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Why Modern Orthodoxy Shortchanges Women

interprofessional 300 Why Modern Orthodoxy Shortchanges Women

University of North Dakota

9:30 AM Shabbos morning. As I hopelessly try to find kavana somewhere between Kriyat Shma and Shmona Esre, my wobbly toddler climbs up on the couch next to me. And then onto my shoulders, from there to the back of the couch, and finally to the window sill where he is finally content gazing at the birds.

My 9-year-old strains to insert an earring and close the back. As she gets more and more frustrated, the back falls to the floor, rolling, and she scurries to find it before her baby brother does.

As I weigh my options (finish davening?  help with the earring search? distract the toddler?) I am reminded of the NY Magazine piece I read on Friday:

At one recent Friday Shabbat service … Sara Hurwitz ….chases after her toddler son, Davidi, who is clearly at home careering around the temple. For the standing prayers, she hoists Davidi up in her left arm while holding the prayer book in her right. When seated, she lets her son knead her face. Occasionally, she ambles over to her fellow worshippers sharing the female side of the gender divider—the mechitza—making sure they know which page the cantor is singing from.

Then a thought hits me. Why are we doing this to ourselves? I know the answer. It comes in the voice of my seminary teacher (the progressive, intellectual, feminist seminary), as she admonished us in the beit midrash:

Davening should take at least 40 minutes!”

“Anything other than a primary source doesn’t count!”

“Books with large typeface and no footnotes are not serious.”

“I wonder at girls from seminaries that are all starry-eyed about Hashem, but do little textual learning.”

With Modern Orthodoxy embracing feminism, women are encouraged to adopt a religious experience that is as close as possible (under halachic limitations) to traditional male observance. Negotiating the divide between feminism and Jewish sources was a constant undercurrent in much of my studies. Yet, ironically, the traditional approach to women’s observance, which is more experiential,  is so much more in-tune with women’s everyday lives.

The drive for maximal observance coupled with American Modern Orthodoxy’s penchant for intellectualism, leaves many women facing strong feelings of inadequacy. I know that there are lots of women, who are not burdened by a family or have extraordinary abilities and can devote their time and energy to intensive Torah  study. But is it fair to hold ALL women to this standard? Does anyone really think that an average Jewish mom’s day, which looks something like

wake up

diaper change

packed lunches

clean up spilled milk


carpool to daycare/school

commute                                                            play date

56 emails in your box                                         grocery shopping

sales meeting                                                      Lego

get that report                                                    make lunch

the boss wants to see you                                   tantrum

commute                                                            clean up


ballet/soccer lessons

break up a fist fight

mad dinner rush

bedtime story



get back into bed



leaves  enough brainpower for an intimate Rambam chevruta or a leisure Mincha/Maariv break? So why should our girls be indoctrinated that this is the right way to be a frum woman and anything less is subpar?

God exempted women from certain mitzvot not because women are somehow inferior, but because He doesn’t expect us to be the superwomen we are pushing ourselves to become! That’s why the traditional approach to women’s observance is so refreshing in our society obsessed with over-achievement. It sets the minimum standard and then validates women’s choices to take on additional mitzvot as an individual spiritual choice based on personal circumstances.

Over the years, I have met outstanding talmidot chachamim among charedi women (yes, the hardline Meah-Shearim types), who can quote freely from Gemara, Rishonim and Acharonim and field questions without blinking an eye. I’ve also met highly-educated frum women, whose current challenge is to make the time for the morning brachot. The beauty is that in a traditional society both types of women feel validated.

Despite the smirks of the progressive, many women do find spiritual fulfillment in personality development and everyday experiences, even when these amount to doing chesed with one’s own family and cleaning one’s own house. It may not be enough to satisfy the intellectual types, but neither should this be a cause for ridicule.

A few months ago, Rav Avraham Yosef (Rav Ovadiya’s son) was asked whether a woman who used to daven twice a day and can no longer manage that due to family obligations is required to do hatarat nedarim. He said no. Since this is a temporary hiatus (even if it lasts 20 years), there is no need for an annulment.

