Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Charedi Female Empowerment?

Did you know that charedi society is big on women's liberation and female empowerment?

No, I didn't know that either. However, Agudath Israel's spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran, makes precisely such a claim!

In an article in the Forward entitled "How Ultra-Orthodoxy Is The Most Feminist Faith," Rabbi Shafran opens by discussing the economic catastrophe of charedi society. To his credit, he does not deny its existence, and he even admits that much of the wider alarm about this is clearly due to concern about its ramifications for wider society, rather than being due to irrational anti-charedi hatred.

Unfortunately, he presents the false claim that the charedi dedication to mass-kollel is due to the fact that they "sincerely and strongly believe that it constitutes a powerful spiritual merit for the protection of Klal Yisrael." This is something that I have shown on several other occasions to be false - they go to kollel entirely for other reasons, and they do not at all seriously believe that it provides a powerful spiritual protective merit.

Rabbi Shafran also claims that charedim, in response to government cutbacks in financial aid (due to the terrible state of the budget), "rather than rise up and rebel, have simply lowered their living standards accordingly." I found that odd, because to the best of my recollection, charedim most definitely did rise up and rebel, shutting down streets with mass rallies, protesting the government to be Amalek and suchlike.

Anyway, let's get to the main point. The purpose of Rabbi Shafran's article is to argue against the claim that charedi women are oppressed. Rabbi Shafran argues that women's empowerment is linked to their becoming wage-earners, and decreasing economic dependence on their husbands. He points to the very high employment rate of charedi women, particularly in hi-tech, as proof that charedi women are empowered and liberated. Rabbi Shafran claims that they are proudly prepared to "juggle families and professions" in order to enable their husbands to learn Torah.
Really?
First of all, empowerment means giving women the choice to pursue a career, not forcing them to do so. Charedi girls are relentlessly indoctrinated throughout their school years to believe that they must work very hard in order to support their husbands in kollel. And they have very little choice in the matter, given that their husbands are conditioned to have no secular education and no desire to work.

Second, the womens' empowerment movement had to confront the difficulties of juggling families and career, and it is generally recognized that aside from exceptional people, it is often very hard to fully pursue both. But charedi women are firmly taught that they must have as many children as possible, aside from shouldering virtually the entire financial burden. This creates enormous strain.

Third, it is not as though charedi women are empowered to choose whatever career they want, or to choose careers that require a full academic education. They can't become doctors or lawyers or therapists. Both Litvishe leader Rav Steinman and Shas leader Rav Shalom Cohen have prohibited girls from getting academic degrees. They are expected to shoulder the financial burden of raising a large family on a single income without even having proper academic qualifications.

Fourth, it is not as though charedi women are empowered in non-financial ways. They are expected to obey their husbands. They do not have any Knesset representation. There is a shocking report that charedi women are ranked eighth in Israel for life expectancy, while charedi men are ranked second. The low life expectancy of charedi women, coupled with their much-higher-than-average rate of breast cancer, was the subject of a special Knesset hearing. The charedi MKs didn't show up to the hearing. A group of charedi women, bitter at what they describe as the charedi woman's life of slavery, launched a political party to represent their interests, because charedi MKs won't do so. A prominent member of the charedi establishment responded by issuing ugly threats against them. Strangely, none of this was mentioned in Rabbi Shafran's article.

Rabbi Shafran cites the hard-working woman of the Eishes Chayil prayer, who engages in agriculture and trade, as the traditional model that the charedim are following. (Let's leave aside the fact that charedim usually claim that this entire prayer, like Shir HaShirim, isn't actually talking about women at all.) But the traditional Jewish woman was certainly not forced to be the sole breadwinner for the family! The charedi system has overturned the traditional roles of husbands and wives, enshrined in the kesubah and in millennia of halachah and Jewish history.

Charedi women are indoctrinated and forced to work as hard as possible, while raising as many children as possible, to support husbands that are going against their traditional, Torah-prescribed duty to support their families, and they are still treated like second-class citizens. "Charedi female empowerment"? Don't make me laugh.

