I grew up in the era of feminism, and while I am thrilled at the vistas of opportunity it opened up for me and so many others, I have grown somewhat disenchanted after having seen so much negative fall-out: the rise in media exploitation of women, and the break-down of the American family. What does traditional Judaism say about this trade-off?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Tziporah Heller, a popular Torah teacher in Jerusalem, writes:
The feminist movement stemmed from women feeling disempowered. Men clearly controlled (and still control) the reins of power in the political, financial and judicial spheres, which determine most of the obvious facets of personal and societal existence. Thus, a primary goal of the women's movement has been to demand a share in this power through equal pay and equal employment opportunities.
Power, in essence, is the ability to effect change. If women have financial clout or high political or business positions, it is thought, then they too can determine the changes that will affect their lives and the lives of others.
But the feminist movement has failed to recognize another, more subtle form of power: internal power -- the ability to affect other people's ethics and values. While external power may procure a high corporate position, internal power will determine whether that corporate executive will be honest or embezzle.
Women's quest for external power has left a frightening vacuum in Western society in the area of moral training, where women formerly held sway. Rampant crime, child abuse, kidnapping, and the dramatic rise in violence against women are symptoms of a society gone amok, where many people have no concept of right and wrong, of honesty, fairness, compassion or self-control.
Today's internal decadence is eroding the quality of life in America as fast as external political and technological advances are improving it.
Clearly, the lot of women cannot be improved by political and financial progress if the inner dimension of society -- its morals and compassion -- is neglected by the very people who have traditionally been its custodians: women.
A typical male analysis of such societal problems customarily blames them on external factors, e.g., low income families in impoverished neighborhoods inevitably leads to a high rate of violent crime, substance abuse, etc.
If this were true, then Jerusalem's religious neighborhood of Mea Shearim, which has one of the highest poverty rates in Israel and where families typically number seven to ten children in a three-room flat, should be a hotbed of violent crime. Instead, Mea Shearim has virtually no violent crime and very little substance abuse, this despite the total absence of policemen on its streets.
A materialistic society, one which recognizes only that which can be counted and measured (income, titles, degrees, etc.), is bound to discount the imponderables such as compassion, courage, and selflessness, which ultimately determine the fiber of its citizens.
Ultimately, the people who have had the most significant effect on who you are today are not the President of the United States and the Chief Executive Officer of Bank of America, but your parents, teachers, and childhood role models -- the people who influenced your internal development. The wielding of internal power, while rarely accompanied by impressive titles or salaries, has a deeper, longer-lasting effect than the external power maneuvers of those who dominate the nightly news.
Women are the most proficient wielders of internal power because of their preponderance of insight, the intellectual vehicle of entering the very heart, mind, and soul of the other person. Insight accounts for mothers usually being able to understand the differences in their children more readily than fathers; for women historically being the pioneers in establishing orphanages, mental hospitals, and homes for the developmentally challenged; and for the no doubt accurate feminist claim that if women ran the world there would be fewer wars. The ability to view events in terms of their human cost rather than their political ramifications derives from insight.
The Bible is full of accounts of great women whose exercise of internal power had decisive effects on Jewish history.
Sarah understood the negative moral impact of Ishmael's example on Isaac. She insisted that he be sent out of the household, which Abraham could not bring himself to do until God emphatically told him, "In all that Sarah says to you, hearken unto her voice." Commentaries on this verse state that Sarah was a greater prophet than Abraham, for she could see the long-range moral corruption that could jeopardize future generations of the Jewish people through exposure to a violent and ruthless example at a formative stage.
The sages of the Talmud (that portion of Jewish law that was originally oral but is now written) credited the redemption from Egypt to the merit of the "righteous women," who, against the judgment of their husbands, saw that they must continue to procreate despite Pharaoh's death sentence on all Jewish male babies. In all these delicate situations, the women's ability to perceive the reality of a person or situation determined the course of Jewish history.
Thus, defined Judaically, the issue is not whether women should or should not have power, but rather on the kind of power on which they should concentrate, both for their individual development as well as for the good of the whole society.
I am an avid student of history and it seems that the Jewish people have always held a special place in the world. They are always at the center of things – whether Israel or the media. I don’t mean just today – I mean ever since the dawn of recorded history. What’s behind this?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
King Louis XIV once had a discussion with the famous 17th century Roman Catholic philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal. The king asked for evidence of the supernatural, and Pascal responded. "The Jews, Your Majesty, the Jews!"
Jewish history is an incredible paradox. On one hand, we are promised to be the eternal nation: "And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations, an eternal covenant, to be your God and the God of the descendants after you." (Genesis 17:7)
On the other hand, we are promised to be scattered into exile (not good odds for becoming the eternal nation!): "And you, I will scatter among the nations, at the point of My drawn sword, leaving your country desolate and your cities in ruins." (Leviticus 26:33)
But then on the first hand (again), we are promised to be a light unto the nations: "I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand and keep you. And I will establish you as a covenant of the people, for a light unto the nations." (Isaiah 42:6)
But on the second hand (again), we are promised to be the victim of intense hatred: "Among those nations you shall find no respite, no rest for your foot. God will make you cowardly, destroying your outlook and making life hopeless. You will live in constant suspense. Day and night, you will be terrified, never sure of your existence." (Deut. 28:65-66)
But then again on the first hand, we are promised to be numerous like sand and stars: "I will surely bless you and greatly increase your offspring like the stars of the heavens and like the sand on the seashore..." (Genesis 22:17)
But then again on the second hand, we are promised to be few in number: "And you shall remain few in number among the nations where God shall lead you." (Deuteronomy 4:27)
I think you get the idea. Jewish history simply doesn't comply with the rest of history; it does not make sense.
Many scholars, historians and writers have noticed this and remarked about it. Mark Twain, an agnostic and a self-acknowledged skeptic, penned this in 1899 in Harper's Magazine:
"The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away. The Greek and Roman followed, made a vast noise and they are gone. Other peoples have sprung up, and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal, but the Jew. All other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?"
So... what is the secret?
I've been thinking a lot about all the strife in this world - between individuals, between countries, between races. I understand that hatred occurs when there is hostility between two people, and neither have a desire to see the positive in each other and build a friendship.
Surely, given the vast range of different personalities around, people will come across others with whom they simply do not get along, and if they try to associate with them, the hatred will just build. Isn't it better to just agree to differ and avoid contact with them?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
The Torah says: "If you see the donkey of someone you hate lying under its load, you must help him unload it" (Exodus 23:5).
While the verse addresses alleviating the pain of an animal, it also presents another issue: Helping someone you "hate" unload his donkey.
We see from here that the way to overcome hatred is to help the other person, care for them, and give to them. When I give to someone, I invest a piece of myself, and therefore we become bonded.
Of course, if your hatred is greater than your ability to be patient and giving, and the interaction will end in a fight, then it's better left alone. But if you are capable of overcoming the challenge, then it's good to put yourself in a situation where you are forced to help the object of your dislike.
Otherwise, hatred left alone will just fester, waiting to explode. And is that really the type of world we want to live in?