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Staying at Home with the Kids on Rosh Hashanah while My Husband Prays in Shul

Staying at Home with the Kids on Rosh Hashanah while My Husband Prays in Shul

Examining our patriarchal assumptions about which work is important.

by

The High Holidays are approaching and once again the men will congregate in synagogues, wrapped in shawls, deep in prayer and immersed in holy fervor. The women, or at least the mothers, will stay at home with the children – probably chained to the stove, pregnant, and barefoot. At least that’s the narrative I’m told by those who so sincerely ask me if I mind that my husband goes to synagogue to pray while I have to stay home with the kids.

The implication of the question is: do you mind being relegated to the unholy and unimportant? How do you deal with being so unvalued by your religion that you are “forced” into meaningless and empty labor while your husband gets to do the important stuff?

It’s a loaded question but when you start to unpack it things take an interesting twist. I like to turn the question around. Why would you ask if I mind being “forced” to stay home and not if my husband minds being “forced” to go to synagogue? True or not, if your perspective is that both of us are compelled to our respective positions without regard for personal choice then why question my satisfaction over his?

At this point I am usually treated to a blank stare because it becomes obvious that although the question was meant to be about feminism, it is based on patriarchal assumptions. The only reason that one would assume that the act of going to synagogue is intrinsically more valuable than taking care of children is because the former has been associated with the masculine and the latter with the feminine.

Society has presumed that work to be lesser simply because it has traditionally been performed by women.

Women have not been “assigned” the lesser work. Society has presumed that work to be lesser simply because it has traditionally been performed by women. The question with its inherent assumption is misogyny at its finest, albeit with good intentions. The premise of radical feminism, on the other hand, is that the existing political and social organizations are inherently tied to the patriarchy and in order to truly dismantle patriarchal oppression one would need to challenge the very basis of societal norms and get to the core issues. Asking why women can’t be doing what the men are doing may seem like a feminist question but asking yourself why you think that the work that men are doing is intrinsically more important is, perhaps, the more radical question that needs to be asked if female empowerment is the goal.

This is not to say that staying at home long hours to take care of children is easy and that many women don’t struggle to connect to the loftiness of the day amidst the mundane routine. Although admittedly, amidst diaper changes, tantrums and reading Dr. Seuss for the one millionth time I have, at times, enviously thought of my husband in synagogue, I have never once questioned the intrinsic value and importance of the job I was doing. It is clear to me that raising children and instilling Jewish values is at least as important as prayer.

This isn’t just my own bias or 21st century apologetics. Let’s examine what the Torah says about the inherent value of these two types of work and their differing nature.

Which domain is superior for spiritual cultivation: the synagogue or the home?

In one of the most powerful stories about our first patriarch, Abraham, God commanded him to circumcise himself when he was 99 years old. This was a difficult test for obvious reasons and it also required Abraham to mark himself as being fundamentally different than the rest of mankind. This went against his nature and his dominant trait of kindness, chesed. After this experience Abraham rose to new spiritual heights and merited prophecy that surpassed anything he had previously experienced.

In the midst of Abraham communing with God he sees three nomads traveling though the desert. He immediately asks God if He could “hold on” while Abraham tends to the guests. Abraham then proceeds to engage in the most mundane tasks, from washing off his guests’ feet to slaughtering and serving meat. At a superficial glance, this seems ridiculous. How could Abraham pause mid-conversation with the Almighty, stop intense prophetic ecstasy, to care for three passers-by in the most basic and menial way?

Perhaps Abraham did not consider this decision to be so illogical and irreverent because he realized a profound truth that we are still struggling with. It is certainly holy to speak to God but it is the ultimate holiness to be like God, and the way that we imitate God is not through prayer, meditation or some other lofty spiritual activity but rather through the messy, difficult, painstaking work of nurturing, giving and caring for others. To be Godly is to practice selflessness and patience. Which domain is superior for spiritual cultivation: the synagogue or the home?

