The View from Within

When most newcomers want to experience Orthodox Judaism, they visit a synagogue first.That’s a logical decision; the synagogue is a public Jewish place. However, many women have expressed disappointment over their first visit because they are uncomfortable with the separate seating, the impeded view of the Torah scroll, and their lack of prominence in the synagogue service overall. And unfortunately, some of them are so turned off by their experiences that they never return.

I am sympathetic to these women’s feelings. The separation can seem strange, even discriminatory, if one does not know the reasons for it. Therefore, I implore such women to keep an open mind. Judaism is a way of life and affects every facet of life.

Just like you, we Orthodox Jews do not live in synagogues; we live in homes. Thus, the home, and not the synagogue is the most important institution in Judaism. If your first experience of an Orthodox Shabbos began and ended in synagogue, if it did not include a festive meal in someone’s home, then your experience is far from complete.

Most newcomers would be surprised at the level of hospitality the Orthodox practice. I personally know dozens of families for whom having guests is as much of the protocol of a meal as serving food. Thus, finding an Orthodox Jewish home to visit on a Shabbos is actually quite easy. In advance of Shabbos, call the synagogue you plan to attend and ask for “Shabbos hospitality.” You need not feel shy about making the initial contact, but if you do, email me and I’ll try to help you. For more on this subject, read my article, “The
Kindness of Strangers

Visiting an Orthodox home will give you a far greater perspective on Jewish life. More than prayer, Judaism is about living life. Prayer is not the only way in which we serve G-d. We serve G-d in the way we eat by keeping kosher and making blessings. We serve Him in the way we dress with the laws of modesty. We serve Him in the ways we interact with other people by refraining from gossip, anger, and lying. These are only a few examples; the point is that as Jews, we must use every second of our lives to serve G-d.

One thing you will see in a Jewish home is the woman of the house in her own element. She will serve a meal she cooked in honor of Shabbos. The conversation during the meal will revolve around spiritual concepts from the Torah, and she will most certainly have thoughts to share. Throughout the meal, she will probably give her children moral direction in many ways, whether by enlisting their help in the serving, encouraging them as they present the Torah concepts they learned in school, or in correcting any misbehavior that occurs.

Because the home is a Jewish woman’s greatest sphere of influence, the spiritual atmosphere of her home is largely a reflection of her efforts. Drink in the atmosphere of the home you visit and consider what your hostess has achieved. Talk to her about her life. Learn where the power of a Jewish woman lies.

Because a Jewish woman is so busy building a Jewish home, she is exempt from synagogue services. If a woman is unmarried, childless, or has children old enough to attend synagogue themselves, she most likely does attend synagogue. But if she has young children, her staying home and taking care of them is a far more pressing mitzvah. This is a kindness from Hashem, both to women and to children. Children have a right to their mothers’ presence and attention, and when they are small, they demand so much of it that obligating women to arrive for prayer services on time would only add stress to their lives. For a more detailed explanation about women’s exemption from certain mitzvohs, read my article On

Nonetheless, if you are able, your experience should include a visit to synagogue, and you will not be alone in the women’s section. In fact, one of the effects of separate seating is that it creates a women’s community. Standing alongside other women in prayer enhances one’s sense of sisterhood. Yet this is arguably only a side benefit of separate seating, not the underlying reason for it. And it is wise to understand that reason; it should be clear that the separate seating is not an indication of secondary status in any way.

We learn our requirement to separate the genders from the Talmudic discussion of the celebration of Simchas Bais Ha Shoeva during the holiday of Sukkos (Talmud Bavli, Succah 51b). This practice existed to limit fraternizing between the genders and thus prevented sin. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l, one of the most widely respected rabbis of this century, wrote that this Talmudic discussion teaches us that failing to separate the genders is an issur d’oraisa (Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim V. 1 § 39 ). This means it is in that category of mitzvohs which have the strongest force, and laxity in its observance is one of the gravest sins.

