The “Religion and Spirituality in Women’s Lives” section of the text got me thinking a lot about the positives and negatives of the institution of religion.  It can both empower women and also oppress them, but it seems like oppression is the main force when it comes to the way Orthodox Jewish women live their lives.

Strict Rules of Dress and Sexual Modesty

I have spent some time both in the UCity Orthodox community here in St. Louis, and had some Orthodox Jewish friends growing up.  While not every Jew follows these exact practices, the basics of modesty, or “tzniut”, are listed here: http://www.davening.net/tznius.html

In this community, women cover their hair, collarbone, elbows, knees, and any other part of the body that can be sexualized.  Women also MUST wear skirts, as cross-dressing of any sort is prohibiting.  Think about that- every time any of you ladies wear a pair of jeans, you are considered a cross-dresser in this community.  This is an example of such a modest woman: http://www.tznius.com/cgi-bin/product.pl?productid=9068&groupid=26

I admire the fact that these women do not strive to dress in the immodest fashions so prevalent in today’s society.  However, there are some things I personally do not understand about their culture, which leads me to:

The Secondary Role of Women in Orthodox Culture

From what I have observed in these communities:

  • Men pray in a “minyan”, which is a public gathering where ten or more men must be present.  Women must often stay home and cook.
  • While women are encouraged to be knowledgeable in Jewish customs and rituals, study is less mandatory for women than men.  Schools for men, called “yeshivas”, are much more popular than the analogous seminaries for women.
  • A woman must have children, because otherwise she risks being shunned in her community.  Generally this means having between five and ten children, sometimes even more.
  • The woman stays home and takes care of her children.  If money is tight, once the children are old enough to go to school the woman can pursue a part-time career, often social work or elementary level teaching.  While it is not unheard of, women in this community are rarely doctors, lawyers or businesspeople.
Women in this culture strike me as very similar to how Betty Friedan described women of the post-WWII suburban craze in The Feminine Mystique.  While Orthodox women claim they love their role and feel they are serving God, I wonder if secretly they ever wish for more than what their child-bearing and child-raising roles can provide.

Here’s another blog you might find interesting: http://modernorthodoxstayathomemom.blogspot.com/

And a link on women’s role in Judaism: https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:QtJFLPHhy_sJ:www.sholem.org/docs/Sara%2520Kaye.pdf+&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESgGT76dxflwbXMImLVVjuO0hs0jCchzCiFoV7YIjZWVhjjb9PT9CHjSQniw6XsD-QqlxKO7MHcY8kO1eqMYBg44-7aYbcelQN4OjKIyLNXjOsknaBdcfEOowC5NSu_A3uesr3gc&sig=AHIEtbQB-L-Lbrqfye3Y_Qrlp9KDece5NQ

Keep in mind- my post is not meant to criticize Orthodox Judaism in any way.  I am considering following a more religious lifestyle when I have a family, but Women and Gender Studies has led me to contemplate the facts around the perceived separate social sphere for women.

-Ilana Saltz

1/26/2012 09:13:10 am

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