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.