Saturday, January 06, 2007

Male-Pattern Cluelessness

XGH is writing a series of heartbreakingly clueless posts about morality. The question being asked is whether orthodox practice is moral - independant of it's claim of a divine ethic. Here is part of his riff on women.

"I don't see that the way Halachah treats women is immoral. Certainly, it does not treat men and women exactly the same, but then neither does the army, or many other aspects of life. If you want a religion which treats men and women identically, then OJ is not for you. But immoral? I don't think so, except in a vague indirect way, that since women don't have a public role, that could lead some men to think they (men) are superior. Extreme Chareidism, with the limitations it puts on womens education and other rights, may be immoral in this regard. "

Where does one begin? Not immoral to be banned from any positions of leadership or authority? Not immoral to be bound by law which you have no ability to contribute to? Not immoral to not be allowed to marry and divorce at will? Not immoral to be prevented from pursuing any proffessional or artistic endeavor which calls to you? Not immoral to be unable to testify in court, or to own property after marriage? Not immoral to be unable to even study the source of the laws by which you are restricted?

The most striking thing about this is that XGH, who is a pretty thoughtful and honest guy, is completely inoculated against any feeling that the consequences of these laws are harmful to the lives of women.

I doubt that this will help, but here is a 'moshul' (parable).

There was once a land which was the very apex of Ultimate Moral Standards. In this land, half of the citizens had blond hair and half had brown hair. Because the law of the land was just and fair, there was absolutely no discrimination between the Blonds and Browns, however, the wise law of the land did provide slightly different roles for the two groups.

Blonds were allowed and encouraged to seek education in all areas, and were particularly encouraged to gain expertise in areas of jurisprudence, leadership and ethics. They alone could assume positions of political, social and judicial leadership. To them fell the weighty task of ensuring that the society maintained the Highest Moral Standards. All positions with any decision making authority at all were filled with Blonds.

Browns were not permitted to study any area of law which involved the intricacies of legislation – especially on a theoretical level. They could not study law or hold any career position which involved legislation or jurisprudence. In fact, they could not even testify in court. They not hold any political offices or assume positions of civic leadership. They could not vote for political leaders or for propositions of law.

The Blond legislators instituted law which created an equitable division of labor. Under such law, the Blonds would spend as much time as they wished in the pursuit of the study of ethics and law. Browns were required to facilitate this study by contributing a special income tax of at least 50% of their income, and were required to spend 85% of their free time providing for the domestic needs of the Blonds.

There were some special privileges which were accorded to Browns. For example, they were encouraged to recite lengthy poems which described the exalted beauty of the Ethical Law. And there were special laws which defined how they should dress, wear their hair, and socialize. In addition, to ensure equality, the law carefully maintained that the Browns were subject to any legal restriction which also applied to Blonds.

Some Radical Browns occasionally misconstrued the judiciousness of this system and ignorantly claimed that it granted Blonds greater rights than Browns. These troublemakers were never motivated by any genuine ethical issue, but were rather motivated by selfishness and influenced by evil societies which did not live up to the Highest Moral Standards.


Intentionally or not, orthodoxy has created a subjugated underclass. It is widely recognized in this day and age that those who are subject to a system of law are entitled to participate in the development of that law. The development of Orthodox law is based on exponding and applying the concepts of the Talmud - a process which women are completely excluded from. And the resulting 'box' which women must fit themselves into in order to be acceptable within the orthodox system - the opportunities which they must deprive themselves of and the life-limiting roles which they must accept - is far more debilitating than that of men.

One can, of course, argue that women are quite willing participants in this system. They are happy - in fact, they are among the most zealous advocates of the system - so if they aren't complaining, how can you say that this causes harm?

