Boys Will Be Boys?

One of the fundamental principles guiding traditional Jewish rituals, as well as social behavior, is the difference between the sexes. With this in mind, I couldn’t stop thinking about this article in Newsweek reviewing the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps—And What We Can Do About It, by Lise Eliot. The book makes the argument that behavioral gender differences are socialized and not biological.

In a nutshell, the theory goes that there are tiny biological differences among the genders that parents pick up on and through their nurturing, they increase the severity of these differences, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’ve heard multiple parents, particularly in observant circles, claim that without any cues from parents or other children, that boys will gravitate towards cars and toy guns and that girls will prefer dolls. But is that really true, or incomplete anecdotal evidence? I can contrast that with personal anecdotal evidence. I never liked dolls. Ever.

Spiritually Superior Women

One of the reasons given for women’s exemption from most time-bound mitzvot is that they simply don’t need them — they are on a higher spiritual level. What exactly does this mean, and is this true?

Within this category, there are mitzvot that women are exempt from and essentially forbidden from performing, such as laying tefillin, and there are mitzvot that women are exempt from, but they still get reward from performing (albeit less reward than a man, being they are not obligated). This includes mitzvot such as limmud Torah. How exactly one, or God in particular, quantifies reward and what that does to a person is not something I’ve ever seen discussed. If you have a thought or a link or a reference to contribute, I’d be really interested.

“Feminization” of Judaism

Anyways, I’ve frequently made the argument on this blog that some aspects of modern Jewish observance might be best adapted to modern realities, especially with regard to gender parity. And I wanted to continue to fight that fight. That is, until I read a recent article in Slate, “The End of Jewish Men?“. Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow recounts how the “feminization” of liberal streams of Judaism has essentially pushed men out.

Now I heard from some Orthodox teachers of mine in the form of a warning that this is exactly why women should be discouraged from seeking the pulpit. I found it hard to believe that if a woman was called up to read from the Torah that it would actually drive men away.

The theory goes, that if women come out of the home, the childcare, the meal preparation, or from behind the mechitza and start leading services, that men won’t find their place instead in traditionally female roles, and they’ll be left without a place. However, according to my husband’s anecdotal evidence, and statistics cited by Tuhus-Dubrow, this is exactly what has happened. “While women often clamor to participate in male-dominated institutions, female-dominated institutions are more likely to drive males away.”

It’s About “Rights”

I am of course excluding here the all-important halachic reasonings behind women traditionally being excluded from public rituals. The thing is, that is exactly the point. This argument isn’t about Jewish law! It is about a sense of fairness. On July 4th of all days, I’m sorry to deliver such a blow to the American psyche, but Judaism isn’t about “rights”.

At a modern Orthodox synagogue that I attended in Washington, D.C., there would be an afternoon Shabbat service for women only on a monthly basis. There women could fully participate, including saying blessings over Torah reading and reading from the Torah. It was poorly attended. As far as I’m aware, there wasn’t though a movement for the same in the main sanctuary.

In more liberal streams of Judaism there is. And I question what it is based on. After all, why is there no movement to bring parity to all of the tribes of Israel. I’m unaware of a movement to remove the honor of a Cohen getting the first aliyah and a member of the tribe of Levi from getting the second. After all, it’s an honor that has little basis in modern life, as there is no other distinction between the tribes without the Temple. And we’re not 100% sure who is a Cohen, and most certainly not who is a Levi today anyways.

Society’s Evolution

There are several points in the argument that there may be a sociological in addition to a spiritual (and therefore less verifiable) reason for the differing halachic treatment between the sexes that actually bring me solace.

It seems to me that even within the last 200 years (which is extremely late in Jewish halachic history) the daily routine for women has changed considerably more than for men. Particularly in the Western, Jewish community, most men now find themselves behind a desk or in the service industry rather than in the fields. They are expected to go to work (or yeshiva) every day.

Women, on the other hand, have dramatically expanded possibilities for how they live their lives. Whereas women were almost unquestionably housewives, as early as their teenage years, today they have myriad educational and career opportunities. There are effective ways for choosing when and how many children to have. There are daycares. There is infant formula. My goodness, there are washing machines and prepared sauces, not to mention entire prepared meals. Childbirth is far less deadly, and outside of ultra-Orthodox circles, the average age of a bride has gone up by several years.

Without answering the question whether or not any of these new developments provide a better lifestyle than going without them, the fact remains that when it no longer takes all day to provide for a family’s basic needs, women have a heck of a lot more time on their hands.