Different synagogues comply with the Law this in different ways. Some have a divider separating the room, called a mechitza. Some place the mechitza vertically, dividing the room so that the men’s and women’s sections are next to each other, while others divide the room horizontally. Some synagogues designate separate rooms for men and women. Most typically, in those synagogues, the women sit upstairs in a balcony. All of these methods are correct; the important thing is that they fulfill the requirement of separating the genders to prevent them from mingling. Synagogues are not social halls; they are places to acknowledge, thank, and express one’s love for Hashem.

In light of that, we can see that our physical location in synagogue has no relevance to the service. Similarly, the view we have of the Torah scroll is unimportant. What matters is that we establish a spiritual connection to the words of Torah. Women have equal opportunity to do that; when the cantor reads aloud from the Torah scroll, we should read along from printed copies of the Five Books of Moses, the same way men do. That is the way to participate in services. It is not necessary to watch the service take place. Rather, focus on its non-visual aspects. Let the mood of the praying people around you lift your spirits. Your prayers can reach Heaven from anywhere you sit on Earth.

Women and Leadership

I will always be proud of my Jewish identity. And I will always be proud to be a feminist. Respectfully, if it were not for the issues raised (and opportunities made available) by the second wave of the feminist movement I sincerely doubt that you would have your own web page. So, please, do not disparage feminism.

And, I am sorry, but “separate but equal” is no longer a convincing argument for me. As a Jew living in a post-Holocaust world, I believe it is essential that women, who, for example, have the talent to become rabbis find no discriminatory obstacles in their way. We need their spiritual and intellectual input in the Jewish community.

Marion Lipschultz

Kresel responds:

First, let me thank you for your voicing your dissent so politely. Unfortunately, that does not happen frequently on the Web.

Second, I would like to establish that I do agree with some points of feminism. I agree that women deserve equal pay for equal work, and that women should have equal opportunities to enter into secular careers like medicine, business, and law. However, for careers in religion, the issue of equal opportunity is not applicable.

That Jewish women are not allowed to bear the title of rabbi, be counted in a minyan, or put on tefillin, is not a matter of discrimination. These are mitzvohs – commandments from Hashem. The concept of
rights does not enter into the performance of mitzvohs. We don’t perform mitzvohs because it is our right to do so; we perform them as a matter of responsibility to Hashem‘s word. Hashem did not command women to do these mitzvohs, and it is our responsibility to serve Him in the way he has prescribed for us.

You said, “in a post-Holocaust world, . . .We need [women’s] spiritual and intellectual input in the Jewish community.” Why only in the post-Holocaust world? Why not for all time? Actually, women have exerted their influence on the Jewish community since the beginning of Judaism.

As we know, the first Jews were Avraham and Sarah. When Sarah perceived that Yishmael, Avraham’s son through Hagar, could have a spiritually destructive influence on her son Yitzchak (Isaac), she told Avraham to send Yishmael and his mother away. Avraham did not want to do it, but Hashem told him “Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice (Genesis 21:12).”

The word “voice” seems extraneous here. The verse could also have read, “Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her.” Why is the word “voice” added? The Torah commentator Rashi states that the word “voice” refers to prophecy and that this verse, “teaches us that Avraham was secondary to Sarah in prophecy.”

Sarah’s prophecy in the matter of Yitzchak and Yishmael was pivotal to the development of the Jewish people. She made certain that her son would have the purest of influences so that he would be worthy to become one of the spiritual foundations of our people. Similarly, our foremother Rivkah took center stage in determining that Yaakov, rather than Esav, received the blessing that established him as Yitzchak’s spiritual heir.

Jewish history is full of examples like this. Women have always made a tremendous impact on the Jewish people, and the primary way we do this is in our roles as mothers, for it allows us to shape the future generation. Devorah the Prophetess held the most public role of any Jewish woman in history, but when she described herself and her achievements, it was as a mother: “Security ceased, ceased in Israel, until I, Devorah, arose, I, a mother in Israel (Judges 5:7).” Modern psychologists and sociologists recognize that what occurs in family life impacts on society at large, so shouldn’t we as Jewish women also acknowledge the power of our role?

