With all the talk about “woman’s role” in Judaism, most people would be hard put to answer that question. For lack of alternatives, our community often uses societal roles to pinpoint the differences: She takes care of the children/cooks chicken soup/ sings lullabies. He earns a living/learns Torah/puts oil in the car.
But societal roles, particularly in our rapidly changing society, are a weak and fickle reed on which to hang an entire philosophy about gender. In fact, different periods in history had paradigms for gender roles that look quite different from ours. For example, aristocratic Jewish families throughout the ages often had nannies who took care of their children. It would have been completely not in consonance with the mother’s stature to have her flipping pancakes or giving baths. And while today we tend to assign great significance to nursing one’s baby – seeing it as the ultimate in mother-baby bonding – there were periods in history when Jewish mothers would not have dreamt of nursing their own babies; they hired wet nurses.
Even when we switch tactics and use personality traits to define gender, we find ourselves in choppy waters. We all know warm, nurturing men and analytic, rational women. Some women are natural leaders, while some men find it difficult to take initiative with anything. Even the much vaunted ability to multitask is probably distributed equally over the gender divide. Picture that energetic male executive answering phones, giving orders, and making crucial decisions all at the same time.
The Times They Are A-Changing
Many people find this confusing. We treasure the beautiful picture of the apron-clad Mommy, murmuring tehilim as she feeds her baby with her right hand, prepares a meal for a kimpeturin neighbor with her left, and smiles lovingly at her husband on his way out to shul – and maybe it even describes us some of the time – but often, the externals of today’s home are different than they used to be.
Women are more educated both in secular and Torah subjects than they were a hundred years ago. Women often take responsibility for supporting their households, and not only are they more prominent in the work force but women are moving into professions that were traditionally assumed to be “men jobs.” Women’s voices are heard more, through print media like this one, and through the web. Women often take responsibility for and decide policy in communal organizations.
Men, on the other hand, are now expected to play a greater role in the upkeep of the house and be more involved in child rearing. Many of our grandmothers would be openmouthed to see young men expertly burping babies and putting up the cholent in the crock-pot (even if they don’t quite manage to do it at the same time). Men are expected to be more self-aware and emotionally available. Their authority might not always be the given that it once was. Both men and women have different expectations of their relationships. While there were times when people were satisfied with a well-functioning home unit, many people’s dreams today include a soul-connection marriage.
As in all confusing situations, it helps to remember that Hashem is running the world. While we may feel more comfortable with the timeworn and familiar, it is Hashem who has orchestrated these changes in our societal framework. But what’s even more important to recognize is that it is He who set in motion the events which led to these changes.
So maybe we have it all wrong. When Hashem said, “It is not good for Man to be alone,” He created Woman as a solution to that problem. It seems clear that the woman is supposed to bring something different to the table than the man – and that has to be something that can withstand the various circumstances history and our own personal lives provide as backdrop for this ongoing saga.
Understanding what it means to be a man or a woman is about much more than who changes the diaper and who changes the tire. It is about who we are as human beings – and as Jews. Even as we decry the disintegration of the standard, traditional roles, perhaps we can still appreciate the opportunity to confront our femininity (or masculinity) on a deeper level.
Miriam Kosman is a lecturer for the organization Nefesh Yehudi, which teaches Torah to thousands of Israeli university students, and the author of Circle, Arrow, Spiral: More information can be found on her web site, http://miriamkosman.com/