Halachic Implications

I think that this is very useful to keep in mind when thinking about the following mitzvot:

  • Limmud Torah – If there are limited books and limited time resources, it seems unreasonable for women to be required to also study with the same rigor as men. Women’s minds may have seemed weaker because even as girls they had more obligations at home and fewer educational opportunities.
  • Haircovering – Wearing a hat or a scarf in public was certainly in the norm 200 years ago, and in that context, revealing hair would be showing a part of the body that society as a whole was accustomed to seeing covered, at least partially. There is undoubtedly more to it than fashion though. It’s true that hair is a sexual part of a woman’s body. But why then would covering be reserved only for married women? If we try to imagine a time without billboards, television, and teen magazines, it would not be unreasonable to assume that women were not very aware of their sexuality until marriage, which was not that long after puberty. Essentially, society has become desensitized to seeing pretty much any part of a woman’s body, and requiring haircovering ignores that fact (which is either out of touch with reality or deeply in touch with a sense of values, despite the circumstance, depending on how you look at it). It’s amazing to me actually that Western society reacted as it did to the “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Superbowl half-time show. Why is a nipple a big deal when women proudly show off the rest of their uncensored breast on television and in the flesh (no pun intended)?
  • Mitzvot Aseh She Hazman Gramma , time-bound positive commandments: Women are exempt from a whole slew of these, and as a result, the assumption is that there is some sort of clal or overriding concept. Usually the line of thinking is that women are so busy in the home and taking care of their children that it would be inappropriate to take them away from this task in order to perform another mitzvah, things such as praying Shema by a certain time, wearing tzizit (even though you have all day to do it), and shaking a lulav. In my mind, this is more problematic. Every woman, even those with twelve children, is bound by many if not most time- bound commandments. To name some examples: Hearing Shabbat kiddush, Prayer (rabinically obligated, and according to most opinions the time-bound Shacharit and Minchah), Chanukkah candles and hearing (even reading!) the Purim Megillah, Shabbat and Yom Tov candlelighting (at really specific times!), eating matzah and maror and drinking four cups of wine at the Pesach Seder.

And More Questions

So where is the place in Orthodox Jewish life for the man who prefers to stay at home and raise his children and for the woman who wants to be a Torah scholar? It’s there, and it’s growing. But is it a good thing?

4 Responses to “Boys Will Be Boys?”

  1. 1 Rebecca M July 4, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    One thing the article doesn’t really go into is causation vs. correlation. I wonder about that– might male participation have still dropped off for other reasons had women’s roles not been increased? (I hear American women are more likely to be engaged in any religion) And perhaps without egalitarian options women’s participation would have dropped off as well.

    However, I’m open to hearing how men feel in various religious settings.

    As for mitzvot aseh she’hazman grama, it’s interesting how “patur” becomes “patur aval asur” in certain cases, despite support to the contrary:

    -Tosafot Brachot 14A says women can take on these obligations.
    -Yerushalmi Kiddushin 61A that divorced/widowed women become like men, having the means to perform these mitzvot.
    -Tosefta Kiddushin 1:10 includes tzitzit as a positive time-bound mitzvah that women are still obligated in, but it’s R’ Shimon’s minority opinion to the contrary that stuck.
    -I also remember coming across somewhere in the Bavli that said women are permitted to lay tefillin; the Yerushalmi says otherwise, and surprisingly, the Yerushalmi became the common practice.

    There may be more, but that’s all I’ve got off the top of my head and a quick internet search.

    And yet only some are controversial for women to take on– mostly tzitzit and tefillin– while no one bats an eyelash at women saying Shema or eating in a sukkah.

    FWIW, a couple years ago there was a Yisrael Liberation Front facebook group arguing for tribal parity. Probably hasn’t become a large movement because Cohen/Levi privileges are mostly symbolic anyways these days. But I think I’ve also davenned somewhere were the first and second aliyot were just Rishon and Sheni, not Cohen and Levi. Wouldn’t swear to it, but I think so.

    • 2 Ilene July 4, 2011 at 9:50 pm


      Thanks for your comments! I’d like to respond to some of them. First of all, it doesn’t seem that male participation has dropped as much or at all in Orthodox Judaism. Though the article didn’t state this directly, and I haven’t seen direct evidence to support this statement, it is what I inferred.

      The second thing that I’d like to address is that there doesn’t seem to be concern about women saying Shema or eating in a sukkah.. Women are obligated in both of those mitzvot d’oreita, so there is no question. Tallit and tefillin are mitzvot aseh she hazman gramah and they are therefore exempt (other reasons are batted around too). They are in a different category of “patur” which has become, as you said “patur aval asur”. Shema and Sukkah are chiuv.

      Thanks for sharing about the Yisrael Liberation Front. I figured there would be a group somewhere 🙂

  2. 3 Rebecca M July 27, 2011 at 4:25 am


    The Tosefta (Kiddushin 1:10) says that sukkah is a mitzva aseh she’hazman grama that women are exempt from. On the anecdotal evidence front, I remember from yeshiva days that girls were allowed to be more meykil on eating in a sukkah than male teachers.

    The Mishnah in Brachot 3:3 says that women are exempt from saying Shema. Though I seem to recall at least the first line of Shema making the “required women’s davenning list” for some rabbis.

    I think that there has been, is, or will be a facebook group for anything that can be imagined. Oh wait, it’s not groups anymore, it’s pages, right? 🙂

  1. 1 An Easy Fast? « Aliyah L'Torah Trackback on August 9, 2011 at 1:20 pm

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

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