The Conversation Continues...
hat is interesting about Yisroel Besser’s essay and the responses to it is that this is not a new conversation — in fact it is actually a few thousand years old.
“I don’t want to be small” the moon said to Hashem (Chullin 60b). “And no it doesn’t help me to know that the holy tzaddikim are also small or that I will be present during the night as well as by day or even that I will be a major player in the Jewish calendar. I want to be prominent like the sun.”
Interestingly even after Hashem Himself enumerates the benefits of being small the moon remains dissatisfied and the issue remains unresolved — until this very day apparently — as evidenced by the recent conversation in the pages of the Mishpacha.
There is a reason for this lack of resolution. The moon’s issue represents an existential truth woven into the very fabric of our reality. This World values prominence power status and visibility (lip service to the contrary notwithstanding) — and if you are not prominent not powerful and not visible you will be devalued. Period. Which is not very pleasant.
It follows therefore that from a Western This Worldly secular perspective being behind the mechitzah is not where anybody would want to be. (Not that the secular world has anything much to offer us in this context reeling as they are under their avalanche of scandals scrabbling to reenact harassment codes that are eerily reminiscent of halachos like yichud negiah and tzniyus.)
But even among those who try to remain connected to the truth some find it hard to remember what has true value. No matter how many times we learn that Hashem chose Har Sinai because she was small or that Moshe Rabbeinu was anav mikol adam or that the great and mighty Dovid Hamelech said v’anochi tolaas v’lo ish — these ideas just barely make contact with our brain before they slink out the other ear.
We may know with our minds that power even if it is achieved legitimately tends to distort. Hashem is center stage not us — so a human being’s prominence is always fake on some level. We may know intellectually that being behind a potted plant in This World is an excellent plan for a good plot in the Next World yet in real life for some it’s hard not to feel marginalized.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that sitting behind the mechitzah in shul is not necessarily congruous with other aspects of many women’s lives today. Women today can be doctors and lawyers and Indian chiefs with few (if any) limitations imposed by secular society. And then they go to their son’s siddur party and have an experience similar to Rabbi Besser’s at his daughter’s graduation or find themselves in the kitchen at their niece’s sheva brachos listening to someone who doesn’t even know the kallah pontificate from amid the cacophony on the other side of the mechitzah. It creates a dissonance.
Interestingly despite one respondent’s affirmation that she loves being behind the mechitzah the Gemara in Eiruvin (100b) seems to validate the discomfort of the other letter writers. In a list of the ten curses that women suffer as a result of the sin two seem directly related to our issue: Woman will be “atufah k’evel — wrapped up like a mourner” (which Rashi says refers to hair covering but can easily be extrapolated to modest dress) and she is “chavushah b’beis ha’asurim — locked up like a prisoner ” to which Rashi notes “kol kevudah bas melech pnimah.”
As shocking as the connection might sound to our Bais Yaakov-educated ears the truism kol kevudah bas melech pnimah — a princess’s honor is within — on some level does restrict and confine women which is a curse and not a good thing. Apparently in an ideal world women would not have to set up residence behind the potted plant — remember that clothing in Gan Eden was only worn after the sin. They would not have to bite back their song and resist the urge to dance. In an ideal world tzniyus would not mean — as a frustrated MO high school student put it — judged by your “knee-us.” In an elevated world we would focus on people’s neshamos and not get sidetracked by their guf.
And this pain of being diminished is not brushed away lightly in the aggadeta in Chullin. Indeed we daven monthly for the moon to be returned to its former status.
Yet perhaps even as we acknowledge that this is not an ideal situation we can try and grasp what the moon was unwilling to hear — that being small also has its benefits.
Recently while sitting on the sidelines of a conference I thought about how not being in center stage allows for a certain clarity. I found myself aware of all the undercurrents of posturing verbal swaggering and jockeying going on which I don’t think I would have noticed if it had been at an all-women’s conference and I had been one of the posturers swaggerers and jockeyers. And for the record women can do that just as well as men.
In a recent discussion a young man told me about the trauma he experienced when because of a few technical mistakes he ended up in a much lower level yeshivah than he felt was commensurate with his abilities — he described how for weeks he was embarrassed to go out in the street for fear of someone asking him what yeshivah he was in. But in retrospect he says it was an incredibly valuable experience.
When you are at center stage when the power is in your hands — and all of us men and women are sometimes in that position — it’s tremendously difficult to remember that control and status are only a facade. But when you are at the periphery or at the bottom of the totem pole the truth of ein od milvado becomes much more accessible. The moon was demoted diminished set in the black of the night. And because of that she has always been a lodestar for the Jewish people.
In a way it is as if on this great stage of life men are asked to play charades. Act as if you are running the show as if you really have power — even though in reality you like all the rest of humanity — are needy and dependent. On that same stage women play themselves — she’asani kirtzono — acting out the prototype human being vulnerable and diminished… and perhaps more protected from illusions of grandeur.
Few humans with a healthy ego would choose to be behind the mechitzah literally or figuratively. Yet when we like the moon are put there we can draw comfort from the compensations Hashem offered the moon: Those not in the limelight have the ability if they choose to be secret agents carrying truth in a world of falsehood.
So yes there is a glass ceiling (or wall) for women in the frum world. But it is a glass ceiling not imposed by the male hegemony trying to keep women in their place but by the fragility of truth in a world of sheker. Secular society might accuse us of suffering from Stockholm syndrome — identifying with our oppressors to the extent that we’ve convinced ourselves that it is good to be oppressed. Yet there is something to be said for not drinking the Kool-Aid.
Unless we put our heads in the sand we can’t ignore the changes in status of women and their growing influence on the thought world of modern society. It’s as if as we move closer to the times of Mashiach the feminine [moon] voice — the voice that speaks of the ultimate truth — has to gain more prominence and it is. The danger for women is the lure to become pseudo suns — instead of modeling the alternative. So no I tell my students when they ask me if I want to be a Rabba or a Maharat. As an ambassador of the moon voice I don’t want to buy into a sun-like perspective that claims that if you don’t have a public role you don’t exist and that one’s worth is determined by status. Maybe after five thousand-plus years we — women the Jewish people and the moon — are ready to listen to Hashem’s responses to the moon and believe that the ability to let the other (and the Other) shine is where real power lies.
In the meantime Rabbi Besser thank you for your appreciation. It’s true that it is not always easy — prominence glitters way more than humility but we are grateful (or working on it) for being charged with the mission of modeling the message that making room for others is what Yiddishkeit is all about. We will continue to do this from behind the mechitzah — hopefully with the air conditioner at full blast.
Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 671. Miriam Kosman is a lecturer for Nefesh Yehudi and teaches Jewish thought to hundreds of Israeli university students each week. In addition she teaches a Nefesh Yehudi Kiruv Training course in Jerusalem and is the author of Circle Arrow Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism.
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