Mayanot has two major objectives. The first objective is to teach Torah. The learning of Torah itself is the greatest positive in the author's pantheon of values. But Mayanot has a second objective as well. From a Jewish point of view, there is no greater problem in the modern world than the lack of mutual esteem between Orthodox and secular Jews. This disharmony, which wreaks havoc on Jewish unity, is mainly attributable to the fact that Orthodox Jews are seen as being primitive and prejudiced. This perception in turn is caused by the fact that many Torah concepts are poorly understood by non-religious Jews.

Most of the information required to appreciate the Torah view of life is recorded in heavy tomes written in Aramaic and ancient Hebrew, often in unfamiliar 'Rashi' script. These books are closed to anyone lacking the sort of solid Torah education that requires many years of intense study to acquire.

On the other hand, many of those who are fortunate enough to have this sort of Torah education under their belts do not have the tools to express their understanding of Torah in language that secular Jews can relate to. Mayanot aims to bridge this communication gap. The aim is not to 'convert' secular Jews to Orthodoxy but to increase 'ahavat yisroel', the mutual esteem and respect between fellow Jews.


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This task is especially important regarding certain topics. Among the most important of these topics is the role of women in Orthodox Judaism. There is no more burning social issue in the world of today than the issue of women's rights. Why are men and women separated in Orthodox synagogues? Why don't women have the same obligation to learn Torah as men? Why aren't there women Rabbis in Orthodox congregations, or women judges on Orthodox courts? How can secular Jews relate to Orthodox Jews with tolerance and esteem when they seem chauvinistic?

In this essay, we hope to explore and express the Orthodox outlook on the status of women in modern day concepts. We hope to be able to demonstrate that the Torah, as it has been traditionally taught for thousands of years, does not discriminate against women and does not regard them as second class Jews; the perception of discrimination is based on a fundamental difference in the perception of the role of mitzvot.


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Let us begin by examining the problems that need to be tackled in the context of organizing social life from an Orthodox standpoint in the areas of Torah learning and public prayer, the mitzvot that are at the heart of the gender issue.

From the Orthodox standpoint, the major consideration in deciding whom to charge with the responsibility for carrying out these mitzvot is practicality. In the Orthodox view of the world, these mitzvot are indispensable in a way that other mitzvot are not. The second Mishna in Pirke Avot teaches that the world stands on three things: the learning of Torah, the performance of Avodah or service of God, and on the practice of benevolent deeds. Torah learning needs no definition. Avodah according to rabbinic tradition means the public prayers that serve as the substitute for the original Temple service; the offering of the public sacrifices listed in the Torah. (Talmud, Brachot, 36b)

The Mishna teaches that the learning of Torah and public prayer are both necessary for the continuance/renewal of the world. If either of these activities would cease even temporarily, the world would stop functioning instantaneously.


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Let us first see if we can appreciate how an Orthodox Jew relates to this information. The basic axiom of Orthodox Judaism is that life is focused on developing a relationship with God. But how can we develop such a relationship? Where is God? What do we know of Him? The answer: everything we know about God is in the Torah. From the Orthodox point of view, the mitzvah of learning Torah has two aspects. One aspect is related to the performance of the commandments; you cannot carry out God's commandments unless you know what they are and how to perform them; this is not the aspect of Torah learning that the Mishna defines as being crucial to the continuance of creation.

The Torah is also a record of God's judgments, attitudes and beliefs towards everything under the sun. Just as when you spend thousands of hours in conversation with someone about his thoughts and attitudes regarding every possible aspect of life you get to know that person extremely well, we are commanded to spend the same sort of quality time with God by learning His vast Torah. When we learn Torah we are getting to know Him, an essential aspect of living with Him.


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The idea of relating to God is not self-explanatory. It implies far more than the belief that God is behind everything that happens to us; He can shower us with His bounty or make our lives miserable. If a person relates to God in terms of this controlling aspect, He cannot establish the type of relationship with God that the Mishna considers necessary for the maintenance of the world. We are not being instructed to form an employee-employer bond; I don't necessarily relate to my boss as a person. I need to understand his vision of my role and my job to avoid clashing with management and to ensure that I know how to go about winning bonuses. Beyond that, I may have no interest in my boss whatsoever.

The message of the Mishna is the following: unless we take an interest in developing a relationship with God as a person, so to speak, the world cannot continue. Torah learning is a crucial task. Insuring that it is actually done by far outweighs any consideration of who is going to do it.


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The same is true for prayer. Prayer is the 'prime mover' in the Orthodox view of the world. God gave man free will. This grant limits Him; any interference in our lives when such interference is not specifically requested constitutes a breach of the grant of free will. By God's own rules, He can only enter our lives to help us if we ask Him. This is true not only regarding our lives as individuals but also applies to man's world in general. Granting man free will means giving him jurisdiction over his world. As for the Heavens, the Heavens belong to God, but He gave the earth to mankind. (Psalms, 115,16)

If the Jewish people doesn't turn to God as a public body and request His assistance, He cannot help us. We often require God's assistance desperately to keep us going. We cannot afford not to pray to God as a people. As in the case of Torah study, the primary consideration in selecting the proper candidate to burden with the responsibility of prayer is practical. Far more important than who does the praying is the need to get it done.


