In Psalms, King David writes that the honor and beauty of a Jewish woman is contained in her unique quality of inwardness. By contrast, today with rare exception, we have come to value only that which is public. The more public something is, the more worthwhile it is. Success in our society is often associated with public attention. Our business and political leaders, athletes, performers and authors dazzle us with their celebrity, and we keep our eyes on headlines, magazine covers and talk shows in order to stay abreast of who’s who. Publicity and media have become conclusive measures of success, eclipsing more legitimate ways of validating or invalidating accomplishment.
The allure of public roles creates misperceptions when it comes to the roles of men and women in Jewish life. Take prayer for example. Judaism mandates that men should pray in a quorum of ten (“minyan”). Such a gathering often takes place in public – most often in a synagogue. Women on the other hand are not required to pray in a minyan and, therefore, have fewer organized opportunities to pray in public. This remains a source of frustration for those women who perceive the public aspect of male prayer as an opportunity for positive group support or a special chance to get closer to G-d. They see how a man receives a great deal of positive reinforcement for reading the Torah in synagogue, with pats on the back, congratulations and the like. They feel left out by not having access to the physical props for enhancing male spirituality – the prayer shawl, tefillin and contact with the Torah scroll, for example.
In reality, today’s Jewish woman has reason to feel that public attention is the only barometer of success and the only meaningful route to personal satisfaction. Society validates public performance and neglects the importance of the private, inner aspects of life which women so naturally command. Recognizing the value of her innate inner strength and embracing the Torah path based on this underrated gift remain among the most awesome challenges facing the modern Jewish woman. The truth of the matter is that, in spite of abundant misperceptions and misleading conclusions about the role of the Jewish woman, Torah has always valued her ability to forge a profound relationship with G-d and to build the Jewish Nation in a style that is unique, private and understated.
It is worth exploring the Torah concepts that validate the feminine trait of privacy. According to Judaism, achievements that are not subject to public scrutiny are among mankind’s most precious. Moshe Meiselman in his book, Jewish Women in Jewish Law (Ktav Publishing/Yeshiva University Press, 1978) states that our internal landscape, rather than external events, is more valuable than the image we project in public. Our public conduct is often based on personal agenda. By contrast, our character traits, our feelings and our unspoken acts of kindness remain unaffected by ulterior motivation. Women more than men have a natural mastery of this inner level of life (as discussed in previous classes). Since women are in touch with their most private selves, they have the ability to relate to others on a profound level and to function effectively in this unseen realm.
Given her innate sense of privacy, the Jewish woman’s enormous potential for accomplishment accompanies her wherever she goes. Thus, Torah assigns her the responsibility of sanctifying any space she inhabits. At home, at work or in the community, a woman is charged with transforming every physical space into a spiritual domain fit for G-d’s presence. In the Jewish tradition, a married woman visits the mikvah, a pool of natural water in which she immerses after every monthly cycle, according to Jewish law. She sanctifies this womb-like environment, a close companion to the first space a baby inhabits and one of the most profoundly private spaces in the human life cycle.
Each of us wants to leave an indelible mark on the world. Society encourages us to do so with a maximum of showmanship and public attention. In traditional Judaism, the more externally focused rituals assigned to men are easily misconstrued as more important than the more private path that Torah assigns women. If we turn our backs on secular measures of accomplishment, however, we understand how Torah recognizes a woman’s ability to pray and to establish a deeply personal relationship with G-d, independent of the more proscribed route assigned men. Privacy is the hallmark of a woman’s spirituality as well as the tool with which she creates sanctity in this world.
Responses to this and any other “Women in Judaism” classes are welcome. Material may be reprinted on the bulletin board at the Jewish Renaissance Center website (www.JewishRenaissance.org).
Lecture by Mrs. Feige Twerski, adapted from “Privacy: Is It a Feminine Trait?” published 1993, in The Jewish Women’s Journal. Mrs. Twerski provides insight into the challenges facing the family today, with emphasis on the role of the contemporary Jewish woman. For a listing of her cassette offerings, please call 1-800-878-5000.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and Torah.org.