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Ask Shifra

Something Different... Answering questions and making curious observations (online) since 2005.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Taking a Stand for Orthodox Women

You know, I've been a little busy lately... but I'm never too busy to speak out for the rights of Jewish women.
Unfortunately, it seems that once again God fearing Jewish women are facing one of their greatest opponents- namely, themselves.

I recently recieved a link to this post, by Dina Mensch, much of which you can read below. While I'm certain it was written with only the best of intentions this sort of rhetoric really gets under my skin - it's the sort of grating feeling that is only comparable to that which my knuckles experience while making potato latkes the old fashioned way.

The article begins with an introduction about how difficult it is for a secular woman to embrace a frum lifestyle and that this feat is only possible because women are so "spiritual."
I'd get into that but frankly the whole explanation of women as spiritual creatures who need fewer mitzvos is so amorphous and undiscernable to me that I don't even know what she is talking about. Have at in the comments if you wish.

OK let's get to the meat and potatoes:
First Dina talks about the new roles an independant modern woman must accept:

When these assertive, accomplished women arrive at a Torah class or yeshiva/seminary, it is nearly impossible at first for them to wrap their minds around the notions of “making your husband your king,” “men’s role is public, women’s role is private,” and the importance of dressing with tznius (modesty) so that (among other reasons) men’s minds are not distracted. They often have little if any understanding or appreciation of the fundamental differences between men and women, of their differing wants, needs and basic personalities, and they certainly don’t appreciate the different goals for each as outlined in the Torah. As my rebbitzen used to say in response to accusations by parents of brainwashing, “these girls need their brains washed a little!”

Hello! That was disturbing.
"Make your husband your king." I think that's the second thing any person interested in kiruv should say to a woman- the first of course being "Want some kugel?" (kidding, kidding)
Come on now, I'm all for husbands and wives respecting each other but I'm not going in for any of this subserviant wife business. Yes, men and women are different does that mean that women are INFERIOR? I think not.
And while we're on the subject of differences:
Yes it's truly amazing that with all the studies of the human psychology, relationships, sexuality, gender role etc... only Orthodox Judaism has uncovered the great truth that men and women are not the same! (gasp)

Oh and yay for brainwashing... That rebbitzen of yours SURE is a clever one.

OK let's hear some more from Dina:

The second major challenge comes upon marriage. A woman by that point has likely changed both her first and last names. She is likely wearing a wig or scarf, and a skirt down to her ankles. She looks…different. If she is fortunate enough to become pregnant right away, she is probably experiencing weakness, nausea and emotional rollercoaster rides.

Rabbenu shel ailum! (as my father would say)
Holy Crap! (as my brother would say)

Is this woman talking about orthodoxy or some kind of freaky cult?
A woman who was just interested in a little Godliness or spirituality has suddenly become a complete stranger to herself!
Dressed up, married off, knocked up, and re-identified. Sounds like some kind of scary movie starring Sharon Stone with what's sure to be a very unsatisfying ending. Being frum doesn't mean being a CLONE. There is room in the frum world for all kinds of people. Nothing breaks my heart more than when a clever, intelligent, articulate, fun, woman forfits her very essence in the name of becoming frum. DON'T DO IT!
Serve Hashem and be yourself, it can be done. I promise you.
If you have a sense of humor stay funny- if you are smart don't try to hide it. The Jewish world needs strong, smart, women with personalities not a bunch of Stepford Wives in matching sheitels.

[I have not even addressed the challenges for women who are single or not being able to conceive, while living a frum life.]

Yeah well thank God for that.
Who knows how bad you'd make these poor pitful unmarried, unpregnant women feel.
Don't worry girls! You can oppress yourself while you look for a man to rule over you!

The answer is not simple, but I believe it lies in women needing to learn a long time to internalize Torah hashkafa and to understand the realities of her future and to strengthen herself internally for it. It is no small task to raise a family in the Jewish way, yet frequently women are just not prepared for it emotionally, especially if they still carry feminist impulses and resentments. Those who have learned the longest, especially in Eretz Yisroel, in a seminary or series of classes which discusses these issues head-on, make the smoothest and happiest transitions.

OK so here I agree with Dina (a little, maybe.)
What I WANT her to mean here is that women should take plenty of time to learn and study so that they can have a broader and deeper understanding of Torah before they go jumping in head first. It's more likely however, that she feels that more brainwashing is needed to rid a modern woman of her evil feminist impulses so that by the time she marries she is a limp rag ready for molding by her lord and master (her husband, not god- although they may be difficult to distinguish by that point.)