Of course, there are women who are blessed with natural leadership qualities which they want to use beyond their families. On that point, I would like to tell you a story. When I was in the beginning of the process of becoming Orthodox, I attended a beginners’ learning program. My madricha, which is a peer counselor, was an alumna of the program, further along in her process than I. Before she attended the
program, she had planned to become a Reform rabbi, but after learning more Torah and spending time in the Orthodox world, she decided to become Orthodox. After a year of intensive learning in two women’s seminaries, she was hired as a madricha. In that position, she taught and advised others in their growth as Jews. She said that she was doing everything she had ever dreamed she would do as a
rabbi. A woman with a gift for leadership can find her niche without violating Jewish law.

True talent always finds a way to manifest itself. That is why I disagree with your statement that I would not have a website without the feminist movement. I have a website because the sophisticated technology of this computer age allows anyone with access to a computer to have a website, regardless of gender, age, level of education or skill. Furthermore, I do not owe the feminist movement anything for my ability to write. That is a talent with which Hashem blessed me. And just as my madricha‘s talents caused her to gravitate to positions of leadership, my talent has led me to use my life’s circumstances to develop it.

Because I was born to a secular family after the second wave of feminism, I attended college. I may well owe my college education to feminism, and I used that education to perfect my writing skills, but had I been born into different circumstances and not attended college, my drive to write would have found another way to develop. The end result would have been the same; I would still be involved in writing.

In his book Endless Light, Rabbi David Aaron explains that it is incorrect to view talent as something that a person possesses. Rather, the talent “possesses” the person. Many artists report that when they are working, they become channels for some higher Source. Creativity flows through them, and the art in effect creates itself.

The higher Source is Hashem. Hashem blesses people with talents to express His will in a particular way. When talented people gratefully accept their special role, they understand that they were not given their talent merely to pursue wealth, fame, and status. These blessings sometimes accompany talent, but they
are actually external to its purpose. Its purpose is to allow Hashem‘s will to express itself.

A woman who is blessed with the ability to lead will inevitably find a way to implement it. If she recognizes that it is a gift from Hashem, she will also recognize that its use precludes following the boundaries of His Law. Furthermore, if she uses her gift to serve Hashem, she will not care about the status it brings her. Bearing the title “rabbi” will not make her more of a leader; her behavior as an example and guide for others will.

For this article, I would like to acknowledge the teachings of Rebbetzin Holly Pavlov, director of She’arim College of Jewish Studies for Women and author of Mirrors of Our Lives: Reflections of Women in Tanach.

The Kindness of Strangers

What would you do if this happened to you? It’s a few days before Yom Kippur, and you’ve gone out of town to visit non-religious friends. While there, you get sick. You’re in no condition to travel home, and you don’t want to spend Yom Kippur with your friends because they do not observe it. What do you do?

How about this one? You’ve driven a long distance for a job interview, and you’re on your way home. On Thursday night, your car breaks down. You will be stuck in a town for Shabbos where
nobody knows you. What do you do?

Both of these incidents happened to friends of mine. And in both cases, the solutions were the same. They relied on the kindness of strangers.

In the first instance, my friend assumed that she would have to stay at her irreligious friends’ house for Yom Kippur and fast and pray alone. Because she had not planned to be there, she had not brought along her English prayer book, and began to search for one in the nearby vicinity. Her host had a religious sister living in another city, and my friend suggested they call her for help. As it turned out, a good friend of hers grew up near to where my friend was staying, and with a few short phone calls, my friend had more than a prayer book; she was expected in an hour for the meal preceding the fast, would have a room to spend the night, and a seat reserved for her in the local synagogue.

