Compared with almost any era in history, women in our times have made significant inroads in the workplace. Although management analysts maintain that a glass ceiling still prevents women's access to the highest rungs of the corporate ladder, compensation and benefits levels for women vis-a-vis their male counterparts have been equalized to some degree. Furthermore, harassment litigation brought to national exposure within the last ten years has secured a safer, more respectful work environment for women.
We have become empowered and influential. We have become top executives, brilliant lawyers, respected doctors, and wealthy entrepreneurs. For the most part, I think we have successfully proven that, given the chance, we can do a man's job.
Unfortunately, along with this gain has come a loss. This loss relates to the de-emphasis of the uniqueness of women. In order to properly put the matter in perspective, we must first appreciate that men and women are different.
In our world of mass production, there is a drive to standardize everything. This urgency to eliminate the unusual or the different has affected even our understanding of what it means to be human. Today, equality among human beings has somehow come to mean that everyone is the same. But, throughout our history, the Jewish people have maintained an unwavering and at times controversial stance: men and women are different. Our 3,500-year-old tradition maintains that the genders are parallel partners, unquestionably equal in importance, but definitely not the same.
Adam and Eve
My child once asked me, When God created the world, why did God create men and women? Why not make just one kind? It's a profound question. God is infinitely powerful and easily could have created a world populated by women only or a world of men only, and fashioned a mechanism to have the one gender reproduce itself.
Instead, what did God do? "In the image of God He created him; male and female He created them" (Genesis 1:27).
In creating two distinct genders, male and female, God was indicating there is a need for that which a male can contribute to the world and a need for a female's contribution to the world -- and they are not the same thing. Everything in creation is necessary nothing was created without a purpose. Therefore the existence of two genders means we absolutely need the unique strengths of both.
The male and female contribution goes beyond the human realm; we find that the entire world is a balance of male and female. Our mystical literature teaches that the world was created through the letters of the Hebrew language, and that Hebrew words are not arbitrary symbols, but reflections of the inner reality of the entities they describe. In Hebrew, there is no "it." Every noun is either of male or female gender.
Take the Hebrew word for body, guf. Guf is a masculine term. Then you have the Hebrew word for soul, neshamah. Neshamah is feminine. In Jewish belief, the person is both neshamah and guf.
One might argue about which is more important, body or soul. Some might say the body. After all, that's the part of our being we relate to most directly; it's what we see. But what value is a body without a soul? It is like a garment without a person. Others might argue that the soul is more important, for at the deepest level, it is who we are. But what good is a soul if you don't have a body to put it in? The body is the tool with which we actualize the potential of the soul.
You have the same partnership in the Hebrew terms for tree and earth. Etz, tree, is male. Adamah, earth, is female. Without the earth, you could not have the tree, for it would not have a place from which to grow. Yet without the tree, the earth has not fulfilled its purpose. The earth sustains the tree, and the tree is an expression of the earth.
Within every human being, too, there are female and masculine properties. When we speak about the uniqueness of women or the uniqueness of men, we speak about the primary thrust of the human, but each gender includes the properties of the other. It makes sense that each human being has this balance of both masculine and feminine attributes because we are created in the image of God, and God has both masculine and feminine aspects.
This does not mean that God is a man or that God is a woman. We can't really say what God is, because God's essence is beyond human comprehension. When we say that God has both masculine and feminine properties, we are looking at the ways in which God's Presence manifests itself in the world. God acts in both masculine and feminine ways.
Understanding these manifestations requires an extensive background in Talmudic and mystical teachings. However, even those without this background can see hints of their existence in the Hebrew language itself: A common name for God in Hebrew literature is HaKadosh Baruch Hu, which means the Holy One, blessed be He -- a masculine construction in Hebrew grammar. But the Shechinah, God's Presence in this world, is a feminine construction.
Living in the Image of God
One of the responsibilities of our being "made in the image of God" is that we are supposed to act like God to the best of our abilities.
Men were given an extra share of the God-like masculine way of being. They are supposed to refine the masculine spiritual potential they have. Women were given an extra share of the God-like feminine way of being. Our task as women, then, is to refine the feminine spiritual ability we have and bring it to the highest expression we can in this world, within the particular life situations in which were placed.
