Ambition and serenity. Accomplishment and acceptance. Change and stability. Future and present. Creation and cultivation.
These are but a few of the conflicting pulls and pushes that we find ourselves torn between; a constant charge to change and to conquer on the one hand, and a sense of silence and serenity on the other.
Historically, different cultures embraced one direction over the other. The Western world, for years, has placed progress on its altar of worship. From the Industrial Revolution and onward, it has been one steady climb higher and higher on the ladder of achievement. Just the same, in the Eastern cultures of the world, the present was chosen over the future. They embraced a sense of being over becoming, contentment over desire.
In fact, David Landes, in his book the Wealth and Poverty of Nations, argues that despite the fact that the East was far more advanced than the West, the Industrial Revolution took place in Europe and not in China precisely because the East embraced the here and now, while the West valued moving forward.
In more recent years, the lines have blurred. CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies pride themselves in doing yoga between conference calls, and the Western version of success has taken root across the globe. Lawyers meditate and Buddhists have Twitter accounts. All of us recognize the need for these two all-important directions, the drive for more, and the need to put on the brakes. What we’re challenged with is balancing the two and living a healthy life with the appropriate dose of each.
Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, author of the Kuzari, argues that this is precisely the purpose of the Torah, to provide our lives with equilibrium. Six days a week we toil, one day a week we rest, allowing ourselves to find the Divinely-ordained balance between future-thinking and appreciating the moment.
Not only does the Torah address this conflict, it addresses them all. Today we celebrate a holiday with good food, singing, and friends, and tomorrow we begin the mourning period of Sefira, a time during which no weddings take place, live music is frowned upon, and haircuts are forbidden. There is Purim and there is Tisha B’av. It’s important to laugh but it’s also important to cry. The laws of Kosher teach us an allowance to indulge but also to restrain. The laws of Taharat HaMishpacha, of Family Purity, are directed at this same tension. The Torah acknowledges the value of everything but seeks to guide us in finding the perfect balance.
And so in this worldview, the laws of the Torah are not an arbitrary set of instructions. They are a blueprint for finding equilibrium in our lives, and through the Mitzvos, through the vast body of Jewish Law we are taught a perspective, an implicit education about the Jewish approach to life. Yes, it is a set of laws, black and white, and sometimes grey. But they are laws that are meant to paint a colorful picture of values and of principals which should make up our worldview.
Let me give you an example. Yesterday, my wife came home from Seven-Mile with hot dog buns. Hot dog buns! What a shanda! It was the first time we had hot dogs during Pesach in my life! Now these hot dog buns were obviously not bread but made out of potato starch. My children, not realizing this, immediately went to the sink to wash their hands before eating what they thought to be bread!
So let me ask you, is it or is it not appropriate to eat potato starch hot dog buns on Pesach? On the one hand, the Torah does not want us eating bread on Pesach; there’s a value being taught, not only a law, so maybe fake bread shouldn’t be eaten either! On the other hand, the Torah dictates what bread is, and potato starch is not bread!
Yes, I did it eat the hot dog buns, but it’s not so simple when you look at the laws as values and not simply a set of rules.
The Kabbalists take this one step further. They explain that just like individual laws teach us principles, just like Kosher teaches us the need for balance between indulgence and restraint, just like Shabbos teaches us the balance between striving and accepting, so too the laws that relate to men and women, the laws that distinguish between men and women, represent and teach us about the delicate balance between the opposing poles that we began with, between ambition and serenity, between accomplishment and acceptance, between change and stability, between future and present, and between creating and cultivating.
So for example, in Halacha, Jewish Law, men are obligated in saying Shema twice a day, putting on Tefillin, wearing Tzitzis, circumcision, and about ten other Mitzvot that women are exempt from. In Jewish literature, Torah study is emphasized for men and in that same literature, prayer is emphasized for women.
Is that to say that women cannot understand the depth of the Talmud like a man? No, that’s ridiculous. Is that to say that a man cannot pray like a woman? No, that’s equally ridiculous.
What it is perhaps saying is that G-d, in creating two genders, and G-d, in creating differences in the laws that govern those genders, sought to ensure a sense of equilibrium in the world. Prayer is a tool to cultivate a relationship and Torah study, and those aforementioned laws are tools to change the way we think and to transform the physical world. Through the holidays, through the laws, and even through people, G-d created a sense of differentiation to create a sense of balance. Just like abstaining from work on Shabbos brings a sense of ‘being’ and acceptance into our lives, a woman who is exempt from certain laws or who has certain Mitzvot emphasized, brings precisely the same values into our lives, while the men with their emphasis on Mitzvos that change and transform bring their yin to the women’s yang, and together they create a balance in the world.
And just like we asked with the potato-starch hot dog bun, should the bun be eaten or not? We similarly grapple with what precisely are the values that are meant to be taught through this gender-divide.
There are those who take the values they glean to the extreme, claiming that it is forbidden for women to drive a car, to speak before a man, and to have certain types of jobs. And there are others, on the opposite extreme who argue that there is no value being taught whatsoever, and we must find every way possible for women to do exactly what men do in the religious arena.