My friend’s Yom Kippur hosts treated her wonderfully. In addition to hosting her at the eleventh hour, they brought an English prayer book to synagogue especially for her, and knowing she was
unwell, her hostess kept an eye on her and suggested she lie down whenever the fast looked like it was affecting her too strongly. The chain of acquaintance that brought her all this – she was staying at her friend’s sister’s friend’s parents’ home – may seem convoluted, but it is through chains like these that Jews help other Jews in need.

The second instance happened to two brothers I know. They had prepared for such an emergency; among the things they packed was a book called The Jewish Traveler, which lists synagogues,
kosher restaurants, and mikvahs across the United States. Thus, when their car broke down in Chattanooga, TN, all they had to do was to look up the nearest synagogue and call it.

The rabbi of the town was as responsive to their needs as one Jew should be to another. The brothers stayed in his home that Thursday night and Shabbos, and the rabbi arranged for them to
have one of the Shabbos meals at the home of another family. The brothers were able to return the mitzvah with another mitzvah; they were part of the Thursday night minyan, and the younger brother conducted the Torah reading for the Shabbos morning services.

What would have happened if they had been too shy to ask for help? They would have had to spend Shabbos in a motel room, quite likely without enough to eat, and certainly without the delicacies that Jews traditionally serve to honor Shabbos. Although they had not intended to spend Shabbos so far from home, the kindness of fellow Jews made it the best Shabbos possible under the circumstances.

This level of openness occurs at all times in Jewish life, not just in emergency situations. I personally know dozens of families who host guests every Shabbos. For many of them, having five or more guests for a meal is standard practice, and I have heard of people who have up to forty guests every week. Pirkei Avos or “The Sayings of the Fathers” tells us, “Let your house be open wide (Avos 1:5).” Jews across the world excel at this.

We Jews inherit our penchant for hospitality from our forefather Abraham, who spread monotheism chiefly by having people as guests in his home. After he provided for their every need, he would teach them to thank the One Creator, the True Provider and Sustainer of life (Bereishis Rabba 49:7).

As the children of Abraham, we are supposed to emulate our forefather’s righteous behavior. Since Abraham taught Judaism by bringing people into his home, most Orthodox Jews strive to do the same. This is why beginners are often the most cherished guests of all. It is by hosting them that we can come closest to Abraham’s achievements.

For people who want to get a true taste of Orthodox Judaism, getting to know people in the natural settings of their homes is essential. Shabbos meals are ideal opportunities for that, and I can assure you, you will be more than welcome.

Most Orthodox synagogues have committees for “Shabbos hospitality,” so a phone call requesting it will almost always bring positive results. You can use the links I have listed below to locate a synagogue near your home. If it is not within walking distance, call the synagogue in advance and ask for overnight accommodations. If you have special dietary needs (e.g. vegetarian, diabetic, etc.), make them known, and if this is a relatively new experience for you, be certain to mention that you are a beginner. You may also want to read my husband’s article, “Your First Visit to a Synagogue.”

If you are not Jewish, but are thinking of converting, you must also make that known. Since Judaism does not actively seek converts, finding a place will be harder for you. I recommend the
Chozrim list, an online support group for converts and converts-in-process. The people there have had similar experiences and will undoubtedly have advice for you.

If for any reason, your search does not work, email me. I will do my utmost to find you a host. And if Rockland County, New York is a possibility for you, come spend Shabbos with my family!

If you are a Shabbos observer, and would like to volunteer to be a host, or know people who might, please email me with addresses and phone numbers. I am compiling a database for this project, and I need as many connections as I can get. As the Midrash teaches us, “the guest does more for the host than the host does for the guest (Midrash Rus Rabba 5:9).” As much as beginners can gain from the experience you give them, you will gain more for having given it.


Shabbat Hospitality Worldwide

Worldwide Orthodox Synagogue Network

The Chabad-Lubavitch Worldwide Directory

The Jewish Facts of Life

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a co-worker of mine about where we stood on religious issues. She described her upbringing as traditional, but not Orthodox, which in practical terms means that she and her family kept only some observances, like the holidays and kosher laws, while in other areas, like modest dress and behavior, they were completely lax.

