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In Search of a Liberating ‘Jewish Mystique’

Since Betty Friedan’s death I’ve found myself wishing that the cause I care about most had a voice like hers to speak for us.

That cause is traditional Judaism — which, among many others things to recommend it, offers a wiser and ultimately more humane vision of womanhood than does feminism. Indeed, women under 45 or so have mostly seen through Friedan’s idealization of work-outside-the-home as the necessary and sufficient condition of a meaningful life.

But never mind that. I envy Friedan’s singular gift as a revolutionary consciousness-raiser. Her book “The Feminine Mystique” initiated modern feminism. Today the Jewish world needs that kind of revolutionary consciousness-raising — it needs “The Jewish Mystique.”

In her book, Friedan recalled a golden age in the 1920s and 1930s when, legendarily, women devoted themselves to the aggressive pursuit of career fulfillment just like men. After World War II, they accepted a serpent’s bargain of enslavement to their husband-providers, being thenceforward imprisoned in their state-of-the-art kitchens.

“Some people think I’m saying, ‘Women of the world unite — you have nothing to lose but your men,’” Friedan once quipped. “It’s not true. You have nothing to lose but your vacuum cleaners.”

Today, the beneficiaries of “The Feminine Mystique” are imprisoned in their offices just like men, enslaved to email and their Blackberry, so they can pay another woman to vacuum — or more likely so that they can come home at night, exhausted from their meaningful work as a corporate cog, and vacuum as if the women’s movement had never happened.

Of her Jewish ancestry, Friedan said, “It gave me some brains.” The Jewish-consciousness raiser who would write “The Jewish Mystique” might start by tracing the decline in the purposes to which Jewish brains have been put, beginning with an authentic golden age, the medieval period.

In that long-ago time, Torah was taken with supreme seriousness at the highest levels of our culture and it was expected that Judaism would illuminate the spiritual life not only of Jews but also of non-Jews. Maimonides was the exemplar.

In his “Sefer ha’Mitzvot,” or “Book of the Commandments,” he wrote of the commandment to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5) that it meant to bring others to love Him: “to call upon all mankind to serve Him.” Of the commandment to sanctify God’s Name (Leviticus 22:32), he said it meant that “we are duty bound to proclaim this true religion to the world, undeterred by fear of injury from any source.” This was the purpose for which God brought us out of Egyptian slavery.

The “utmost power” of a Torah scholar, he argued, was to engage in what conservatives today would call a culture war against false ideas (Guide of the Perplexed I 71). Maimonides envisioned rabbinic sages at work refuting the equivalent of Darwinian evolution in his day, namely the philosophical notion that the universe had no beginning but rather was eternal — an idea that, like Darwin’s theory of unguided evolution, makes nonsense of Judaism.

How far, it seems, we have fallen from this picture of an intellectually engaged missionary religion. We’ve not yet recovered from the later ghetto period, when Jewish religious minds were increasingly “deterred by fear of injury” from Christian persecutors and thus turned inward, making themselves as inconspicuous and irrelevant as possible.

This, alas, has remained the ideal in much of Orthodoxy — including Modern Orthodoxy, which hardly even appears to try to live up to its stated mission of confronting the world with Torah’s truth.

A greater tragedy, the inaccurately named Jewish Enlightenment, was probably inevitable. Uninspired by the vision of Jewish tradition in their day, many of the brightest young Jews turned to “free thinking” — which in practice meant surrendering to now discredited ideologies like socialism. The children of that generation turned to the new liberal Jewish denominations.

The Reform and Conservative movements promised what, in Betty Friedan’s telling, the kitchen offered to American wives — comfort and fulfillment for life with all the modern conveniences. One could live a fully Jewish life without seriously confronting certain hard choices, such as whether or not to obey God according to the eternal grammar of the covenant with Israel, or whether or not to study His word in its fullness.

Just as Friedan arrived at her revolutionary thesis by interviewing housewives of her generation and finding that few voiced satisfaction with their lives, my impression from innumerable conversations is that few Jews today under the age of 45 take seriously the intellectual claims underlying Reform and Conservative innovations — or, for that matter, even know what those claims are. The overall impression is one of dissatisfaction mixed with complacency.

In Reform and Conservative ranks, there is a vague but widespread recognition that the whole panoply of capitulations to secular culture can’t really be defended in Jewish terms. Which is why, when the liberal movements need to justify some new departure — gay marriage, to take one example — they’ll cite a scattering of warm-fuzzy biblical verses while dismissing 3,000 years of Jewish thought on the subject that’s at hand.

This is where Jewish brains got us. That Judaism might actually be true is left unexplored in the liberal denominations. That it might be relevant to the world is the question from which Orthodoxy hides.

So here we are, not unlike Friedan’s housewives — imprisoned by the soggiest of modern thinking and enslaved by out-dated terrors, waiting for someone to point this out and liberate us.

David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is author of “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).

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