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The Jerusalem Post

Egalitarianism has Landed        

May 20, 2008

[For an interesting new discovery in science, reflecting on some of the differences between women and men, go to our article, Sex, Gender and Justice]


By (Rabbi) Avi Shafran

My computer cautions me against fooling with certain manufacturer-determined system settings. Doing so, it warns, could create serious problems.

Riskier still is messing around with Judaism's system-settings, determined by the ultimate Manufacturer.

That lesson might be the one being learned the hard way by contemporary Jewish religious movements which, unconstrained by the Jewish religious tradition, chose years ago to remove the slash that Jewish tradition places diagonally through the equal sign flanked by "men" and "women."

Both genders, of course, are equally important to God. Women should be paid equal amounts for equal work on a par with men, and they should be respected no less than males. But pretending that men and women are identical and interchangeable in their life-roles - the much-cherished "egalitarian" approach - not only offends Jewish tradition, it may bode demographic disaster.

A soon-to-be-released report entitled The Growing Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life, by Brandeis University sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman, will present statistical evidence to confirm what has been widely suspected in recent years: males in non-Orthodox communities are opting out of religious activities. Professor Fishman fears that as non-Orthodox Jewish men become increasingly estranged from religious and communal life they are more likely to intermarry and become "ambivalent at best, if not downright hostile to Jewish tradition."

Could the exodus of non-Orthodox men from communal religious participation have some relationship to "progressive" Jewish groups' efforts to erase the idea of gender roles in Judaism?

I don't mean that non-Orthodox men feel insulted, having been displaced by their female counterparts in practices and positions that were once their lot. No, I mean something more subtle: that messing up the system settings, well, messes up the system.

ROLES ARE part and parcel of Judaism. Just as, among Jewish men, Cohanim and Leviim have prescribed roles, so are there roles that are gender-specific. Some Jewish women were led to believe that a title or public "privilege" would somehow ennoble them, that a tallit or kippa would render them more important or worthy. Others, however, more in touch with Torah, regarded the "equality" campaign with curiosity and just resumed the vital business of their Jewish lives.

The Talmud (Ketuvot 67b) tells of a great scholar, Mar Ukva, who, each day after study, would surreptitiously leave some coins near the door of a poor person in his neighborhood. One day, Mar Ukva stayed late in the study hall and his wife came to accompany him home. Together they walked, making Mar Ukva's usual detour to leave the coins in the regular place. As he began to place the coins, the poor man approached the door. The couple, realizing they would be spotted and wanting their charity to be (as is best) anonymous, took flight; the poor man, wanting to identify his benefactors, gave chase.

The couple ducked into an excellent, if unusual hiding place: a large outdoor oven. Unfortunately, it had recently been used and was still hot. Mar Ukva felt his feet begin to burn. His wife, noticing his discomfort, told him "Put your feet on top of mine," which he did. She did not seem to feel the heat. And thus they successfully evaded their pursuer.

After the incident, Mar Ukva was depressed over the fact that he had not merited a miracle as had his wife. She, though, understood. "Don't you see?" she explained. "I'm in the house so much more than you, so I have many more opportunities than you to be charitable toward the poor who come to our doorstep. And the food and drink I give them can be enjoyed immediately, unlike the money you give. And so, with regard to charity, my merit is greater than yours."

Mrs. Ukva thus conveyed a quintessential Jewish attitude: What counts over our years on this earth is not the prominence we acquire but the merit we achieve; not our particular roles, but what we do with them. It was precisely her "limited" role as a Jewish woman - a homemaker and child-rearer - that had allowed Mar Ukva's wife to merit a miracle denied her scholarly husband.

THE CONCEPT is really not so strange. Is the undercover agent less important than the foot soldier? The bass player than the drummer? The researcher than the surgeon? Whether roles are loud or quiet, prominent or behind-the-scenes, has no bearing at all on their ultimate value.

Jewish women can choose to embrace contemporary society's game-playing in the guise of egalitarianism and squander their specialness. Or they can answer life's "role-call" with a resounding, Abrahamic, "Here I am!"

By portraying Judaism's assignation of special roles for men and for women as offensive, and selling Jewish women the idea that their traditional Jewish roles are raw deals, the non-Orthodox movements skewed Judaism's system-settings. They may even have undermined their own futures. What's certain, though, is that they deprived their followers of a vital Jewish truth.

The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

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