But this is always the case of an oppressed people. Women were among the strongest advocates against the suffrage movements in the 19th and 20th centuries. (Women were not granted universal suffrage in the US until 1920.) Here is an excerpt from a debate in 1911 - penned by a woman:

"The mother’s influence is needed in the home. She can do little good by gadding the streets and neglecting her children. Let her teach her daughters that modesty, patience, and gentleness are the charms of a women. Let her teach her sons that an honest conscience is every man’s first political law; that no splendor can rob him nor no force justify the surrender of the simplest right of a free and independent citizen. The mothers of this country can shape the destinies of the nation by keeping in their places and attending to those duties that God Almighty intended for them. The kindly, gentle influence of the mother in the home and the dignified influence of the teacher in the school will far outweigh all the influence of all the mannish female politicians on earth. "

There were American Slaves who fought for the Confederacy. There were African Blacks who rallied for apartheid. And, there those amongst our forefathers in Egypt who rallied against leaving the land of their oppression. There are social and emotional forces which compel those enslaved and oppressed to cling to their chains and to defend their oppressors. It is the rare and unique revolutionary who can see beyond the agony of change and disruption to envision a better day.

But this does not make these things moral, and does not mitigate the evil which is being perpetuated.


Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Well said, It reminds of a Carl Sagan book, perhaps it was "Broca's Brain", where this famous neurologist/neuroscientist is so dead on whith so many insights into the mind and so hopelessly lost with some of his social ideals. It is extremely difficult to break down our own social training. Somene else said it better than I ever can...

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Martin Luther King Jr

January 06, 2007 6:00 PM  
Blogger Liorah-Lleucu said...

Bravo. I wish I could share with other women just how liberating it is to be a Jewitch.

January 06, 2007 9:03 PM  
Blogger Shoshana said...

Excellent parable and post.

Who says all these women are happy? Maybe they buy into it because they are scared to speak out, but I would be willing to guess that there are a lot of women who aren't so happy being undermined and having their life paths determined by those who don't see them as able to fully understand the laws that are limiting them.

January 06, 2007 10:17 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


Thanks. I been reading your (frustrating) attempts to discuss morality. It is a tragin aspect of human nature that we can be socialized to be blind to routine injustice. I find it exhausting and depressing to engage in these arguments. Still, if we don't, who will?

January 06, 2007 10:35 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


Perhaps you are right. I'm sure that there is a lot of frustration with many of the attitudes. On the other hand, if women decided not to accept the status quo, then the status quo would change. (Slowly and painfully, perhaps.) Just as it has with many other aspects of women's rights. Women are too powerful a group for anyone to ignore, even orthodox men.

January 06, 2007 10:40 PM  
Blogger Simon Holloway said...

An excellent post - well put. This issue is one of the (admittedly, many) reasons why I left the yeshivish world. I especially appreciate your point about the manner in which people internalise their oppression.

January 06, 2007 11:30 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

Wow. Lots of stuff here. Firstly, the moshul, fun as it may be as a rhetorical tool, is not entirely fair. It is impossible to deny that there are inherent diffences between men and women that it is not necessarily stupid/immoral to reflect in law. And your treatment of the brown-haired corresponds to only a portion of today's orthodoxy (unless you are discussing historical practice- more about that later)

And as for the listed points: Women have always contributed in some degree to the legal process, directly in some unusual cases (the ubiquitis Bruriah example) and indirectly insofar as law is determined by communal practice and acceptance. Women could testify in court for certain matters, own property after marriage if they so structured their dealings. and the ban on torah study was never complete. In addition, marriage always required mutual consent, as did divorce after a certain point in history.

But in a larger sense- yes, there are aspects of orthodox practice that really stink for females. You'd have to be pretty spaced out not to notice. But here's the thing: most of what people find offensive is historical. Orthodoxy in general is flexible enough to adapt to what we find moral. As for historic practice, it seems more fair to judge it by the standards of its own time.

Orthodoxy has never been unusually sexist nor do I believe that there is any inherently sexist philsophies imbedded in its roots. Yeah, a lot of the laws are annoying, but nothing that doesn't make a lot of sense in a society where farming enough to eat takes a good portion of everybody's life and running a household is a more than fulltime job. Plus, yeah, the people in power were male and you can't expect the system they evolved not to reflect that.

The undeniable fact is, we're dealing with a precedent-heavy legal system that started 2000 years ago. And as such, it's got some stuff that's not going to mesh 100% with modern standards of morality. There's really nothing much that can be done about that.