At 10:51 PM, Blogger Eliyahu said...

oy vey! these creatures dina mentions can't really be women. women, like men, are a chip off the old devine block -- a likeness thereof of the creator. i guess if you want to be a part of that part of the jewish tribe, and follow those tribal customs, go for it!

At 10:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dunno where that "make your husband your king" stuff comes from. I grew up Orthodox and never saw nor heard anything like that. I think the message in my family was closer to: "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy!"

At 11:53 PM, Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

An anthropologist friend of mine did a study of Diasporan yeshivas in Israel, and got the following quote from one of the rabbis at one of the schools he visited:

"Torah is like water; we need to wash our students' heads in it."

At 12:44 AM, Blogger StepIma said...

I read that one too, and the tiny poof sound at the end of the article was my brain imploding and leaking a bit out my ear. I have a feeling writing like that does far more in terms of scaring women away from a frum lifestyle than whatever enlightenment she's hoping to build up. Was it supposed to be a pep talk?

It just makes me feel so sad for so many people who get caught into that lifestyle and feel like they have to be clones of everybody else, because they're locked into the belief that that's the only route to G-d -- because that's what they were taught. Not the ones who are happy with their choices, obviously - or as the writer mentioned, who never knew anything else. But the ones who feel trapped in a tiny box with no way out. Or the ones who find a way out by trampling the box and running away from all of Judaism because they've become so turned off by what they saw.

Anyone who can talk about grown women "needing their brains washed a little" - even in jest - when it comes to religion, isn't talking about religion at all. It's indoctrination. I can't even imagine someone making a similar statement about young men.

The fact that she's so blithely quoting a statement that her rebbetzin made to PARENTS who were worried about their children and how they were acting or behaving, shows an unbelievable callousness to me. There is no concern for, or valuing of, these women as people. Only a message to do as they're told, get in line, change their names, their clothes, their bodies, their identities, and don't be surprised that it's harder for you if you were raised to believe that you mattered as an individual. With time you can grow out of it too.


At 1:11 AM, Blogger J said...

Shifra --

I just saw that post on Beyond Teshuva, and it made my brain want to explode. I consider myself an in-progress Jew, and the issues she mentioned couldn't be farther from the issues that I've been having. Yes, women are different, but the way she put it...was not any way that I would dream about. Anyway, I couldn't even think about a way to respond to it until I read your post, so I wanted to thank you for writing about it!

Btw, I'm also currently job hunting(my first job...) so I'll be keeping you in my thoughts as I'm looking! ;)

At 2:53 AM, Blogger Jack Steiner said...

And some people wonder why Orthodoxy gets a bad name.

At 6:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oof. That's more than a bit disturbing.

At 7:07 AM, Blogger Pragmatician said...

Has she ever met a FFB family? Husband the king? Ha! Who’re you're kidding?
And btw, how many non working mothers do you know in the FFB world?
And do non religious women not experience nausea when they get pregnant?

At 10:08 AM, Blogger Scraps said...

Jeez Louise. You know, the scariest thing about this article IMHO is that this woman was writing it in all sincerity. She really means every word that she is writing. And it makes me sad that this is how someone who considers herself a sincere Jew(ess) views her place in Judaism. It's like you said, Shifra--a Jewish women does not have to subsume her personality, hide her intelligence and her talents, to be a good ovedet Hashem! Argggggg.

At 10:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Is it possible that you are make implications about Dina's position that are not there.

When she says "make your husband your king", she probalby means as you suggested, respect your husband as you would a king.

Where do you see her saying that women should be subservient and are inferior? I didn't see that in her words.

The brainwashing remark was just a quip that Dina found funny. Maybe you didn't - but certainly you can understand how in it's context it was funny to Dina.

In regard to dealing with the transition from a single secular woman to a frum woman dressing modestly and having children - surely you can empathize how that might be difficult as Dina expressed.

No where does she say that she forfeited her essence or that she should feels she is a clone. Certainly you would agree that a great portion of frum women dress to a certain standard and choose to have more than 1.9 children and that doesn't make them clones. So why attribute those opinions to Dina.

I think you are misreading Dina's post and if you have the chance try to give it a more generous reading.

At 10:42 AM, Blogger and so it shall be... said...

all the jewish stuff aside, sound pretty loopy, the best pre marriage advice I ever got was if you want to be treated like a kind, then you have to treat your wife like a queen.

good adsvice. A well known marriage councelor I am freindly with also once said a wife will do anything in the world for a husband who appreciates, values and thins about her. But he must be the one to start the process.

