At a recent professional conference, I sat with several non-observant friends, when one of them put me on the spot. “How do you do all this with six kids?” she asked.

Balancing work and life is difficult for every working mother. But it is doubly difficult for me, given my feminist and intellectual upbringing. Every day is a new struggle to break out of the box, which I was taught defines a successful woman.  Every day is a challenge to balance achievement and sanity.

The balancing act becomes much more difficult when you throw in spiritual demands as well.

As a student, negotiating the divide between feminism and Jewish sources was a constant undercurrent in much of the learning. The traditional male roles were the model to strive for (in the context of halacha, of course). Praying shacharit for 40 minutes, learning primary sources, and taking on as many of the mitzvot as possible were just some of the hallmarks of a progressive religious woman.

Yet the drive for maximal observance coupled with a penchant for intellectualism, leaves many women facing strong feelings of inadequacy.

Yes, there are many women, who are not raising families. Others have been blessed with extraordinary abilities. Still, there is no reason to uphold that as a standard for  ALL women.

My heart breaks every time a smart, productive woman, who is already carrying a heavy load, tells me she feels she isn’t good enough, or doing enough or achieving enough. My blood pressure rises every time I hear a lecturer tell women the key to spirituality is to do more.

I don’t question women’s scholastic capabilities. I am convinced of women’s ability to reach the most intimate and significant relationship with God.  But there is a good reason why most observant women don’t spend their days in intimate Rambam chevrutas or take leisure Mincha/Maariv breaks. 

Empowerment does not equal overachievement. It comes when we free ourselves from the need for societal validation and perceive everything as a choice, not an obligation.

God exempted women from certain mitzvot not because women are somehow inferior, but because He doesn’t expect us to be the superwomen we are pushing ourselves to become! That’s why the traditional approach to women’s observance is so refreshing, in our society obsessed with overachievement. It sets the minimum standard and then validates women’s choices to take on additional mitzvot as an individual, spiritual choice based on personal circumstances.

The traditional approach does not set women up for never-ending comparisons with the neighbors’ spirituality. Unfortunately, the spirit of one-upping each other has seeped into all communities, but it is as foreign to authentic Judaism as idol worship.

Over the years, I have met outstanding talmidot chachamim among charedi women (hardline Meah Shearim types included), who can quote freely from Gemara, Rishonim and Acharonim and field questions without blinking an eye. I have also met highly-educated, committed women, whose current challenge is to make the time for the morning brachot. The beauty is that in a traditional society both types can feel they belong.

Despite the smirks of progressive feminists, many women do find spiritual fulfillment in personality development and everyday experiences, even when these amount to doing chesed with one’s own family.

Ironically, character improvement is so much more difficult and demanding than any actionable mitzvah one can take on. It requires learning, self-awareness, and persistence. It may not be enough to satisfy the intellectual types, but neither should it be met with ridicule.

A while ago, a woman who used to pray twice a day and can no longer manage that due to family obligations asked whether she is required to annul her vows. The rabbi said no. Since this is a temporary hiatus (even if it lasts 20 years), there is no need for an annulment.

With God’s help, there will be times for us to pray and learn without turning our lives into a balancing act. God is happy with us even if we don’t find the time for a full-blown shacharit and don’t open a “primary source” for years. There is no reason to subjugate our relationship with Him to some preconceived notion, as if everyone is created in one mold.

The time has come to throw away the boxes and stop setting arbitrary standards for each other and for ourselves. Our individual paths in the service of God should be guided by reality, not imaginary perfection.

Let’s make a collective escape from the self-imposed jail of can-do-it-all.