35 comments:

  1. I don't read Avi Shafran columns, because he doesn't engage his readers and hides from critics. As though this was still the 1990s. But if this is what he wrote, it merely underscores how the Beltway culture he interacts with has influenced him. The Republicans used a similar strategy in Gulf War, under President G.W.Bush. They tried to enlist feminist support for the cause, by showing how women were oppressed under Hussein's Iraq. Well, it didn't work. Republicans are NOT feminists, and that strategy didn't endear himself to them. It was a mistake to pander to democrats - who were predisposed to hate the GOP no matter what they did - by the use of a viewpoint the base doesn't share. That and other similar things only caused disillusionment with the GOP majority that voted him in, and of course never won him any support anyway from the left.

    Just so. Avi Shafran, as the token "go to" orthodox Jew for comment, has tried very hard to endear himself to the political establishment, and has become something of a Washington RINO in the process. Why, in the last article of his that I read, he adopted the sickening left wing defense mechanism to say orthodox Jews didn't vote for Obama because we were "racists." Disgusting! But he said it. So its not surprising to me that he's now trying to portray Orthodox Jews as "feminists", as though that were something to aspire to.

    Avi Shafran, if you're reading this - you have to embrace who you are. Any good PR man will tell you that. Orthodox Jews are proudly NOT feminist, and have nothing to be ashamed of for that. To the contrary, it's to their credit that they stick to their guns in a liberal environment. [The Charedi world, which is only one portion of orthodoxy, undermine themselves by professing "kol kevudah bas melech penima", yet asking their women to work to support their men.] You will never win points by pandering to the other side. Unlike (apparently) yourself, traditional values of orthodoxy has nothing to hide from. It can defend itself from its critics. It need not adopt a pose it doesn't truly believe in.

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    1. But DF, the whole irony is that he's *not* promoting the "traditional values of Orthodoxy" with this column either, either in what he's claiming or, especially, in the reality.

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    2. What is a feminist? In what way are Orthodox Jews not feminists? Since when did Orthodox Judaism have 1 voice anyway?

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    3. Nachum - you're right. And that's what irks me. In any discussion, whenever I point out that traditional Jewry (as well as all of human history) is not in favor of working women as the default rule, someone invariably comes back with "what about the kollel wives?" Educated people know that Charedim/Lakewood - every bit as reformative as Reform itself - doesn't represent the values of traditional Judaism. But lesser educated people, or Baalei Teshuvah reared on the milk of Artscroll, aren't aware of that. And so to them it appears strange that orthodoxy should be opposed to feminism. Indeed, for the Charedim, it's been an open contradiction for years. They cant get an aliyah b/c its not kovod hatzibbur, but they can go out and work as a physical therapist???!

      Traditional, conservative (small C) Jews have no problem stoutly going with tradition, and prohibiting women from certain roles for the same historic reasons as before. But these are the ones who still believe that the men have certain responsibilities of their own. Charedim, though, have a real problem. If women can work in public profile roles, why can't they be a shul president? Why, indeed, can't they be the rabbi? If Avi Shafran is indicative, the Charedim are going right down the same path as the heterodox groups his own group so often mocks.

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    4. Hy -

      Feminism is, "The theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes." A feminist is a person who supports feminism.

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  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KxEeL-HcIY - so empowered....

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  3. Sorry to say but Rabbi Shafran is selling the same spoiled and discredited "facts" for many years . He is the front spokesman for a corrupt and mysoginic system that enslaves women and exonerates men in the guise of "learning". The whole chareidi system is about to collapse and Rabbi \shafran is its "Major Bob"

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  4. (Let's leave aside the fact that charedim usually claim that this entire prayer, like Shir HaShirim, isn't actually talking about women at all.)

    According to whom is Shir Hashirim speaking about women?

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    1. אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו

      (Please forgive spelling and/or grammatical mistakes. I wrote that from memory.)

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  5. R' Slifkin, all good points. What about the irony though (yes, I know the title was the choice of the publisher, not the author) that R' Shafran is using the very thing that Charedi society vilifies (ie feminism, women's liberation/empowerment) to defend them??

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  6. I forgot my handleFebruary 4, 2015 at 1:01 AM

    "Hareidi" or "Chareidi" is a label, and in Israel, the social law is that every person must have a social class identifier. It's a really sucky culture that Israeli Chareidim, along with all other Israelis, are part of.

