During my third year of rabbinical school, in connection with producing the Vagina Monologues at HUC-JIR’s New York campus, I helped to organize a lunchtime learning experience with two prominent rabbis who were married to each other. As a part of our overall goals for the event, we wanted to relate the discussion to gender equality and the pertinent topic of what it means to be clergy. As a result, our speakers agreed to discuss work-life balance, in particular how they as a couple were able to achieve it.
At a certain point, the wife in our rabbinical duo expressed her deep disappointment, indeed, disapproval, of other female rabbis who purposefully chose part-time work or to stay at home with their children. She stated that these choices deeply impeded Jewish feminist progress, especially when we still had so far to go; in short, these very personal decisions were wrong.
I found myself not only shocked, but also deeply offended.
I have always considered myself a feminist. During my first year in college, each of my grandmothers gave me a gift. One honored me with her original copy of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, the other with the newest edition of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. In conversation with my grandmothers, I understood these works to be statements on the importance of knowing and empowering oneself and the impotent misery that comes when a person cannot or does not. Trying to squish one’s individuality into any mold, whether societal or self-imposed, is the surest route to soul-crushing despair. Feminism, my grandmothers taught, worked to give women permission to pursue all aspects of their humanity, from the physical to the intellectual. Naively, I assumed that these remained the true, long-lasting lessons of the feminist movement. Therefore it shocked me to hear another self-proclaimed feminist try to impose her mold on the rest of us.
Earlier this week, The Atlantic published Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”. Hotly debated on every media outlet from Facebook to the Today Show, Slaughter mourned the difficulties of balancing career success or even “typical” career demands and the challenges of child-rearing. In many ways, Slaughter voices the newest version of the “problem that has no name.” We have traded the desperate housewife for the overwhelmed working woman.
This is real for so many of us. In addition to issues such as the fiscal dilemma of how to live in a world that increasingly demands a two-income household and the need for cultural change which this entire discussion clearly cries for, all of this exposes a spiritual crisis. Namely, how do we overcome not just others’ preconceptions but also our own? How can we create a process to define and then continuously strive to become our best self?
I believe Judaism can provide powerful insight into these questions. Over my next few monthly blog-posts, I will begin to explore some of the wisdom that our tradition offers us on this topic. I hope that you will join me and add your wisdom in the comments below.
Rabbi Lauren Ben-Shoshan lives with her wonderful husband, two amazing children, and an over-large collection of books in Tel Aviv, Israel.