This is not a small task. Yet this very difficult assignment has become even harder today because women are convinced that the womanly side of them is something either to be ignored or, at best, relegated to an inferior role in their lives.
Unfortunately, our society has bought into the masculine way of being and devalued the feminine way of being, the special feminine contribution. Our success in the workplace has often led to us acting more like men. We think that in order to succeed we must act as aggressively as men, we must dress like men, and we must stifle everything feminine. It's a man's world, we say, and the sad thing is, we believe it.
The tragic result is that a lot of really wonderful feminine properties are being lost along the way.
At a certain point in the 1960s, it became taboo to refer to women in conjunction with the home. Thankfully, we have recovered somewhat from the excesses of that period, and more women are realizing that raising a family is as honorable and important a job as paid work is outside the home, if not more so. Still society today usually sees the role of homemaker as secondary.
Our society has devalued the home and offers little or no support for the courageous woman who chooses the roles of wife and mother as her primary career. Nevertheless, I believe these women to be the unheralded heroes of our time. They are the ones who impact our lives in far deeper realms than do publicly renowned women (or renowned men, for that matter).
These are the mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and teachers who notice us and go beyond themselves to show us care and concern. It is the memories of these women that fill us with warmth and solace in the cold winters and fragile moments of our lives.
For Jewish women, therefore, the question is not, Are we able to be successful out there? By now it is clear that we can be. The real question is, Should being successful out there be our major focus in life? When we look back at our lives, is that what we'll be most proud of?
I am not suggesting that women throw away successful careers and stay at home exclusively. There is no obligation for women to stay home. And for many, economic situations require women to work outside the home. At a deeper level, women must consider their need for personal fulfillment. The Zohar, the foremost kabbalistic work of our tradition, defines the commandment to be fruitful and multiply in Genesis 1:28 to include a wide spectrum of human creativity. Modern women especially often feel the need to be active outside the home.
However, the Torah emphasizes the importance of the home. It should not be neglected or made secondary. The single most important contribution most people will make to society is bringing up good children. There is a story of a rabbi trying to explain to people how much happiness and meaning Judaism can add to their lives. A woman gets up and says, "That is very nice for you, Rabbi. You are studying and teaching. But where is your wife in the kitchen cooking fish?"
The rabbi answers, "I am proud to say that my wife is a professional woman, in charge of a facility for eight children. She is the director of the institution and is responsible for the children's physical, emotional, and spiritual needs." The audience applauds, and the woman who asked the question sits down, satisfied.
Then the rabbi adds with a smile, "Actually, the institution is my home, and those eight children are my own."
This story describes a common attitude toward family. As long as a woman is caring for children in a professional mode, as director of a facility, it is all right and she is considered a success. But running a home is not enough; the woman is secondary and unimportant. In today's upside down world, it seems working with someone else's kids is worthy of more applause than working with one's own.
The Power of Being Who We Are
Throughout the ages, in history's glorious seasons, and in times of persecution, trials, and travails, Jewish homes have served as an oasis, resistant and free of the raging storms plaguing civilization. Through it all, the Jewish people have survived because the women among them refused to compromise their values and roles in the face of the superficial and capricious fads of the societies in which they lived.
As our oral tradition states, Everything is determined by the woman. Throughout history, it has been women who have been the vigilant guardians of the Jewish home and thereby its values, morals, and ethics.
If we refuse to be ourselves, we stymie the very purpose of creation. God needs each one of us to do that which no one else can do to perfect that share of the world that was given to us to perfect. It's only in being who we truly are that we can begin to accomplish these lofty goals. And only with the strengths of both the male and the female working together can we reach the ultimate perfection of the world.
Furthermore, if we deny our feminine sides, we will only damage ourselves. The heart of this idea may have best been expressed by the Kotzker Rebbe, an outstanding Jewish educator and philosopher of the nineteenth century. He said, "If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then you are not you and I am not I."
In other words, the only way that I am I is if I am true to myself -- if I define myself according to what I know to be true and important. But if I define myself according to the predominant values of the society around me, then I am not being true to who I really am. And if the predominant value of the society is a masculine one, then I'm at risk of ignoring perhaps the most basic part of myself.