    One thing I am absolutely sick of, is the term, chareidi, being used to describe any time of American Jew. If it sticks, American Jewish culture will be heading toward the kind of strife and decay that ails Israeli society, culture and politics.

    I would be described as ultra-orthodox, yeshivish, black-hat and in similar terms, but I object to being a Chareidi! (unless you pay me for it ;)

    Anyway, I think Shafran's main point is that UO women are not second-class, oppressed, repressed, subservient, etc. And he is right about that. His point is that, all-in-all, (ultra)orthodox women are de-facto "empowered", and that criticism of the UO culture for prohibiting female accomplishment comes from prejudice.

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  7. "They can't become doctors or lawyers or therapists. "

    They can in America -- I know some. But as you have often pointed out, America is different.

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    1. I disagree that they can become doctors or lawyers in America. I'm about 10 years out of high school, and I attended both a Bais Yaakov and a Modern Orthodox high school. I know exactly ZERO girls who became a doctor or a lawyer who went through the entire Bais Yaakov system, did shidduchim and still subscribe to that system.

      A Brooklyn or Lakewood Bais Yaakov graduate would be extremely looked down upon and discouraged if she expressed interest in attending medical or law school these days.

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    2. If there are Chareidi female doctors or lawyers, odds are they're BT's who got those jobs before seeing the light of Torah.

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  8. I am not disputing anything you've written here, but whether religious or secular and regardless of family size or if her husband is employed or not, I don't know a ANY woman under the age of 45 in the US that feels "empowered" to make the choice to work or not, because in today's reality it's not a choice. Couples cannot make ends meet without both working. And single moms are living a financial nightmare when they are the only source of incone. My heart goes out to them.

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  9. Can't believe you didn't highlight this piece from a frum publication:
    https://a.disquscdn.com/uploads/mediaembed/images/1692/3517/original.jpg
    (H/T Fred McDowell)

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  10. Charedi society is feminist in the same way that Nasser was a Zionist

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  11. Have you been to a Charedi home? The women hardly need empowerment. It's the men I worry about.

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    1. That's very true, and not noticed enough. The men of that society have become very.... feminized, I guess you would call it. I regularly see them doing the shopping and dropping off the kids [kollel hours are apparently very lax], and I know quite a few of them have to fend for themselves for dinner. Sure, they may be making the Kiddush and Hamotzi every week, but its hollow. The head of those homes is the wife, and her father.

      If anyone thinks that a good thing, don't kid yourself. Kids, particularly boys, need a strong father figure. Who knows if, quietly, that's not a primary cause of all the "at risk kids" out there.

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  12. "They can't become doctors or lawyers or therapists. "

    Can the men? This isn't a gender issue. It's a class issue. The rabbis and their wives (who run the schools) are the only ones who get to have cool jobs.

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  13. Its truly amazing that Agudas Israel actually *pays* Shafran. His illogical, inane columns have done untold damage to the Haredi reputation.

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  14. 'I don't know a ANY woman under the age of 45 in the US that feels "empowered" to make the choice to work or not, because in today's reality it's not a choice.'

    There actually are many, and I know some. One is my brother's wife. She has not had formal employment since they got married a dozen years ago. But it takes choices that most of us won't make. They moved to a far-out exurb with much lower housing costs. My brother works from home most of the time, saving commuting expenses. And my ten year old niece is in public school.

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  15. On the other hand, I've heard Chabad claim that one of their sources of recruits are radical feminists who love the idea of complete separation of women from men because they can't stand being around guys.

    At any rate, here's the difference Rav Shafran can't grasp: in secular feminism women work so they fulfill their full potential and don't have to be dependent on their husbands. In Chareidism women work so their husbands can be dependent on them and avoiding fulfilling any potential.

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  16. I hate to be this blunt about it -- The Communist apparatchiks who wrote Pravda and who regularly "edited" encyclopedias to rewrite history knew full well that what they were writing was not true. I wonder if Avi Shafran feels he has no choice but to intentionally distort reality or whether the new generation of Aguda leadership has drunk the Kool-Aid and somehow convinced themselves of the truth of their ludicrous position.

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    1. The different is that the Communists knew they were creating a new world order to replace the old one. The Agudah is trying to rewrite the past because there is no such thing as "new"

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  17. "Charedi society is feminist in the same way that Nasser was a Zionist"

    Define feminist. I think over all, the Torah spreads out the power pretty evenly, if you look at all of life. you see this in Charedi life. In many ways, the women have much more freedom and power than the men.