And, even as a female (who likes to consider herself as yet unbrainwashed), I'm okay with that. Because I think that conservativism is necessary to any legal system. And if that gets us stuck with some of the more annoying bits of the past, well, that might be a price we have to pay. And it's not all that high of a price because Orthodoxy can and has eliminated a good deal of stuff that you object to. Women learn torah today and contribute to the legal process. They are in the workforce and arts, with few exceptions. There are really pretty few genuinely nasty/immoral/unnecessary discriminatons that are still an inherent part of all Orthodox practice.

January 07, 2007 7:09 PM  
Blogger Billie Jean said...

David: Great post.

It would be fair to have different sets of rules for men and women if the rules didn't consistently increase men's power while decreasing women's. The recent education ban is an excellent example. Even in more "modern" communities, however, no satisfactory solution to the aguna "problem" has been presented. In many supposedly modern synagogues a woman can't even give a dvar Torah or be president. And they still can't be witnesses. My answer to that is NOT GOOD ENOUGH.

Being out of this sexist system is really good, I must say.

January 07, 2007 9:29 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

To my (handfull of) devoted readers: Tobie is often my best critic, and may be the most skillful debater that I have ever encountered. If you don't read her blog, you should. But at least follow the links on the topics provided.


Sure, there are differences between men and women (viva la diferance, as Spencer Tracey said…oh, right, you panned Adam’s Rib…).

No parable is perfect, but morality is not equality. Some people are smarter than others, some have a better outside jump shot. But you can not deprive one group of its rights or curtail its ability to achieve simply because you have a theory of difference.

I’m not accusing the law of being developed through evil malfeasance. I am simply looking at whether the current practice of orthodoxy harms women.

As for the specific points:

The same arguments that you are using now about women’s ‘indirect’ contribution to halacha was widely used by anti-suffragettes as a rational for why women didn't need to vote - it didn't work then either.

I disagree about the degree of tolerance for women learning Talmud within the orthodox community. The vast majority of schools don’t even teach Mishnah. At Stern, they can’t even fill up the Talmud classes because so few girls have studied it before college, and this isn’t to mention the vast majority of the community where studying Talmud is unthinkable. And, even where Talmud is allowed, women are not invited into halachic debate. So you really have to admit that, at least at the moment, women are simply not part of the process. (And, I hate to remind you that you basically seem to agree with this.)

Orthodox women can not participate in performing arts. Period. I agree that there are work-arounds for owning property, and I will also concede that marriage (today) is a matter of mutual consent. On the other hand, divorce is a very real issue and court testimony, if you ever have a matter before a B’D is not at all trivial.

I know your theory about looking at halacha as a legal system vs. a moral system. Bottom line is that it is irrelevant to this discussion. I don’t care if you have a rational for why the results of the law are immoral. They are still harming people. You are basically arguing that all of this was justifiable 2,000 years ago, when it was penned. So it wasn’t born out of immorality, and it is simply the nature of the system that it tends to resist change. This is a valid insight into halacha, but right now, today, women are being harmed by it. QED, it is immoral.

If you disagree with all of this, you have to concede one thing. I am ignoring how bad the actual situation really is. I am not even beginning to discuss the plight of women in the vast majority of orthodox households – women who are raised in ignorance, saddled with unbearable domestic and financial obligations, and deprived of virtually any outlet for creative expression.

January 07, 2007 10:54 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


Thanks. I didn't leave because of the moral issues whithin orthodoxy, but I certainly think that there is a more moral path outside of it. There is a lot of talk about whether orthodoxy is 'moral', but the very inability to recognize descrimination and sexism when it is right in front of you is perhaps the greatest indictment.

January 07, 2007 11:50 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

Billy Jean,

The education ban is a travesty of gigantic proportions. In my mind, the worst crime that can be commited against someone is to enforce their ignorance. This is a wound which continues to cut and maim through generations.

It is, indead, great to be out of it.

January 07, 2007 11:58 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

dbs- Firstly- Aw, *blush*, thanks. And I must say that I am inordinately impressed by all this quoting of me- I mean, how the heck do you remember these things.

