On Equality

Dear Kressel,

A friend of mine recently said to me: “I can’t stand being Jewish…women are treated like third class citizens and are so inferior to men.” I tried to explain to my ultra reform friend how wrong she was. That women are so important to Judasim and play such a vital role.

She has been raised in such a liberal home, she does not even care to learn Torah or attend Shul. She says a mechitzah bothers her and she wants to go to a shul where she can wear a Talis, a kippah, and teffillin. The sad thing is, when I ask her why she wants to do all this her answer to me is…” If men can do it, why can’t I?! ” When I ask her why do men do these mitzvot, she says, ” I don’t know, and I don’t care. I just want to have equality!”

Kressel responds:

When I was in high school, my class was once discussing Jefferson’s assertion that all people are created equal.

“We aren’t really, though,” said my teacher. “Some people are born retarded. Are they our equals?”

Other students agreed with this reasoning, but I sensed something wrong with it. The trouble was, I couldn’t formulate exactly what.

The issue wasn’t clarified for me until I had an insight nearly ten years later. I was working in a home for retarded adults. One day, my charge was a woman in her early 20’s, diagnosed as profoundly retarded, which is the most severe classification of retardation. Her mental age below two years. She also had a deformed leg, so I took her out for a walk, a particularly therapeutic activity for her.

Hand in hand, slowly leading her up the street, my mind returned to that discussion in my high school class. The contrast between this young woman and me was so vast it was heartbreaking. In chronological age, I was about five years older than she, but while my active mind could contemplate the philosophical implications of the meaning of equality, she did not even have enough intelligence to achieve toilet training. Yet it was clear to me that on the level of basic humanity, we were equal. We both had an equal right to a safe and peaceful walk, and indeed to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“All. . . [people] are created equal” does not mean that we were created with equal abilities and opportunities. It means that we are all equal in the eyes of our Creator. The concept of equality does not refer to people’s intelligence, abilities, or accomplishments. Those are external conditions. Equality refers to a person’s essential humanity. On that level, we are indeed all equal.

It is the same way with mitzvohs. Imagine two Jewish men: one is very wealthy and one is barely making ends meet. Both are required to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedaka and give 10% of their income to charity. Dollar for dollar, the wealthy man gives more. Does that mean his mitzvah is dearer to G-d than the poorer man’s? It would be foolish to think so. The value of the wealthy man’s tzedaka is that he uses his wealth toward good, unselfish ends. The value of the poorer man’s tzedaka is that he fulfills G-d’s commandment even though it is difficult for him. Dollar and cent values have nothing to do with it.

That is why it is incorrect to assume that because men have numerically more mitzvohs than women, they have a superior position in Judaism. That is looking at the external, rather than the internal, at quantity rather than quality. On a qualitative level, men and women have equal opportunities to connect to G-d and to improve themselves morally and spiritually, which is the purpose of Judaism. In fact, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the most widely-respected Torah authorities of this century, wrote, “in every place the Torah mentions the holiness of the People of Israel, women are also included on an equal basis(Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:49).”

Because men and women were created differently, their mitzvohs, which are methods of connecting to G-d, are different. The fact that G-d gave them different methods does not make those methods unequal.

Of the 613 mitzvohs in the Torah, there are 365 prohibitive mitzvohs. These forbid particular activities, such as eating leavened bread during Passover. Normal, healthy men and women are commanded to keep all of these mitzvohs.

The remaining 248 are active mitzvohs. These tell us to perform particular activities, such as “Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).” Women are exempt from those active mitzvohs which include a time-requirement. The mitzvah of putting on tefillin is an example of this because tefillin must be worn before sundown every normal weekday.

Women are exempt from these mitzvohs because their daily schedules cannot be subject to such constraints. They are too busy fulfilling the demanding and unpredictable mitzvohs of caring for children and maintaining their homes. Even women without children and women with grown children are exempt from these mitzvohs because they require a lifetime commitment. However, women in these situations do frequently take a more public role than those in the early stages of motherhood. They usually attend synagogue regularly and are often involved in a wide variety of community services. Women with leadership qualities have ample opportunities to manifest these talents by becoming involved in community service.

Nonetheless, the home and family comprise the central institution of Judaism, and women ideally spend the majority of their lives devoted to them. Some people protest that women’s responsibility to the home is unfair and even demeaning, but I cannot understand their attitude. It seems that such people believe that the synagogue offers more opportunity to connect to G-d than raising a family does. I am sure that being wrapped in a pair of tefillin and a tallis while devoting one’s full attention to G-d is an inspiring experience, and I’ll never know what it feels like. But my husband will never know the intimacy of nursing a baby, and that is also a service to G-d.

Actually, the clearest insight I’ve ever had into the nature of G-d was while nursing a newborn. I looked down at that tiny baby clinging to me as if no separation existed between us, and I was overwhelmed with love. I then realized that G-d’s love for me is even deeper than my love for my baby. It was at that moment that I understood that a newborn’s relationship with its mother is a metaphor for humanity’s relationship with G-d.

An infant’s dependency on its mother is total. Because its mind is undeveloped, it has no concept of the person on whom it depends. Certainly it cannot fathom the depths of the love that person has for it. It just clings instinctively and takes what it needs, unaware of all the love, nurturance, and protection it is receiving.

Motherhood taught me that lesson, and I’m certain G-d created the physical attachment between a baby and its mother so that we could understand Him better. Men can be wonderfully loving parents, but their bodies can never carry an unborn or nourish a newborn. The depth of the connection is different. It is not an experience I would ever want to trade. Why would I want to do men’s mitzvohs when womanhood offers so much potential to connect to G-d?

Ultimately, we must remember that we perform mitzvohs to serve G-d, and service to G-d necessitates obedience. If humans decide to perform mitzvohs as a political statement, it is not service at all. Would a boss tolerate a worker who did only those tasks he wanted to do, rather than what he was told to do? Performing mitzvohs on one’s own terms is even sillier than that. That is not fulfillment of the commandment of G-d; it is the opposite. Moreover, when women choose to ignore the spirituality intrinsic to femininity simply because the masculine path appears to offer more status, they – and not the Torah – are the denigrators of womanhood.

An unmarried woman responds | | A dissenting opinion

One woman’s story about her decision to stop putting on a tallis

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