I wonder if advice like that gets pushed to the wayside when misguided platitudes such as 'treat your husband like a kiing' are presented as religious dogma.

At 10:51 AM, Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Pathology of the article:

1. Brain Explosion (J)
2. Brain Implosion...leaking from an ear. (StepIma)
3. Head Washing (Steg)
4. Brain Washing [already in a jar?] (article itself)

Conclusion? Your post should have a warning on in: Call an ambulance before reading the article. (Brain Explosion Threat: High)

At 7:01 PM, Blogger Shifra said...

Time for a Trep style response after along day away from my dear bloggy:

Eliyahu- I'm generally pretty much live and let live when it comes to levels of religious observance but when it's clear that you are jamming a square peg in a round hole something is amiss. My premise is that if Torah is making you miserable you aren't doing it right. If you want to be covered from head to toe with a baby in each arm kol ha'kvod but that's not for everyone nor is it necessary to be an eved hashem.

Mirty - LOL! I know that's how it went in my house as well.
I guess there is talk in the gemarah about husbands owning their wives come into marriage with etc... However it seems the imahos were always pushing the Avos around (at least in pshat.)

Steg - Washing yourself in torah is not as awful sounding to me as out out and brainwashing (or making a joke of brainwashing.)

Ah Stepima you expressed a lot of what I've been thinking (only more articulately.) I agree with you 100%

J- thanks for commenting...good luck to both of us!

Jack and timi - no KIDDING!

Prag -Yep, yep, yep, yep, yep.

Scraps - You know you can't really fault Dina, she is trying to be sympathetic - to address issues that are often ignored even within her specific religious values.
I appreciate what she is trying to do (be supportive of women becoming frum) but not of her expectations for frum women.

Sara- as you can see from my comment above I do not think that Dina is in anyway malcious. She has definately identified a problem that BT women face - what she has NOT identified is the cause which is the narrow view of Frumkeit where everyone must fit "within the mold." While that is not said outright many non-halachic examples are presented as givens: skirts to the floor, changing your first name etc... Why do we expect so much more that is actually required from women already making such big changes already.

As for the brain washing joke - see step ima's comment. It's not a laughing matter in my opinion.

SW - I like that advice!! Please email my husband immediately!

Jameel - I think you've been spending a bit to much time on the ambulance...

At 5:23 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Though I actually had the same initial reaction to that post, I don't think that's how she meant a lot of it.

Her examples of name-changing and the like are simply saying that the person has probably gone through some drastic changes, for example...

I think that the comments section there had a lot of clarifying, from the glance I gave it when I first read it. It's a shame, because most of the stuff on BeyondBT is really great - whether one is BT or not.

At 5:25 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

They also put up another post just a few minutes ago on the subject by Shoshanna Silcove. A bit too mystical for me, but interesting.

At 11:04 AM, Blogger PsychoToddler said...

What you're saying applies to men as well. There is a common misconception in BT circles that in order to become frum or lead more fulfilling lives you have turn into some bland clone.

It just ain't true.

BTW, love the Strong Bad quote.

At 12:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


"Sara- as you can see from my comment above I do not think that Dina is in anyway malcious."

Of course Dina wasn't being malicious, and I never thought you were calling here malicious.

"She has definately identified a problem that BT women face - what she has NOT identified is the cause which is the narrow view of Frumkeit where everyone must fit "within the mold."

All Frum Jews live in a range of acceptable behaviors whether it is Modern, Yeshivish or Chassidic, so I'm not sure that the additional halachas, minhagim and the such that Dina has adopted makes here qualitatively more "fitting within the mold" then any frum Jew. I'm sure you are aware that there are non Observant who would hurl that same accusation at any Torah Observant Jew, including yourself.

"While that is not said outright many non-halachic examples are presented as givens: skirts to the floor, changing your first name etc... Why do we expect so much more that is actually required from women already making such big changes already."

Maybe those choice make sense to Dina. She seems like an intelligent person, so why not give here the benefit of the doubt as I'm sure you would like her to give to you.

"As for the brain washing joke - see step ima's comment. It's not a laughing matter in my opinion."

But again, I'm sure you can give Dina the respect to allow her to chose the jokes she finds funny.

I'll suggest it again - assume Dina is an intelligent and mature women who has made life choices different than yours, but you still totally respect, and then re-read the article.

At 2:40 PM, Blogger Maya Resnikoff said...

I read that article in its original location- and my impression was "these people have no notion of moderation"- I found the site interesting the first few times I read it, and then realized that they were aimed mostly at ba'alei tshuvah on the far right side of the spectrum and only there. And that article was one of the farthest right of them all, and what's made me uninterested in going back, for all that one or two of the articles were sort of interesting.