Anyhoo...Okay, now that we've pinpointed that we're talking about immorality in modern Orthodox practice, I think we need to further refine the question to the degree to which that immorality is necessarily embedded inside the system.

True that most schools don't teach Talmud to girls. But there are plenty within the realms of Orthodoxy that do. Several of my seminary classmates had taken Gemara for years, and the growing trends of women's learning, yoetzot halacha, to'enot (female lawyers for Beit Din).

I will grant you the performing arts thing (with the exception of Mrs. Rand of Ushpizin), but I would venture to say that a lot of Orthodoxy frowns on it equally for men, what with all the problems of tzniut and shomer negiah. I can think, off-hand as equally few Orthodox male and female actors or dancers. In addition, I have heard of a few women who go around giving shows exclusively for women, grantedly an insignificant number except in the realm of music. If you want to say that it's inherently immoral to hold people back from participating in performing arts, that falls on men as much as women.

Re: marriage- I believe that the Talmud states that one must get the woman's consent, though of course, that could have meant various things in reality.

Divorce, today, requires mutual consent. Although it doesn't end up happening a lot, there is such a thing as an agun, whose wife refuses to accept the get. And while a heter is theoretically possible, it's not all that easy. I don't know why it is such a smaller problem- sociological factors or whatnot, but there isn't really a sexist discrepancy there.

I suppose I must grant you the court testimony thing, since I don't really know so much about the subject, but I wonder how much it matters with an available secular court system.

Also- the massive amounts of women in the Charedi world may be oppressed, but their husbands are not having all sunshine and roses either. They are shoved into intensive all-day intellectual environments regardless of how well it suits them personally, discouraged from attempting any career or secular education, frowned on for every moment not spent learning Talmud, and just as poor as their wives.

Bottom line: I can't deny that a whole lot of Orthodox women are oppressed and ignorant and so forth. My main claim is that such practice and its accompanying immorality is not necessary to Orthodoxy. Orthodox people and even overwhelming Orthodox practice may be immoral, but Orthodox allows, almost always, the option of not being so. As such, Orthodoxy is not immoral- it merely allows or perhaps leans towards some things that are still immoral by modern standards.

January 08, 2007 4:52 AM  
Blogger dbs said...


First, two specifics:

Regarding an 'agun' - in the worst case, a woman can be served with a get against her will. In addition, if he procreates without obtaining a get, there are no consequences - his children are not mamzairim.

I will say again that women can not hold any possition of leadership or decision making authority within orthodoxy. Aside from the many negative consequences which this has had for women, it is inhearantly damaging and immoral.

As a general point, the fact the men are harmed by the system is certainly true, but does not make the oppression of women any more moral. It simply makes the entire situation more immoral.

There is a threshold issue about whether to judge the system by how it is practiced by the majority, versus how it could be practiced in the ideal. To me, the proof is in the pudding. It is like arguing that 'seperate but equal' doesn't necessarily disadgantage blacks. Also, I'm not trying to paint those who practice orthodoxy as being immoral - I am looking at the actual results which are produced.

Perhaps the system will someday change - perhaps it is changing. When I was younger I had the sense (as perhaps you do now) that significant changes were underway. Now, looking back at the progress over the past 25 years, it seems that almost as much ground was lost as was gained. As you've pointed out, the system does allow for change - but it also allows for these problems.

Anyway, sorry for the flattery, but you've earned it. (And I just have a good memory, especially for anything having to do with classic film.)

January 09, 2007 4:44 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...


A) Confession: I don't know the full
halachot of an 'agun', but from what I've heard, it's not all that easy. True, 'adultery' is always an option, but certainly not an ideal one for most Orthodox men.

B) I don't exactly know what you mean by positions of leadership or decision making authority. Women may not have the power to become Roshei Yeshiva or Gedolei Hador, but there are plenty of female principals, authors, lecturers, administrative heads of charities and other organizations. I will grant you that there are no women technically handing out these halachic decisions, but in the more modern Orthodox community, women are- practically- deciding things for themselves and their communities much more than the theoretical g'dolei hador.