And I would argue for something, something admittedly ambiguous, and not so clearly defined, but something in the middle – I believe the Torah is teaching us values, the Torah is teaching us the need for these two forces in our lives, the drive for creating and accomplishing, and the sense of serenity and cultivation, both are needed in the human experience. And just like that is somehow accomplished by working for six days and resting on the seventh, and just like we could technically do more things on Shabbos but we don’t because we want to maintain that spirit, I would posit that we similarly, respect that gender-divide; not adding made-up laws to erase women from our society, but respecting the values that 51% of our nation is supposed to teach us.
Okay, so what does this all mean? I’ve been talking all the way up here, let’s talk in real terms.
Let me ask you a question. Who is the #1 role model for young women in April of 2016?
Beyonce! Of course! Beyonce, for all of you who just came down to earth, is a singer, song-writer, owner of fashion companies, and on the side she does some philanthropy. In some regards, I respect her, I really do. But at the same time, she is not the type of woman that I would want my daughters to look up to. Just to name one example, her modesty, and I am not even talking about the way she dresses! Last week she released an album titled Lemonade, which broadcasted to the world that her husband has been unfaithful. That was essentially the theme of the entire album.
In Judaism, there are laws of modesty that govern both men and women, but the laws that govern women are certainly more restrictive. Is it to help men? No. It’s to bring into our shared world a heightened sense of sacredness, a deeper respect for sensitivity, that’s the value that modesty teaches us.
You know who my female role model is? (Because by the way, every human has a feminine side as well as masculine, and both need to be cultivated.) You know who my female role model is? It’s my mother.
She’s a professional. She works full-time and even with six rambunctious children jumping off the walls, she brought tons of work home with her. But to me, she exemplified and exemplifies the ideals we’ve been talking about. She taught me in the way she rushed to prepare for Shabbos. She taught me in the way that she would say Tehillim every single day, before nightfall, and carve out some meaningful time with her Creator.
Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, known for his mastery of Torah, what we described as masculine in some respects, shared the following telling description of his mother: “I learned [from my mother] that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life—to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.”
I think we could all relate to that on some level. I once stood at this pulpit and mocked those eulogies that make me ravenously hungry; the eulogies where the rabbi gets up and goes on and on about the kneidlach and the Matzah Balls that old Mrs. Gross used to make. And then the children get up and talk about the Strudels and the Kugels and cakes. And I would sit at these funerals thinking to myself, “Really? Is this really all this woman accomplished in her life?”
Personally, I have a rule that I don’t make any food that takes longer to prepare than it does to eat, which limits me to cereal and toast. (My wife, thank G-d does not have the same policy!) And so my mouth would be watering and I’d be exasperated, silently pleading for these ridiculously trivial eulogies to go on.
But that’s exactly the point!!
I may value conquest, I may value achievements.
But there are lessons to be learned from making chicken soup, from the patience, from the sense of nurturing for those who will eat it, and the magical way that those foods represent to all of us the holidays, the Shabbos, Judaism itself.
So no, Judaism does not suggest that women belong in the kitchen, nor does it suggest that women are in any way second-class citizens. What it does suggest, broadly-speaking, is that we, men and women, represent different values, and through the laws of the Torah those values find expression.
Within each and every one of us there is an aspect of masculinity and an aspect of femininity. Our goal is to find the balance within by observing the balance from without. The goal is not in any way to stifle the G-d-given talents and abilities that each of us have been blessed with. We spent the past four sermons describing four remarkable women, Donna Mendes Gracias, Miriam the prophetess, Sarah Schenirrer, and Golda Meir. There are so many more we could add to the list. We could add numerous Biblical women who defied any stereotype that we would expect the “patriarchal” Bible to present. Sarah, the not-so-passive matriarch, Devorah, the judge/ warrior/ prophetess, in later years Yehudis, the brave fighter, and the list goes on.
I don’t think the Torah wants men to have a certain profession and women to have a different one. I don’t think the Torah wants us to view women as Heaven forbid, worse than men.
I think the Torah wants us to see value in cultivation, like a pregnant or nursing woman cares for her child. I think the Torah wants us to see the value of things that are intangible and yet holy, like a chicken soup made for Shabbos. I think the Torah wants us to see value in modesty, both physical as well as verbal through the emphasis on Mitzvos that take place in private or in the home and not in the Synagogue. I think the Torah wants us to see the value in patience, in the strength needed to care for a crying child and a hysterical infant. I think the Torah wants us to see the value in acceptance like the mother who accepts her grown child regardless of what he or she has accomplished. I think the Torah wants to give expression to someone that everyone in this room has met and someone that many in this room will be mourning for in just a moment, and that is our mothers. The love, the patience, the stillness, the warmth, the strength, and the stability, that is the Eishes Chayil, the woman of strength; the Jewish mother, the wife, the daughter, the Jewish women, who through our rich tradition, exemplifies these ideals.