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It's a funny thing about necessary jobs. The physical ones all get filled because we, as a society, offer enough rewards in terms of honor and money to ensure their performance. We never have to worry about having enough doctors even though it's tough to make it through medical school. The same cannot be said for jobs that are only spiritually necessary.

For example, most people would readily agree that quality time spent with parents is a spiritual necessity of growing children. There is almost universal consensus about the fact that we are failing in this area as a society. There are horrendous statistics regarding the number of hours young children spend watching television per week, often entirely unattended. There is a consensus that this sort of neglect by parents leaves deep emotional scars on a child and robs him of the self-esteem he needs to achieve great things.

Instead of training psychologists and psychiatrists to deal with the trauma caused by childhood neglect, we need to invest more time as a society in bonding with the next generation. Yet people spend less and less quality time with their children and we are training ever-increasing numbers of psychologists. In fact, people are getting married later and later and putting off forming deep emotional commitments and child-bearing altogether in increasing numbers in the modern world. Most people would agree that parenting and child rearing are essential spiritual tasks in any flourishing society, and that our society is doing less in this area as time goes on. There is no honor or money to be won in the fulfillment of these tasks and therefore they simply don't get done.


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Child rearing is the perfect illustration of the point we are trying to make. The third spiritual task presented by the Mishna as necessary to maintain the world is the practice of benevolence and good works. The bearing of children and the investment of the quality time and energy in their development required to insure that they grow into happy, secure human beings capable of carrying the torch passed down from Abraham for another generation is regarded by Judaism as the bedrock of this third criterion of benevolence and good works mentioned by the Mishna.

Judaism teaches that the only way to develop the character trait of benevolence is to actually give of yourself to others. The giving of oneself to family is the most basic benevolent endeavor in an average human being's life. The things we do to fulfill our commitment to the happiness of a spouse and the activities we undertake for the sake of our children are important spiritual works. Without these outlets, which are not only important acts of benevolence in themselves, but which also foster the growth of the trait of benevolence in general, we grow selfish and self-centered and become spiritually stunted.

This final example of the Mishna offers the advantage of broad consensus; most people are ready to agree that the practice of benevolence is a social necessity. We are therefore led to the depressing conclusion that our world cannot last very long. Devotion to family, the foundation on which the practice of social benevolence is erected, is losing its appeal. Judging by modern society's experience with the practice of benevolence, we can only conclude that if these crucial spiritual tasks listed in the Mishna were left to the people who felt inspired to do them, the world would rapidly come to an end.

The problem is clear. It is easy to insure the availability of the physical inputs that are necessary for life, but the adequate supply of necessary spiritual inputs is difficult indeed to arrange. Spiritual tasks never offer immediate payoff and are often unexciting to boot. There isn't much fulfillment to be found in changing diapers or pushing strollers, although both are supreme expressions of benevolence. The accomplishment of spiritual tasks is dependent on the availability of spiritually sensitive individuals and they are not naturally abundant.


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Let us accept the Orthodox view for the sake of argument that both Torah learning/knowledge and public prayer are necessary for the continuance of the world. Let us also be presumptuous and place ourselves in God's shoes. We need to secure the continuance of the world by assuring that there will always be Torah learning, public prayer and benevolence in sufficient amounts to keep the world functioning. The only tool we have at our disposal is the ability to issue commands. How would we go about insuring the steady supply of the Torah learning, public prayer and practice of benevolence needed to maintain existence?

If we simply informed humanity about the necessity of filling these tasks and left their performance up to those who felt inspired to do them, we can see what would happen. None of us would bet very heavily on the future of a world whose continued existence was dependent on feelings of inspiration. Clearly, we would be forced to assign these tasks to people as a duty, a responsibility.

There is a problem with this. The people we assign to perform these spiritual tasks need to survive in the physical world in addition to carrying out their spiritual responsibilities. Public prayer is a scheduled activity. You have to do it pretty much at the same time and at the same place every day. Learning Torah has the very opposite problem attached to it -- it is too all-embracing. In order to be able to devote sufficient time to learning, the person who is burdened with the task must be released from having to do all sorts of activities that are necessary for physical survival.


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Orthodox Judaism teaches that a human couple is a single spiritual entity. Males and females were created as a single spiritual unit. The Hebrew word for male is Ish, spelt aleph, yud, shin, and the word for female is Isha, spelt aleph, shin, heh. The yud in the male and the heh in the female combine to form the holy name Yah, the name with which God created the world. The Torah teaches that this world was created with the letter heh, while the next world was created with the letter yud. When you add these letters to the male and female, they embrace the entirety of creation between them and form a single image of the Creator. If you subtract these letters from the male and female you get the Hebrew word 'aish', meaning fire, symbolizing purposeless consumption.