I found that so beautiful. With God’s help, there will be times for us to daven and learn without turning our lives into a balancing act. God is happy with us even if we don’t find the time for a full-blown Shacharit  and don’t open a “primary source” for years. There is no reason to subjugate our relationship with Him to feminism’s preconceived notions.

How do you maintain spirituality without going overboard?

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  1. I like this line: “God is happy with us even if we don’t find the time for a full-blown Shacharit and don’t open a “primary source” for years. ”
    I’m a little older than you and while the seminary I went to encouraged serious study, it was always understood that family took priority.

    To say that davening should take X amount of time is counterproductive.
    Hannah @A Mother in Israel´s last [type] ..Do Children Need (External) Rewards?

  2. Ilene Rosenblum Guttman says:

    It is my understanding that even men are only obligated to say Shema and Shemonah Earei. While women today lead incredibly busy lives, I know that in many families, men do too. I know men who wake up each day at the crack of dawn in order to daven in a minyan and workout before starting a full day of work. Then when they get home they assist with childcare and learn during the week. So are we expecting them to be supermen?

    Regarding seminaries, I studied at a place where textual learning from primary sources was emphasized. When given an opportunity to learn fulltime or at least many hours a week when a woman is not married or have children, I think she should study from the sources if so inclined. As a professional, college-educated woman, I would have felt that it was not a good use of my time if I was spoon fed material by a rabbi or only learned books in English.

    I think it’s important to understand that there is a cycle, and sometimes we have more time to dedicate to Torah than others. Davening, Torah study, and caring for family and doing other acts of Chessed are Avodat Hashem. I believe that Hashem accepts them all lovingly.

    1. Leah says:

      @Hannah, i am familiar with your seminary (learned there myself). My favorite line from there was “Ima is before MA, and Mr. is before Master’s.”

      @Ilene, very true. Each one of us needs to study on her own intellectual level and our ability to devote energy to learning and extra mitzvot fluctuates over time.

      1. Never heard that one, Leah. :)
        Hannah @A Mother in Israel´s last [type] ..The Zen of Public Breastfeeding

        1. Leah says:

          May be Rav K. only made that one up after your time.

  3. As to your question, “Why are we doing this to ourselves?” I think the answer is, as you hinted, that for some women it’s absolutely necessary to express themselves in artistic or intellectual ways while they are raising children. They don’t necessarily do it because of outside pressure.
    Hannah @A Mother in Israel´s last [type] ..Hyper-Modest Abusive Mother of 12 Released

  4. Julie says:

    My grandmother (A”H) used to wander around her house, cleaning, picking things up, cooking and generally keeping house, all the while murmuring prayers to Hashem that she’d learned as a child. She was the most connected to Hashem out of all the women I’ve known and not because she took out 40 minutes to daven, but rather because she was in CONSTANT communication with HIM. This article is excellent and articulates something I’ve been thinking about for a while. On the flip side however, how do you deal with your kids when they say, but Ima, you didn’t daven this morning…?

  5. Interesting post Leah.
    I guess you could say that many men are also living stressful, overtaxed lives, but still push themselves to find time for davening and daily learning (e.g. daf Yomi).
    So maybe we women are “just making excuses”???
    But the reality is they are motivated by a Torah mitzvah, while a woman’s mitzvah in these areas is self-imposed. It’s adding another layer of pressure on ourselves, you like you say.
    Interesting, I know of two women (one in Israel and one in Australia) who both worked extremely hard to get ordination in the conservative movement, who gave up the rabbinate after they became mothers. They found the balance absolutely impossible.
    I wonder if anyone has ever researched female rabbis about their experience in the rabbinate in the long term.
    Naomi @´s last [type] ..99 VIPs in One Day: My Take on Kishor Conference 2012

    1. Julie says:

      Naomi, how many men do you know who pack lunches, get the kids dressed and get them out to school/gan. While my husband is in Shul davening (the required 40 minutes) I’ve got a load in the machine, packed 6 meals to go, made sure that all books were in the backpacks and kissed them/drove them off to school. And to be honest I wouldn’t want it the other way around.