“I was raised traditional,” she said, “but many of my beliefs aren’t traditional. Like, I believe that we can connect to G-d ourselves and don’t need any intermediaries.”

Very surprised at her statement, I said, “What could be more Traditional than that? You can connect to G-d anywhere and any time you want, and in any language.” This belief, in fact, is a foundation of Judaism, and part of the Torah Tradition. This very principle sets us apart from other religions. But at the time, I gave her the first example that came to mind, “Rebbe Nachman, a Hasidic leader of the last century, recommended talking to G-d alone every day. It’s called hisbodedus.”

“Yeah,” she mumbled non-committedly, and continued, “and lately I’m becoming more of a feminist. I don’t believe that just because I have my period that I’m unclean.”

Because she was a graduate student in a prominent Jewish institution among the non-Orthodox movements, I assumed she knew the underlying concepts regarding the laws of menstruation. When she said she did not, I told her that the shedding of an unfertilized egg is the loss of a soul of a person that might have existed. “It’s a spiritual thing,” I explained, “not a matter of being unclean or disgusting.”

She seemed as surprised at this as I was at her lack of knowledge. “But how do you know there’s such a thing as a soul?” she asked.

I was flabbergasted. She was so out of touch with her own soul that she could not see how she had contradicted herself. She had just said that every Jew has the power to connect to G-d individually!

“It’s obvious,” I said. “You can feel it. When you connect to G-d, what do you think is doing it?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m not sure what I think about these issues.”

I hope that conversation made her think about them, because her beliefs were full of inconsistencies and misinformation. However, I do not blame her for this. These issues had never been explained to her properly.

Her concept that menstruation renders a woman “unclean” was possibly the worst of all. Words like “unclean” and “contaminated” are common, albeit wholly inaccurate, translations for the Hebrew word which describes the state resulting from menstruation, tuma. These mistranslations do not reflect the Jewish view on the matter at all. Tragically, these errors have done tremendous damage to the Jewish people because they alienate women from true Yiddishkeit.

The word tuma cannot be translated into English. In the same way the Eskimos are said to have dozens of words for snow, referring to subtle differences outsiders cannot distinguish, Judaism has words for spiritual states for which Western languages have no equivalent. It is possible to explain the concept of tuma in English, but no single word can convey its meaning.

Fundamental in the beliefs of Judaism is the understanding that Hashem created everything in the physical world even though Hashem’s Nature is purely spiritual and non-physical. Nonetheless, every physical thing in Creation — from inanimate rocks to unicellular amoebae to complex human beings — contains within it a spark of Divinity. The clearest expression of this is in the human soul. Our souls are microcosms of Hashem.

The soul and body do not exist as forces which repel each other; rather, they are enmeshed together. Even the loftiest capacity we humans possess — the capacity of thought — is tied to neurochemical processes within the brain. This miraculous combination of Pure Spirituality, or G-dliness, with physical nature is the basis of human life.

Death occurs when the tie between spirituality and physicality severs. The soul returns to its Source, Hashem, and the body remains, much like an empty shell. Without the soul to animate it, the body has lost that which gave it spiritual value. And this loss results in the state called “tuma.” Thus, the simplest definition of the word “tuma” is the spiritual status that comes as a result of contact with death. (Some of the soul does remain with the body after death; for more details, read my husband’s article Body and Soul.)

The dead body of a human being is the strongest form of “tuma” because it represents the greatest loss of spiritual potential. Similarly, the unfertilized egg that is shed during menstruation is also a form of tuma because it could have housed a soul if it had been fertilized. Never again will the minuscule egg have the opportunity to become a human being and carry the amazingly complex human soul.