Men and women are equally competent at everything. They are actually a single spiritual entity that was split into two so as to be able to carry out the spiritual tasks necessary for survival between them! Their very existence as a pair reflects the Divine strategy concerning the division of spiritual labor. Bear in mind that we are still in God's shoes in the midst of our thought experiment. How would we divide the responsibilities for the spiritual tasks mentioned in the Mishna between males and females?


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Because of practical constraints, we could not assign all the tasks to both men and women. Whoever is assigned prayer must be in a position that he or she can fit it into their schedule in a consistent way. Whoever is assigned Torah learning must be released from so many practical tasks that life would be practically impossible if both males and females were burdened with it. We must also worry about maintaining a sufficient level of benevolence. We must make a selection that will work through all of history in all possible prevailing conditions. We are not going to change the orders in mid-stream.

Constrained by these considerations, God selected men to pray and learn Torah, and selected women to provide the backbone of the spiritual practice of benevolence. The only alternative choice was to do it the opposite way around. To place the obligations on both men and women was not an option.


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Our Rabbis taught: 'Mitzvot were not given to us to enjoy.' (Rosh Hashana 28a) Rashi adds: they were given to us as a yoke on our necks. This seems anomalous at first glance. How can the same rabbis who teach that the spiritual joy to be found in the performance of mitzvot is the supreme human experience simultaneously maintain that we are not supposed to enjoy their performance at all?

The answer: Their statement about yokes was made to teach us the proper way to relate to mitzvoth -- through the paradigm of jobs. The best jobs are the ones we enjoy; but we do our jobs because we must work. The fact that we enjoy them is a side benefit and is not the determinant of our decision to work. We work because we must; the sense of fulfillment we obtain from doing our jobs is secondary. Just as jobs are indispensable to life, and work can be described as a yoke around one's neck even when it is enjoyable, the same is true of mitzvot.


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In essence, the Orthodox view of spirituality is the very reverse of the secular. Instead of regarding the spiritual dimension of life as an addition that helps to enrich our physical lives, the Torah regards life as being essentially spiritual. We must reluctantly add a physical dimension to our lives because we inhabit the physical world, but reality is fundamentally spiritual, and it is the spiritual phenomena of life that are dominated by considerations of pure necessity. The distribution of spiritual labor is governed by utilitarian considerations whereas the distribution of spiritual honors and opportunities for spiritual self-fulfillment are purely secondary considerations.

The accusation of chauvinism brings to mind Disraeli's response to an anti-Semitic comment directed to him by a Christian colleague. He is reputed to have replied, "When the honorable gentleman's ancestors were still swinging from trees painted a solid blue, my ancestors served as high priests in the Temple erected to serve the One God."


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When the rest of the world treated women as little more than chattels, rabbinic law already recognized the equal right of women to own property, and extended the Jewish woman the full modern safety net of alimony and child support. Rabbinic law has always recognized a woman's right to divorce, and Rabbinic courts are enjoined to compel any husband to divorce the wife if she so desires. [The Agunah problem is a result of the lack of Rabbinic power as we pointed out in last year's essay on Sotah.

Spiritual honors are not bestowed on individuals but pertain to couples. The wife of the Torah scholar shares his status, and she is considered more important than the ignorant male high priest. If there is a choice to be made between returning his lost article or hers, she has priority. In allocating public funds for the redemption of captives, all females take precedence over all males.

Flirtation or the sexual exploitation of women is absolutely abhorrent in the eyes of Torah law. Men and women exist in separate social worlds and only mix in the context of family, and in this context, the Jewish woman has always reigned supreme. I am confident that all my readers who were raised in Jewish homes are fully cognizant of this. The stereotypical Jewish mother is the source of all Jewish greatness, as all Jews know full well from their own childhood experience. The culture of the Jewish family is the Jewish woman's creation.


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The Torah gives full recognition to the Jewish woman's leadership role in the mitzvah to honor one's parents. It is written, Honor your father and mother, (Exodus 20,12) but it is also written, Every man, your mother and father shall you fear (Vayikra 19,3). The Talmud (Kidushin 30b) remarks on the difference of placement in the verses; the Torah knows that children honor their mothers more than their fathers since it is their mothers who provide them with their spiritual base. Therefore the father is given priority of place in the mitzvah to honor because it is he who needs the added support. When it comes to fear, the situation is reversed; the father is the remote Torah teacher while the mother is the source of love, therefore the mother needs more support and is given priority of placement.

The secular perception of discrimination against women is based on inequality of spiritual opportunities in a world where spirituality offers self-expression and self-fulfillment rather than existing as an existential necessity. The Torah division of labor can be easily understood as prejudice free if we remember the spiritual tripod that supports the world.