  6. Liz says:

    Thank you! Something I’ve often wondered about and don’t hear enough people talking about. I went to a very women-forward, progressive-Orthodox day school (Yeshiva of Flatbush) and I’ve struggled with this ever since, and it’s only gotten worse as I’ve managed to build a family and hold down full-time jobs.

    I think girls’ education needs to include all facets of Jewish life, and we need to understand better that just because it may look beautiful when men are being spiritual in their way – there may be other forms of high, pure spirituality for women, just as beautiful but in fact, even more so.

    It’s seems like Jewish Modern Orthodox feminism went all the way to the point where women have to push to be more like men in order to fulfill feminist ideals. Is that really what feminism is?

    I’ve been meaning to post about how hard it’s been being a working mother, but you just reminded me of this whole other element which I will now have to add… Thanks.
    Liz´s last [type] ..Fifty-Two Frames: Doors.

  7. Rivki says:

    “I’ve also met highly-educated frum women, whose current challenge is to make the time for the morning brachot.”

    I’m not sure that I would qualify as “highly-educated,” but I can definitely relate to that sentence. When I was in seminary at Neve Yerushalayim, I loved the intellectual delving into the text that I got from my classes. I loved going through the meforshim on the parsha, or megillah, etc. I was also gung-ho with davening, saying the whole kris shema al hamittah, etc. etc.

    Now, B”H, I have three kids, the oldest being 3 1/2 years old. When I get to daven on Shabbos, I’m ecstatic. When I have some down time, I usually use it to relax, not to crack open a sefer. Occasionally, my husband and I will learn something together on Friday night, but those moments are few and far between.

    I keep myself in tune spiritually through my conversations with my friends, through shiurim that I take over the phone, through my partner in torah, which is only once a week, and for an hour. Sometimes I read tehillim on Shabbos morning. It’s been a while, but I’ve also found reading books like “The Maggid Says” would boost my spiritual feeling.

    But it’s taken me a few years to come to terms with my avodas Hashem being so drastically different than when I was in seminary. Great post.
    Rivki´s last [type] ..Father’s Day Thoughts About Tatty

  8. Leah says:

    @Julie, Your description of your grandmother is so heartwarming. I bet her kids didn’t ask her why she hadn’t davened in the morning. The connection with Hashem was just obvious

    @Naomi, that’s the crux of the issue. Men are obligated to learn no matter how busy they are and women are not. Each gender should structure life around the Divine will, not bend Divine will around the latest trends.

    @Liz, we went to similar schools and I agree that it’s hard enough being a working mom without the added pressure of doing everything men do only better.

    @Rivki, I am happy this resonated with you. It’s beautiful that you find the time to nourish yourself intellectually and spiritually, while not loosing sight of the big picture.

  9. Ariella says:

    I agree with Hannah. I don’t think any woman continues to learn and to be meticulous about davening unless it is something she feels is essential for her. And I really think it’s a completely positive thing. How much you invest in that is up to you. There was a woman who used to live down the street from me who hired a babysitter in the afternoon and used part of that time to daven mincha undisturbed. Now, for me that woudl have been a luxury that was beyond consideration because I only had babysitter for when I went to work. But it was important to her, the same way it is important enough for some women to treat themselves to time off to get out to meet with friends or go to the gym.

    A very RW educated young woman said about her resolve to continue davening even with babies. It’s not quite the way I would put it, but I suppose that some women can only relate to it that way. She said someone else told her, “Look, even if your kids are fussing, you’ll find 5 minutes to put on your makeup in the morning, so you could find the time to daven.”