It is safe to say that God knows best what each person needs for his or her spiritual development in each unique stage of life. If your life stage and circumstances guide you towards the synagogue then do take advantage and tune into the unique benefits and joys of communal prayer. But if life guides you towards the home and the mundane then do not despair. Jump on the opportunity you have been given and the unique privilege to be emulating God in a profound way. So do I mind staying home with the kids while my husband goes to synagogue? I’ll let you be the judge.

September 2, 2017

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Visitor Comments: 32

(18) Anonymous, September 10, 2017 7:48 AM

If a woman really wants to go to shul, she can go. I have done so for many years with small children. I have a shul about 2 minutes from my house that has an early vasikin minyan. I get up while it's still dark when my kids are still asleep and come home to check on them every so often. Then later on I dress them and take them with me and they play in the park right outside the shul. If they get unsettled I stand outside with them (the door is a bit ajar so I can still hear) and continue davening. Some years were not so easy, but I have managed to daven all through the years with a minyan. I'm not saying every woman can have this setup but there are ways to do it (such as switching off with a friend) if one really wants to get to shul, at least for part of the davening.

(17) Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs, September 10, 2017 7:06 AM

women and shul

Speaking of the women staying home with the children on Shabbos when the tatte goes off to shul - the reality that she has done it the other 6 days of the week as well,,,seemed to be missing from the conversation. Who most likely did all the shopping for Shabbos? Who most likely did all the preparing for shabhbos?? Who most likely did all this while ALSO caring for the children? So, Shabbos may be a day HE can go off to shul and daven quietly without one child in need of attention...so since mom is home doing exactly what she has been doing the other six days...how is it a day of menucha for her???.

(16) Anonymous, September 7, 2017 7:22 PM

For those with out families

While I can understand the feelings expressed by many here, for those of us without spouses, children or other family around, there is another viewpoint. Those times when I wanted to attend services, whether shabbat or yom tov, and gone to an orthodox shul, I was directed to an upper balcony ( with little or no view of the main shul ), or to sit behind a mechitza that was either a thick material or totally frosted over. Both vision and hearing were of poor quality. I could not hear clearly, nor see the rabbi, nor hear the torah reading, nor hear the chazzan. To put it bluntly I felt totally unwelcome and may as well have been in a closed basement. Hence, I have now opted for a conservative shul, where the rabbi speaks to everyone,,, not just the select few in front of them, and I can see, hear and enjoy the entire service and truly feel part of the community.

(15) ann, September 7, 2017 5:22 AM

this is true feminism

We can notice the comments of women who are disturbed by the great Truth that comes out of your beautiful article and this commentary on avraham our forefather As a mother of 6 and soon 7 bh I feel very comfortable to stay home or have a walk with the kids while my husband is in shule or at work ! The trick is like "mary poppins"puts it to "find the fun"in it!!

(14) Mike, September 7, 2017 12:56 AM

The woman sets the standards for a Jewish home.

I think there is a big misunderstanding about the role of woman vs men. The husband is supposed to attend minyan everyday, not just Shabbes. For working men, weekday morning prayers usually begin before 7 am. The husband has to get up at the crack of dawn and leave before day break. He is also expected to attend the afternoon service. Than there is Friday night, Shabbes morning, holidays, etc... It's a lot of time to spend in Shul every week. The wife however, is blessed to be able to meet her obligations to G-d in the privacy of her home. Keeping a kosher home and raising children is not easy. Can you imagine how difficult a woman's life would be if she was also burdened with having to attend Shul? The role of a wife/mother is incredibly important. She sets the standard for the whole family. If she makes kosher food, her sons will grow up and marry wives who keep kosher. If she drops the ball, so will they. Mother is your first teacher. She teaches her children their very first prayers. If she drops the ball, so do they. Mother teaches her daughters to light candles on Friday night and make a beautiful Shabbes meal. If she drops the ball, so will they. I think the author will find that most of the woman who criticize her are non-religious and only attend services occasionally. They want to embrace the man's role because they don't understand there own.

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