C) The general charedi repression thing was merely meant to illustrate that there's no special sexism going on. The system just stinks.

D)I do think that it's fair to judge the system not just by how it's practiced, but by how it can be. Not because this is necessarily a better reflection of the system, but because the latter demonstrates that the system is not inherently immoral and thus, it is not impossible to be moral while playing by the system. I mean, I can't quite tell what the point of this whole argument by XGH and/or us was- to prove that one can be moral and orthodox? to prove that Orthodox theory doesn't conflict with Western morality? To prove that modern-day Orthodox practice doesn't? because if it's the last, it's hard for me to fight that one. There are plenty of Orthodox people- to my shame- doing plenty of immoral things, both as individuals and as the institution. So it's tricky for me to advocate looking at the theory rather than the practice until I figure out exactly what I was attempting to prove.

Unlike you, I see massive changes in the system, not that I have so much else to compare it with. Women's learning has bloomed to ridiculous proportions, yoetzot niddah are starting to let women into official halachic capacities, and women's minyanim, leyning, and whatnot has become more and more accepted. Of course, these advances only apply to certain portions of the population, while other portions seem to get crazier and crazier, but I see this as part of the larger problem of the growing split in the Orthodox community.

January 10, 2007 4:32 AM  
Blogger dbs said...


Here is an excellent article about the cheirem d'r' Gershon which brings the issue forward through halacha to modern Israeli law.

I don't know if it's worth arguing back and forth about whether the roles which women can hold really mitigate the problem. Obviously, I don't think that it's a close call. It's like saying that you can't be a judge, senetor, congressman or president, etc., but that you have equal influence since you can have a few clerical jobs.

XGH's starting point was that, if you take away the idea that God wants things to be this way, is it immoral from a humanistic standpoint. He doesn't define immorality here, but I don't think that it's too much of a stretch to say that if you are hurting someone or limiting their potential - that's immoral. (I know that you are already thinking up scenarios where it's not...but that's my construct.) Anyway, it's significant to him (and perhaps to others) because it leads to the 'why not' rational of orthopraxy. Obviously, there are values within orthodoxy which are highly moral, so the relevent question is whether practicing presents significant moral problems. (I think that it does, but the women issue is only one component.)

BTW, you use the term 'sexism' in your point 'c'. I avoided accusing orthodoxy as sexist or chauvinist because these are attitudes rather than practices, and I didn't want to invite a talmudic m'kor run-off (fun as they are). But, I do, in fact, think that in spite of the respect for women in general, there is are negative chariterizations of women which are rooted very deeply within the religion.

And, as to your last point, I hope that you're right - I have two orthodox college age daughters.

January 10, 2007 7:51 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

I think I have may have run this one to the ground, but now that I understand what exactly the point of the whole thing was, I stick to my conclusion that Orthodox practice does not necessarily involve moral problems. It can, but so can everything. And I do think my "legal systems" rant is a little relevant- the religion is a package deal and sticking to the system per system has some inherent value. And frankly, 99.9% of Orthoprax practice is not the bits that run into any moral problems at all- if somebody wants to keep Orthodox practice and refuses any of the immoral bits, I'd have perfect respect for that.

But now that I understand what the argument was about, I will concede that there is enough problematicness in the Orthodox system that I can see that it might be sufficient to discourage practice if one believed that a) there is nothing divine therein, b) the system as a whole does not justify itself morally or socially, and c)it is impossible, inconsistent, or pointless to keep only the bits with which you agree.

January 11, 2007 4:28 AM  
Blogger onionsoupmix said...

hey tobie and dbs, did you know that if a man and a woman are drowning, the shulchan aruch insists that you save the man because he has more mitzvos than she does? Do you know how many women vs. men know this halacha ? Do you know how many women will defend this halacha to the point of ridiculousness even when hearing about it for the first time ?

February 17, 2007 11:08 PM  
Blogger David said...

"Now, looking back at the progress over the past 25 years, it seems that almost as much ground was lost as was gained."

In way of curiosity, what ground would you say has been lost?

March 09, 2009 3:38 PM  

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