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  18. Traditional, conservative (small C) Jews have no problem stoutly going with tradition, and prohibiting women from certain roles for the same historic reasons as before.

    Really, now? How about the following?

    ואע"פ שיש לה שכר צוו חכמים שלא ילמד אדם את בתו תורה. מפני שרוב הנשים אין דעתן מכוונת להתלמד אלא הן מוציאות דברי תורה לדברי הבאי לפי עניות דעתן. אמרו חכמים כל המלמד את בתו תורה כאילו למדה תפלות. במה דברים אמורים בתורה שבעל פה אבל תורה שבכתב לא ילמד אותה לכתחלה ואם למדה אינו כמלמדה תפלות:

    1) Many (most?) conservative Jews do teach women Torah. This seems more radical religiously than working.
    2) Do we really believe that in general they they will distort the words of the Torah due to their limited intelligence? ("the same historic reasons" that you mention above)
    3) Do female Traditional, conservative Jews vote? As far as I know they do.

    Outside the Chasidic ghettos in the US where the men are also limited (e.g. they don't learn English) where do you see these prohibitions enforced? Or do you exclude the US as non-traditional?

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  19. Um.... no, most BY girls in America do not become doctors and lawyers. I went to a BY school and will actually be starting medical school this August. It's been a tough journey, let me tell you, at least in the years that I was fresh out of school. The guilt that weighed on my shoulders when I went to college - and this was Touro - was enourmous. I don't care what anyone else tells you, but the BY chinuch system is totally against high powered careers for women.

    Oh sure, women can become therapist, and teachers and whatever.... but doctors? Lawyers? That's a huge threat. Then it's no longer about "supporting her husband" but about a woman actually pursuing her OWN goals and interests. Uusally, people don't invest a decade of their life to something that isn't a deep passion. I'm not sure what law is like, but today, with medicine, you need to demonstrate deep commitment to even get accepted.

    This brings me to my next point, regarding Rabbi Shafran's article. I couldn't help almost laughing when I read the article. Empowering women is not about enlisting them to whatever purposes chardei leadership decide. Oh, the men need to learn? Sure, let the women kick in and be the breadwinners.

    Feminism is about giving women a choice to do what THEY want, whether that is to be full-time moms or puruse whatever career they want. And it's about valuing their contributions to society in the same way men's contributions are valued. In secular society, this is where "equal pay" for both sexes kicks in. Charedi society, however, will not value a women's torah in the same way it does a man's, even if it is on equal footing.

    And as a last point, I find it disturbing that charedi leadership puts on women serious responsibilities, but does not correspondingly take the charedi women seriously. We're good for earning money, but our religious status has not changed a bit in accordance. Chardei schools still don't teach gemara. Charedi leadership are up in arms about women wanting to join the political arena. So women have the acumen, brains, and resilience to raise large families and be sole breadwinners... but are not taught gemara even on the most basic level. This is the repect she earns.

    The "empowerment" of women in charedi society was never about the women. It was about using the women the help the men.

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  20. I don't want to give the misconception that I am a big expert in feminism but after a cursory review of this social movement I can't see how anyone would disagree with its basic values or be shocked at how economically and physically opressed women have been up until the 1960's.. Looking at the First Wave of feminsim women were fighting for basic things like the right to own property, to control the property the owned, execute wills, have a job without their husbands written consent, purchase land, have the right to vote, allowing divorce on the grounds of physical cruelty, etc. Second Wave Feminism, which began in the 1960's, predominatly focused on raising awareness and creating protective laws against domestic abuse, rape, and combating gender descrimination in the work place giving rise to the equal pay act, pregnancy descrimination act, and equal employment act. Another key issue was the legalization of using contraception like the pill and raising awareness of rape within marraige. The Third Wave also focused on fighting sexual abuse. In short almost all legislation that has been passed in the Western World due to all three waves of feminism has centered around the right to own property, the right to not be beaten up, discriminated against, and raped. Exactly what aspect of feminsim is being objected to and exactly who can blame women for not being pleased with the historical hardships that they have fought to overcome?

