“Jewish women,” writes Shira Schmidt (AJN 9/6/2000 Finding Hannah’s Voice) “do not pray like Jewish men.” With that truism begins her contentious article that women should pray silently like Hannah, devote their energies to challah-baking, candle-lighting and mikveh and, if they know what’s really good for them, stay inside the palace rather than opt for “glory on the stage” to meet their spiritual needs. She uses the tired old device of her mythical “friend” who, with many young children, found she could not fulfil the many “demands for public demonstrations of piety of Women of the Wall” and therefore returned to good old-fashioned ways.
I suspect that had Shira been around when the subject of women’s suffrage was open for debate not so many generations ago, she would have been on the side of those arguing for women to divert their attention from men’s business and remain within their own boundaries of household ‘glory’. “Women,” she may well have written, “should visit the sick rather than stick their noses – or their votes – into ballot boxes.”
Then, of course, are her arguments, implicit and explicit, couched as compliments but in fact, the epitome of condescension and, as such, insults. Women don’t need to go to shul, goes this line of reasoning which Shira enthusiastically endorses; women don’t need to take on all the mitzvahs (commandments) of men because of their higher spiritual level. This higher spiritual level allows them access to God without having to observe and participate in the minutiae of ritual and in fact frees them to, yes, stay home with the children and look after the home – two of the largest jewels in the crown of every Jewish princess. But exactly where it is written that the tasks of child-rearing belong solely to women? That men are not equally responsible in contributing to the upbringing of their progeny? And what about the myriad assumptions that exist in Shira’s insistence of dividing mitzvahs along gender lines? Not all Jewish women are married. Not all Jewish women are heterosexual. Not all married Jewish women are able to bear children. Some Jewish women are widows whose children have left home. If it can be argued that women are not required to observe these mitzvahs so they can be good Jewish wives and mothers, surely it must be asked what happens to the multitudes of women who fall outside that classification? And what about the spirit of the law of which Shira makes so much? If the laws about observance were truly passed to make women’s lives less onerous, since when did being freed from obligation devolve into women being prohibited from observance? How does a law that is meant to bring ease to the souls of women finish up as a way of oppressing them?
Another of her arguments proposes that Sifrei Torah (Holy Books), tallis (prayer shawl) and tfillin (phylacteries) belong in the realms of male observance; what do women want or need with them? The fact of the matter is that these things are the sancta (the holy things) of our religion, and hence should not be denied to women. They are not the only sancta of the religion, argues Freda Birnbaum, academic at Columbia University, but sancta they are. There is an honourable tradition of women making use of them to heighten their spiritual experience and Shira knows as well as anyone that there is nothing against either the spirit or the letter of the law in such actions. Birnbaum argues further that it is not God who has denied women access to these things, but men and also sometimes fearful and uneasy women. She concludes by stating that there’s nothing wrong with being uneasy about some of this, but she objects – as do I – to those determined to exaggerate the level of prohibition and to undermine women who do want to be “hands-on” in these aspects of observance. As I see it, that is the lie and Shira is guilty of perpetuating it.
I would like to submit that while we ought never to accept the division between men and women along a line that values men’s ritual practice and devalues women’s – equally, as Birnbaum has argued, to claim that the entire value of women’s observance takes place outside the synagogue is often merely a way of keeping them outside. There is nothing in my shape or bodily functions which need prevent me from being close to God in the ways prescribed for all Jews – not only for the men – at Sinai. This is not a secret; it is a simple yet profound truth, about whose meaning neither feminists nor the advocates of Orthodox Judaism need ever be in conflict.