No Holds Barred: Taking an Orthodox woman’s mind seriously

So what is a young woman to do? Go to college or get married? While they need not necessarily conflict, they often do, and one must choose.

Orthodox women attend a course for kashrut supervisors at the Emunah College for Jewish Women’s Studies in Jerusalem last year. (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
Orthodox women attend a course for kashrut supervisors at the Emunah College for Jewish Women’s Studies in Jerusalem last year.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
DRESDEN, Germany – Shabbat was over late here in Germany, ending at nearly 11 p.m. I addressed a Jewish conference of hundreds of men and women in this country that became synonymous with Jewish devastation but is now experiencing a Jewish rebirth. During lectures in six European cities over the past week, a consistent theme impressed me: the seriousness of young, European Jewish women about discovering and advancing their knowledge of Judaism.
Many are university students who invest huge swaths of free time in attending classes on a religion with which they were not raised.
Six of my nine children are girls. I am a feminist in that I believe the obvious: women are capable of all the things men are, and need to develop their potential in the same ways, the most important being education. Three of my daughters were educated in seminary in Jerusalem at Mayanot, run by my close friend Rabbi Shlomo Gestetner.
When I was searching for an appropriate seminary to educate them he said the magic words: we take a woman’s mind seriously. Their knowledge of Judaism increased greatly due to the time they spent there. They were also fortunate enough either to receive a degree or be pursuing one currently at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for women. My daughters were raised to take acquiring knowledge seriously.
But I’m also a Chabad rabbi who believes in the values of our community, namely that men and women should marry young and that marriage and children are life’s foremost blessings.
So what is a young woman to do? Go to college or get married? While they need not necessarily conflict, they often do, and one must choose.
In Chabad young women marry men who often travel soon thereafter to the four corners of the globe. That means interrupting an education. Orthodox couples also believe in having children early in the marriage, and a pregnant undergraduate, or a mother who is still a student, can find finishing a degree to be an insurmountable challenge.
There is also the issue of young couples needing to earn an income after they marry; being a student is not a lucrative pursuit.
Then there is the challenge of some young men feeling uncomfortable with Orthodox women with secular degrees. The men are pursuing rabbinic ordination and remain confused as to why a woman would need a college education. If I wanted to be uncharitable, I could go further and say that some Orthodox men are uncomfortable with women who want a professional career. Isn’t being a wife and mother enough? I have devoted my life to extolling the virtues of marriage and children. Family should take precedence. But strong marriages are built on independently minded women. A woman who is not a person in her own right, aside from the obvious abuse that such capitulation entails, becomes a bore to herself and those around her.
A spouse morphing into the identity of her significant other is bad for him and bad for the relationship, leading as it does to stultifying monotony and routine.
We are links in a higher continuum of existence where we are expected to contribute to something than transcends our individuality. As Jews we are expected to build families that lead to the continuity of an ancient people.
We are expected to have children, which is especially important for the only religion in the world that does not proselytize and which is dependent on its birthrate for survival.
But we are, all of us, possessed of a dual identity. We are also individuals in our own right, with our own dreams, aspirations and talents. Healthy marriages are made of the dynamic tension which comes from the healthy friction of two opposites in constant interaction. Uniformity is good for an army. It’s terrible for a marriage. And if we want strong unions in the Jewish community, we must welcome, rather than resist, a woman’s education and expanding knowledge.
At our recent Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala, sponsored by our organization This World: The Values Network, we honored my wife Debbie for 25 years of service to the Jewish people, beginning with her co-founding the Oxford University L’Chaim Society with me a quarter century ago. In my introduction I remarked that I am often asked what it is that I most regret in my years as a rabbi. I said the answer was obvious: I should have listened more to my wife, my superior in wisdom and values.
My wife and I could not be more different, and I am often puzzled as to why when it comes to choosing a spouse so many search for a doppelganger rather than the biblical “ezer kenegdo,” a soul-mate who is one’s opposite.
As I raised my older daughters and they got closer to marriageable age, they often teased me about why I learned Torah with them most nights, pushed them hard to read history, and focused on writing. “Don’t you realize, Tatty, that the men who are looking for wives these days often care far more about a woman’s dress size that her knowledge base?” “No doubt there are many men like that, baby girl,” I would tell them. The Orthodox community is not immune to superficiality. “But you don’t want a man who has no appreciation for your mind, since that really means he also has little appreciation for his own.”
Marriage provides life’s greatest beauty. But that beauty can only be fully realized with two people infused with curiosity for all that surrounds them, making life into an endless journey of discovery rather than an easily reached destination, who will spend a lifetime getting to know each other.
The author is founder of This World: The Values Network, the foremost organization influencing politics, media, and the culture with Jewish values. He has just published Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.