At 4:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow. that's nuts.

I'm a BT. But since it happened pretty gradually over several years (as a teenager, thru USY and JTS, followed by year at a relatively mainstream yeshiva in Israel, not one of the kiruv ones), I never became a kool-aid drinker.

That stuff is lunacy. I'd like her to have a shabbos meal at my house. We know who rules the roost, and it ain't Big Daddy. If my wife treated me like a king, I don't know what I'd do. More like the court jester.

I find a lot of the stuff on beyondbt to be a bit freaky.

At 5:10 PM, Blogger StepIma said...

I like that site and I post there occasionally - mostly (I'll admit it) to keep the pendulum from swinging too far to the right. :)

But when I read essays like that I usually just walk away and don't respond... the writers are the most likely to get into shouting matches about my-way-or-the-highway ideology, and any ground that I might hope to be broken in favor of tolerance would only be lost in the shadow of two people (or more) wailing on each another ;)

I think her talking about skirts "to her ankles" and other dress issues wasn't the point that rankled or made people so upset about losing one's identity. At least for me. It was her setting up her entire essay by the comparison to these secular women's earlier lives, when "they have often proven themselves equally capable as men in all levels of competition, be it intellectual, creative, or athletic." I can understand how you can strike athletic off the list to embrace a frum lifestyle. I'll give you that one. But "intellectual and creative"?!?

Saying that these women who have proven themselves and been taught to expect they have a right to be considered equals intellectually and creatively, must now learn that they have to make their husband their king -- and she is literally saying that -- is saying that her version of the frum community does not believe that women are intellectually or creatively equal to men. That it's hard for these women to catch up to what the rest of her community takes for granted: you have to park that side of you at the door for your new private, spiritual life. Wash that brain.

It's not a question of disrespecting the writer of the essay. She has a right to her opinions and she truly believes them. And she's clearly very intelligent. But I'm curious to know whether she believes that she is the intellectual and creative equal of men, or whether she is the creative and/or intellectual equal of her husband, if she's married. Not whether she's smarter or more creative, but whether she considers herself to be on a par in her capacities. Or whether she feels that Hashem didn't create her to be on a par, because she's more spiritual.

And if she does believe that, it is her choice. But she's doing a disservice to women who don't believe that, to say that that's what G-d wants. Men and women were both made in Hashem's image and that includes our intellectual and creative capacity. It's in that respect that it seems like she's advocating women to be good little girls, to be clones of one another. Not to have no personality, but to be ready to sacrifice your personality for the good of the community. That the person who was intellectually fierce, who was a creative spirit, who ran laps around the guys - whoever you were before you became frum - needs to get locked away somewhere and never be shown again. And that's a shonda. It really could turn smart women off to Orthodox Judaism. And we need smart women.

I also think it's a huge sign of respect for her and her opinions that we're having this conversation over here instead of a smackdown over there :)

At 5:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


When she was talking about the intellectual, creative and athletic spheres it was in the context of competition and I think her point was that in marriage and in most of Torah life it was cooperation and respect which rules rather than competition.

In answer to your question of whether she considers herself an equal to her husband in those spheres, she would probably answer that the question itself is not relevant. She has capabilities, her husband has capabilities and they work together to make the best life for the entire family.

Comparisions in intelligence/creativity don't seem so relevant in that vein as long as there is mutual respect - which I think the "treat your husband like a King" statement was referring to. I believe she left out the accepted Torah value that a husband she treat his wife should be treated like a Queen, because she was discussing the women's perspective.

Just for my own clarification when you are comparing men and women in the intelligence/creativity spectrum what do you see as the most relevant comparisons:

1) Women as a group to men as a group
2) The top woman to the top man
3) The average woman to the average man
4) A given woman to men as a group
5) A woman to her husband

It's a serious question, because I'm a little confused at how (or why) we would make some of these comparisons.

At 9:06 AM, Blogger StepIma said...

Not sure why you're asking my opinion on this (or whether you're able to speak for the writer's personal opinion, for that matter; it seems like a moot point), but I think men and women have equal capacity for intelligence and creativity... on an individual basis, all people are different. When it comes to intelligence or creative ability, you might as well compare any two people by their sex as you would by their hair color... it's not going to be relevant. How do you quantify "more intelligent?" By IQ scores? They're culturally skewed. By SAT's? They're knowledge-based - scores can be raised by taking a course. And how would you ever measure creativity? Who's more creative - Picasso or Bjork? It's not quantifiable.