The state of tuma, the state resulting from contact with death, is not a negative thing. If a person buries a dead person, he too becomes tamei (adjective form). He is not contaminated; in fact, burying a dead body is such an important mitzvah that it takes precedence over almost all others (Maimonides, Yad HaChazkah, Laws of Mourners, 14:9; Shulchan Aruch, “Escorting the Dead,” 361:1). Thus, being tamei is most certainly not a state of spiritual inferiority. It means only that the person involved cannot participate in certain rituals.

A further indication that tamei does not mean unclean or contaminated is in the way we remove ourselves from this state. The tuma that results from menstruation is removable by immersion in a mikvah, a special pool of water. If tuma meant uncleanliness, a shower would be sufficient. A woman is in fact required to bathe and shower before immersing in a mikvah. She must remove every speck of dirt from her body. But this does not remove the
tuma. Only immersion in the mikvah can do that.

The underlying reason for mikvah also reflects the fundamental sanctity of life. Water is the primordial substance of the world; it existed before anything else in Creation. We see in the second verse of the Torah: “The earth was empty and desolate, with darkness on the face of the deep, and G-d’s spirit fluttering on the face of the waters.” The Jerusalem Talmud teaches us that it was from these waters that G-d developed the entire universe (Chagigah
2:1). The scientists’ term “primordial soup” is quite apropos. Thus, in the words of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “. . . water represents the womb of Creation. When a person immerses in the mikvah, he is placing himself in the state of the world yet unborn, subjecting himself totally to G-d’s creative power (Waters of Eden , p. 13.)” In this context, it is easy to understand why immersion in a mikvah removes tuma. After the contact with death, we submerge ourselves in the substance from which life emerged.

I hope that this discussion has made it clear that the matter of tuma is a highly spiritual concept, far beyond simple cleanliness. Menstrual blood is NOT taboo in Judaism, nor is it something distasteful. The menstrual Laws, like all the Laws of Judaism, imbue us with a constant consciousness of the miracles which comprise our daily existence. We certainly do not view the menstruation cycle as disgusting, or even as routine and ordinary. Rather, these Laws enable us to recognize the awesome potential of life as it regenerates itself within our very own bodies.

My deepest thanks to my teachers at She’arim College of Jewish Studies for Women, where I first learned these concepts, and to my husband for helping me learn through the Jerusalem Talmud for this article.

Mikvahs in the U.S. | Mikvahs in Canada | Mikvahs Worldwide

Readers Respond to “Taking It Back”

Several people have written to ask what the basic daily wardrobe is for Orthodox Jewish women. Here it is in a nutshell.

First, Jewish women wear skirts or dresses only – no pants – and these must cover our knees even when we sit down. (It is advisable to test this out by sitting down in the clothes you try on in store fitting rooms before making any purchases.) Similarly, our shirts and blouses must cover our elbows even when we reach upward. We cover our legs with stockings or tights, and we do not wear open-toed shoes. Clothing can be of almost any color as long as it is subdued and not loud.

Married women keep an additional level of tznius by covering their hair completely. The hair covering is a constant reminder to the woman herself, as well as to the men who encounter her, that she has a special status; she has been sanctified to one man only and is off-limits to all others.

There are a few popular styles for hair-covering. In my community, wigs are preferred, because they cover the hair most completely. In the comfort of our homes, most women wear turbans, or a longer version of a turban called a snood. These are considered casual in my community, but in others, women wear them more frequently, to work, for example. And in other communities, hats are the covering of choice. All of these are correct as long as the woman’s hair is completely covered.

Overall, our style of dress is not supposed to draw undue attention to our bodies. This does not mean, however, that we are required to look ugly. Quite the contrary, we should appear neat and presentable. Thus, our dresses can be made of high-quality fabrics and our wigs can be combed nicely. We do not have to go around in potato sacks.

