-American divide.  I knew the bride because she was my partner in a program that matches young professionals with more observant peers for Torah study on a topic of choice.

It was an introduction to the wealth of Torah knowledge, and more importantly, an opportunity to interact with someone whose approach to Judaism was very different from my own.  Throughout our learning, based on books written in English, I sensed a lack of completion.  The text was filtered, part of something bigger, and the footnotes connected to books I had not the faintest clue about.

That is why I ultimately came to learn at Nishmat, where women are encouraged and empowered to go right to the sources themselves.

The bride came from a community where women’s roles are more traditional, and women’s Jewish education, both religious and secular, tends to get funneled toward a few select paths. Women are teachers, speech therapists, and work in special education, with little exception. While their husbands’ counterparts in Israel could study Torah in the kollel all day long and get government support, in the U.S. they must work, and they become lawyers, doctors, and yes, rabbis.

I got a ride from the wedding with the bride’s newlywed friend and her husband, along with someone I had just met at the wedding, who herself becoming more observant.  As she got in the car, she noticed a big green hardcover book sitting on top of the dashboard, The Laws of Niddah.  “That’s quite a tome,” she said, jokingly, perhaps taken aback, as I was, to findniddah book a textbook about Jewish law on intimate matters sitting in full view in the car.  It’s not the type of thing I could imagine leafing through during rush hour delays anyways.

“They make a women’s edition,” the wife, college-educated herself, said reassuringly. “It has a plush, nicely decorated cover, and it’s much more concise and simpler.”

Oh. Phew.  Glad I can leave the nitty-gritty to the men about laws that have to do with the female reproductive system and for which the onus is on the wife to call the shots.

“That’s just Volume One,” I piped up.  Where I study, they have a whole library on this stuff.  Nishmat train’s yoatzot halachah, expert female advisors who have studied these laws in depth for years.

Even if one were to take the more traditional view that women should only study Torah relating to the most practical matters, this would be one of them.

In an excerpt from Mishnah read on Friday nights, Tractate Shabbat 2:6 says: “For three transgressions do women die in childbirth: because they were not careful to observe the laws of family purity, [separating] challah, and of lighting the [Shabbat] lamp.”

It’s a weighty statement that catches my attention each time.

Modern commentators often feel the need to see it as a metaphor, because it is empirically dubious to make such a claim.  Still, the ubiquitous ArtScroll siddur summarizes the reason: “These three mitzvot are assigned to women, therefore they bear great responsibility for neglecting them” and that “punishments are most likely in time of danger.”

In other words, even if you take these words literally, and even if you are a traditionalist, women should be studying this stuff, with or without the plush cover, and preferably first hand, not after being regurgitated by a man in terms deemed simple enough for even women to understand.

Halachah and sociology are incredibly intertwined in my mind, which makes figuring out “what to do” incredibly complex.  While “picking and choosing” what halacha to follow is looked down upon, choosing to what extent I let modern or local social mores influence my worldview seems equally arbitrary, and a lot of halacha is followed based on what one sees others in the community doing, often whether or not it can be backed up by a textual source.


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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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