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    1. Thank you! That is beautifully written and very well said.

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  21. Um.... no, most BY girls in America do not become doctors and lawyers. I went to a BY school and will actually be starting medical school this August. It's been a tough journey, let me tell you, at least in the years that I was fresh out of school. The guilt that weighed on my shoulders when I went to college - and this was Touro - was enourmous. I don't care what anyone else tells you, but the BY chinuch system is totally against high powered careers for women.

    Congratulations, and I'm sorry for bad experience that you had. However, we need to make some distinctions here:

    You did get the education that you needed to empower you to eventually go to medical school. And you had the opportunity to continue to your undergraduate studies in a orthodox environment. So while you grew up in a more right wing society that you would have liked (and I don't want to minimize that), you were given the tools to continue on your own path, even if that path diverged from philosophically from what your teachers desired. This contrasts sharply with the efforts in Israel to limit academic study for women altogether.

    So when you say that BY is against high powered careers for women, this may be true philosophically, but they (or at least the one that I know about) do actually empower their students educationally to go off in another direction (perhaps unintentionally). The fact that you learned chemistry and biology in High School, even if only so that you could become a nurse instead of a doctor, is significant.

    Chardei schools still don't teach gemara. Charedi leadership are up in arms about women wanting to join the political arena. So women have the acumen, brains, and resilience to raise large families and be sole breadwinners... but are not taught gemara even on the most basic level. This is the repect she earns.

    I'll say that the boys are similarly limited in actuality. They aren't taught Hebrew, and they are taught Gemara only and in a very unsystematic (and perhaps traditional) fashion. I have no doubt, that my daughters have gotten a better Jewish education (and secular education for that matter) than my sons outside of the exposure (or over-exposure) to Gemara. Which doesn't directly address your complaint, other than to say that, as above, intentions and results should be separated.

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  22. I keep hearing of these Haradi women only workplaces (like the picture) I always wonder what percent of them have the women working at or near minimum wage? It seems like it could be a major vector for exploitation

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  23. I don't want to give the misconception that I am a big expert in feminism but after a cursory review of this social movement I can't see how anyone would disagree with its basic values

    1) Honestly, that is because you don't understand how a traditional society works. Two examples,

    A) When the state of Israel was established, many Rabbis, including Rav Kook, thought that women should not have the right to vote or hold office.

    B) Today in New Square, women are not allowed to drive. Notice the justification (emaphasis mine):

    “It’s considered not tzniusdik [modest] for a woman to be a driver, not in keeping with the out-of-public-view [attitude],” village spokesman Rabbi Mayer Schiller said. “If you can imagine in Europe, would a woman have been a coach driver, a wagon driver? It would’ve been completely inappropriate.”

    Women didn't drive wagons (in the real or imagined) Europe, so they should not drive cars now.

    2) The association, fair or not, of feminism with the sexual revolution, not all of which is consonant with halacha, even for the more liberal among the Orthodox.

    3) One commonly used definition of "feminism" is as a political grouping which is associated with liberal/left policies relating to feminism or not which are opposed by those favoring conservative/right policies. So, *on average*, a an American political feminist is probably more likely to support the Palestinians vs. the Israelis, regardless of the general welfare of women in the respective locations.

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    1. > “If you can imagine in Europe, would a woman have been a coach driver, a wagon driver? It would’ve been completely inappropriate.”

      Either this justification is a lie, a platitude to cover up real reasons, or the leaders of New Square don't understand how cars have changed society. A coach driver is analogous to a bus driver, and a wagon driver to a trucker. Not to individuals driving themselves around in private cars.

      That is, of course, leaving aside the question of whether the premises themselves are valid: that for a woman to drive a wagon would have been inappropriate and that what was appropriate in Europe a hundred fifty years ago does or should have anything to do with what's appropriate in America today.

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  24. By the by, there is now overwhelming evidence that putting young children into daycare and not breastfeeding them is basically child abuse. Mainstream feminism is basically institutionalized child abuse and Haredi society, to add to its other sins, has adopted its worst feature (OK second worst after mass contraceptive abortion) and intensified it by making working women neglect 12 kids rather than the average 2.4.

    By the by, before anyone flips out, I'm in favour of women (who want) wearing tefillin and stuff.

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