    Plenty of women consider themselves exempt from davening but find time to go to the gym every day or to veg in front of the TV or computer for hours. If something is important to you, you make the time for it (but that doesn’t mean you have to spend 40 minutes — there are parts you can skip if you have that slow a pace) As for those who argue that it’s pointless to daven b/c you simply cannot concentrate fully, the usual halachic guideline does not give cart blanche to give up on davening altogether.

  10. Ima2seven says:

    I love this piece! I hope to share it. I was raised with feminism first, Judaism second, and having to separate the two as my relationship with Hashem has grown has been a personal challenge. I couldn’t agree with you more. I hope you will read what I wrote about happily having become a “sexist”.
    Ima2seven´s last [type] ..Trust Fall

  11. Leah says:

    @Ariella, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. As an aside, and not necessarily related to the topic, sometimes I wonder if the things we think are “essential” are a product of being conditioning and education

    @Ima2seven “My experience of egalitarianism in Judaism is the equivalent of the best behaved child in the school fighting for decades for the right to stay after school in detention.” – Brilliant!

  12. Princess Lea says:

    I have always been taught that one can find great spirituality in the most mundane. Once a woman would have felt spiritually fulfilled while running after toddlers. But today’s era, not just the Jewish one, trivializes the child raising experience. It is considered less noble than a career.

    I once heard this said: “When you are scrubbing that pot, you are fulfilling your tafkid.”

    The point is to elevate that moment when one is covered in baby drool.

    Spirituality is not just meforshim and making it to shul. If anything, if one has a baby one should stay at home; a woman is not required to daven shacharis with a minyan, nor does she have to say musaf at all.

  13. Charlie Hall says:

    ‘God exempted women from certain mitzvot not because women are somehow inferior, but because He doesn’t expect us to be the superwomen we are pushing ourselves to become!’

    God did not create the mitzvah to daven three times a day, that is a mitvah from the rabbis. And except for one widely criticized Acharonic opinion, the rabbis did not exempt women from praying the shemoneh esrei. In fact, the number of mitzvot from which women were exempted by God is quite small, and does not justify the above statement, which also inaccurately projects 21st century nuclear family roles to three thousand years ago.

  14. Leah says:

    @Princess Lea – I agreed that spirituality comes in many different forms. Stretching ourselves beyond our comfort zone in relation to others (including our kids) is also avodat hashem.

    @Charlie, there is a whole gamut of opinions about women’s obligation to pray. I am NOT arguing against women davening, learning, or keeping mitzvot shehazman graman (I am heavily involved in all three). All I am saying is that it should be a personal choice, not a self-imposed obligation resulting from social pressure (as halacha meant it to be).

  15. Aviva B says:

    Leah, thanks for a beautiful article that calls attention to overlooked realities.

    While this wasn’t the main thrust of the article, it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently, and I think it’s connected:

    Even women from societies that aren’t as influenced by “modernity” or “feminism” oftentimes will gravitate toward “spiritual” activities (davening, going to kivrei tzaddikim, chesed) – even when it’s at the expense of their families, to an obvious or not so obvious degree.

    I think the drive (which may be part of the drive for women in the more “modern” cultures to go to shul, spend time in intellectual study of texts, etc.) is because these are “easy” ways for us to feel “spiritual” and “good.”

    Easy? you say. But they’re not so easy! They require effort!

    Yes. But it’s much easier to reach a feeling of “goodness” when I have spent an hour involved in prayer – than when I’ve spent an hour trying to feed dinner to my three children who keep playing with their food and jumping up from the table.

    Taking care of a family is hard. When everything goes smoothly, I feel like “a good mother,” I am “achieving my potential.” When everything does not go smoothly (which is the more frequent case), I feel overwhelmed and inadequate.

    Isn’t it much more appealing to do something which will give me that feeling of adequacy, goodness and achievement?

    Until we internalize that putting in our best effort to the process of raising a family to the best of our ability actually makes us as “good,” “productive” and “spiritual” as if we spent the time feeling that we were rising to lofty heights of spirituality – we’re going to be pulled away.

    1. Michal says:

      I so agree with you Aviva.
      I was going to comment similar, but you said it much better than I would have.

