Forget Tefillin — Orthodox Women Need Empowerment in Daily Lives

Everyday Issues Like Divorce and Community More Pressing

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By Avital Chizhik

Published February 04, 2014.
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The change that is needed in our religious community is much deeper than this, and much more difficult. It is not a question of higher or lower mehitzah in the synagogue, but rather a barrier in mentality, and I am deeply cynical that ritual equality would ever solve this.

I’d much rather put effort into ensuring actual empowerment. We are raising daughters who are encouraged to be simple-minded here – and no unique educator, dean or principal can combat that, when an entire society silently smirks at young girls with minds and opinions and ambitions.

There are rules here which determine the women’s world. To be accepted, one learns to surrender to pressure, to spend evenings in high school trying out baking recipes, and by the age of 19 – obsessively shopping, eyeing wigs and rings, and learning to fast on Thursdays when the evening promises a date. Religious studies focus primarily on moral discipline.

Furthermore, one simply does not jump into a male conversation at a Shabbat table. One does not question, one does not interject, unless accompanied with an apologetic smile, or better yet – a nervous laugh.

I have never ceased to be shocked by the insecurities of young women in my classes – individuals with a brilliant mind, who know how to switch it off on demand. And these phenomena are in no way specific to traditional Orthodox communities: Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter face them, too, in America’s corporate offices and lecture halls. Step into a modern Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan, and you’ll see gaggles of young girls pushed into nose jobs and starvation diets with the same determination as they’re being prodded into universities – for the sake of finding wealthy husbands rather than broadened minds. Each comes with its own groupthink, each with its own set of social dicta.

The daunting amount of young women who confide in me from all sides of the Orthodox spectrum, in letters and in person, about efforts to sedate their personalities and their minds so that “they don’t think I’m too smart,” “they’ll think I’m crazy” – this is what disturbs me.

I pray for the day that young women are educated for the sake of education and not simply vocation. I want to see intelligent women taught to hold themselves with dignity and confidence, encouraged to speak and build and succeed, entrusted with the best of secular knowledge, history, literature, sciences, politics. Religious women who speak proper English and Hebrew, who identify as citizens of a greater society, who know how to seamlessly interact and work with those outside their community, whether secular or non-Jewish. I want to see women who are tolerant and unafraid of the outside, who turn to the world with an unwavering confidence in their own faith and strength.

So – tefillin? Adjusted prayer services? Female rabbis? Lowered mehitzahs? I’m not convinced. Those women who feel disadvantaged by ritual differences are welcome to do as they please in communities that are receptive to it, without being dismissed by others. But to demand for a community to reform tightly held traditions is insensitive, and those who use it is as a political means are only doing harm to the Orthodox women who have (dare I say?) deeper and more critical questions to face.

Because I don’t care to own the bimah. I simply want to own my mind.

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