G-d made all of us in his image. That makes us all capable to achieve greatness as humans. Which means that if we have a talent, or a skill, especially one that we excel in - and it does not mean going against halacha to do so, that was very possibly G-d's intention for us. That's where the fight against "clone mentality" - of losing your identity for the good of the community - starts to rear its head. But I'll put that aside since I addressed it (I think to death. Neeeigh! Boom.)

You are giving the writer a lot of benefit of the doubt. That she is allowed to have a sense of humor about brain-washing without needing to care about the context of the joke (that it was not humorous to the parents to whom the joke had been told, who were afraid their children were losing their identities), because after all she was only being playful. That she is allowed to leave out the part about a woman's husband treating his wife like a queen, because she's only talking about a woman's perspective and how she should act.

The writer isn't not here. You're not her. You can give her the benefit of the doubt that she meant to say those other things. But she chose not to say them. Therefore her audience is not hearing them. Her audience hears what she wrote. Her intentions may be the best in the world, and I'm pretty sure all of us who disagreed with her piece agree about that - that she went in with the best intentions. But it doesn't change the fact that she said what she said.

You say that "I think her point was that in marriage and in most of Torah life it was cooperation and respect which rules rather than competition." But there is nothing in her piece about cooperation or respect. In fact, the opposite is true - it hints that a secular woman who becomes frum may resent her husband "who is carrying on doing the exact same thing (learning, working, or studying in university) that he was doing the day before the wedding." (though she uses the word "envy.") That plus treating him like a king -- especially without being told "you can expect to be treated like a queen in return," which I agree would soften the blow, but it doesn't change the fact that it isn't there -- is not painting an inviting picture. It's encouraging servitude. Not cooperation. Not respect.

I think that you are taking your own viewpoint and love of that lifestyle - and one that you hope that she has, and maybe she does have - and imposing it onto the text of the piece. But it doesn't change the fact that it isn't in the piece.

Don't get me wrong. I'm Orthodox. I stand behind the mechitza because I like it there, and I have no plans of tearing it down. And I do want to encourage people to get closer to a Torah lifestyle, to yiddishkeit. Including secular, feminist women. I'm fighting the same fight.

I just think this particular article is going about it about it the wrong way.

At 12:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I can't figure out is why we're all commenting here instead of on beyondBT. NOT everyone on there is so far to the right. I got a lot of support from the people moderating that blog when I commented in favor of educating women. But there seem to be a few women who are really far to the right... and they're the only ones posting. I have a hard enough time convincing my non-orthodox friends (and family) that I haven't taken leave of my senses... and then they read stuff like that. :(

At 10:51 PM, Blogger ... Is the Window to Our Soul said...

This sounds very similar to what my daughter brought home from school last year. They were teaching the students about"Eishet Hayil" (Woman of Valor) and as I was reading through the booklet that they gave the girls, I felt like I was transported in time to the 1950's. From the illustrations to the translation that they were using, just made me so angry. It definitely wasn't what I want my daughter to grow up thinking about herself and her role in a marriage.

I know it's suppose to be a beautiful poem that respect women, but this version certainly did not do that.

At 9:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

StepIma wrote: "You are giving the writer a lot of benefit of the doubt."

You say that as if it is a bad thing

At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just pointing out that "feminism" is not the opposite of "Judaism".

"Feminism" is the belief that women should be respected like men are respected and shouldn't be marginalized or devalued because they are not men.

Sounds pretty Jewish to me.

The author of the article seems to be of the (unfortuantely too common) fallacy, common in the more right-wing sectors of our community, that "That which is Jewish, is by definition, the opposite of whatever the 'goyim' are doing." So she sees women respected as equals in general society, able to be as "accomplished and creative" as the men and praised for it, and she decides that's not the Jewish way. And that in fact, the Jewish way is the most regressive cult-like dehumanizing way possible.

At 2:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sure she would love these comments on this other person's blog (which sadly, comes from a woman, and is getting support by other women/ and men)

"One other thing I notice, as medicine gets more socialized (even here in America with HMO's) it's more attractive to women and less attractive to men. Women are much more likely to accept lower salaries for a job with set hours and a predictable paycheck, where they don't have to hustle or be very aggressive and competitive. And they want to be able to go home at a reasonable time and be with their families.

Will women doctors mean a lower quality of health care? Well -- not right away. But that aggressive and competitive edge men have -- it does tend to keep them at the top of their game. Women are better at the bedside manner and emotional hand-holding side of medicine, but America is tops in the world because of competition and that is slowly going to slide."

Just pitiful that women degrade themselves this way.


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