      I listened to a shirur on Aish audio by Rav Motty Berger. Education Vs. Condtioning

      I’m paraphrasing some of the things he says here.

      ” the basic unit of values (morals/ethics) in a society is the what value does an individual human being have? The level of value and it’s hierarchy of importance of individual human beings in a social system is the measure of a society.

      A society that asks you to define yourself in economic terms: I’m a doctor, lawyer, plumber, carpenter, is downgrading you as an individual. All these labels are forms of income producing work or providers of goods and services in the market.
      the value of a human being therefore becomes his ability to produce something that society deems “valuable”.

      A mother or a housewife is not as valuable as other people because she isn’t producing an income or a commodity that can be marketed.

      Jumping forward here, the rav says that in this kind of a situation of economic labels, meaning in life is given to people with economic value. People outside the economic sphere of life tend to feel less than others. Think of retired or teenagers or disabled persons.

      I feel our conflict as Jewish women is coming from here. To the extent that we have internalized this idea that value comes from producing “something” “marketable”, we feel our lives lack meaning.

      Once Jewish women really understood and accepted that our main function was the family : shalom beit with our husbands and the raising of children. to make a mikdash for Hashem and prepare our children for the chuppah that all Jews enter into with Hashem, to be Hashem’s bride and chosen people and a nation of priests.
      That last idea is Rav Shimshon Pinkus zt”l

      thanks everyone for sharing and to baalat ha blog for the post.
      It’s given me a lot of chizuk.

      1. Shunamit says:

        Well, in my case, I (we) valued my getting a salaried job over keeping the house clean and staying home spending quality time with the kids because we couldn’t manage basic necessities on what my husband was making. We economized, we lived cheaply, but his work in construction did not provide a dependable income.

  16. Julie says:

    (1) Why on earth can’t men take on some of the responsibilities listed above that make it so hard for women to have an intellectually stimulating life? (You do realize this system is perpetuated (if not created) by men, right?)
    (2) Your life doesn’t lack meaning just because you are a housewife. Neither does mine, just because I’ve chosen to participate in the secular world. But please, let’s not cheapen halacha or Judaism by saying that scrubbing a pot is someone’s tafkid. That’s just insulting.
    (3) The bottom line is that everything is better in moderation. You don’t need to settle for Medieval conceptions of women’s abilities in order to live a more normal life. Its possible to both embrace an intellectual ideal AND change diapers (for both men and women); let’s not quote this “Ima is before MA, and Mr. is before Master’s” ridiculousness.

    1. Shunamit says:

      Agreed. Pots have to be scrubbed, chicken soup has to be cooked. It does not matter so much who does the scut work as long as it gets done.

  17. Leah says:

    @Aviva, childcare is hard work, especially when compared to the romanticized rosy pictures of motherhood we all have before we take it on. Just about any pursuit is easier and more appreciated, so it takes discipline not to get sidetracked.

    @Michal, it makes very happy that you found chizuk in this post. Economics and appreciation definitely play a big role in our satisfaction.

    @Julie, I would say that my husband is a very involved dad and I do participate in the secular society, but unless one is willing to farm out childcare almost completely, it really does get very intense. I do agree though that everyone’s lives have meaning, no matter their choice of profession (see my next post re that

  18. Elana K says:

    Just found your blog and am really identifying with your posts. I’ve been struggling with this myself recently (I have a one year old and am expecting in a few weeks). I don’t feel that I’m “frum” the way I used to be – since I barely have time to say brachot, let alone daven and learn the way I used to.
    I think there is something lacking in Jewish education although I’m not sure how it could be fixed. If I had been taught to find fulfillment through motherhood when I was single, I would have been annoyed. Now that I’m a mother, I wish I had been taught that, instead of feeilng guilty for not having time to do all the “frum” things I had done when I was single.
    I wrote something dealing with this subject around Tisha B’av time:
    Elana K´s last [type] ..Get your hands off my belly

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