Clearly, this answer is merely a quick summary. An excellent – almost encyclopedic – book on the laws of tznius is Modesty: An Adornment for Life by Rabbi Paysach Falk. It is written in English and is clearly indexed so that you can look up a wide variety of topics in this area of Jewish Law. I’d say it’s a must have for English-speaking Jewish homes.

Taking It Back

“Women, unite! Take back the night!”

Such is the rally cry at the “Take Back the Night” protest, an old favorite in feminist circles. The concept of the rally is simple: women get together at night and walk around to show that we should be free to walk at night without worrying about becoming targets for criminals. In the act of walking around together, women symbolically “take back the night.”

The purpose of this rally is purely symbolic. Nobody expects that chanting “take back the night” is an effective defense against crime. However, the words make the women feel empowered, and I appreciate that so much that I am borrowing the slogan for my discussion of the Jewish woman’s dress code, the area of Jewish Law known as tznius.

The most common translation of the word tznius is “modest.” But unless you have seen a woman who embodies this praiseworthy quality, this does not convey the meaning adequately. In English, a modest person is unassuming and does not boast. Tznius is more than that. A tzniusdiggeh (Yiddish adjective form) person is refined and dignified, yet
warm and gentle. “Wholesome” was a word one of my recent Shabbos guests used to describe the teenage girls she met in synagogue. I find this the most precise description of all.

The laws of tznius encompass more than our dress code; tznius is more a style of behavior than of dress, which is why I don’t feel the word “modest” does it justice. Tznius is an internal attitude which affects the outward appearance. Ultimately, tznius is an expression of the innate spirituality of humanity.

The Torah itself teaches us this lesson most clearly. The first occurrence of tznius in Torah is when Adam and Eve clothe themselves in fig leaves (Genesis 3:7.) This occurred right after they sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Before the sin, human consciousness was radically different than it is now. Body and soul were more in sync with each other. Adam and Eve knew that their bodies, like everything else in their world, were tools for expressing themselves spiritually. After they ate from the Tree, they understood that they could use their bodies without recourse to spirituality. In coarser terms, one could say that they discovered the difference between love and lust. They were ashamed of this potential within themselves, so they covered themselves.

Adam and Eve were married and therefore permitted to each other. They even had the commandment of G-d to be fruitful and multiply. Their relationship, therefore, could not be a sin. But because of their new realization, they understood that they could degrade their relationship into something less than holy. Thus, by covering themselves, they de-emphasized their bodies to re-emphasize their souls. This would not have been necessary if they hadn’t eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. Until then, body and soul functioned harmoniously, and there was no need to cover the
body. But when body and soul could function separately and against each other, covering the body distinguished the soul as the more important part of the human being.

Because we are the children of Adam and Eve, our perception of body and soul has also been affected by the Tree of Knowledge. We keep the laws of tznius to regain the balance in our perception of ourselves. The laws of modest behavior reassert that even physical activities are done in the service of spirituality.

This brings us back to the “take back the night” slogan. “Taking it back” means regaining control. The laws of tznius reflect the elevated way in which we perceive ourselves and at the same time, allow us to regain control of the way others perceive us.

I have seen this in action in my own life. I dress in accordance with Jewish Law, but I am close to a woman who does not. She is two years younger than I am, and I would say we are fairly close in beauty. We have walked alongside each other in many different places, and the reactions we receive are almost identical everywhere. While I walk around without harassment, she is subject to lascivious gazes and unwanted comments.

Some women argue that they should be free to dress as they like and that men should control themselves. Indeed, most men do control themselves and the minority who make crude comments are creeps. Dressing provocatively gives them an opening to express it. Dressing modestly puts the woman in control of strangers’ reactions to her. Just like women who take precautions while walking at night, a woman who dresses b’tznius insures for herself a more pleasant experience. She has “taken it back.”

My deepest thanks to my teachers at She’arim College of Jewish Studies for Women, and especially Rebbetzin Rivi Brussel, whose shiurim on Adam and Chava provided the basis for this article.

Addendum: What do Orthodox Jewish women wear day-to-day?

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