I was discussing with my cousin about a friend of mine who is self employed, works in the house, and is therefore somewhat at his wife’s mercy. At least once or twice a day, she asks him to stop doing work so he can do his ‘fair share’ in helping with the house and kids. He’s complaining that he already does his fair share and can’t do a 50/50 split on house work and childcare without it impacting his work. She said “I could hear my son saying the exact same things your friend is.” She also said she was hearing more and more complaints like this from young couples in my generation: the wife believes that all responsibilities should be shared, house or otherwise, and the husband feels that the specific tasks that are his around the house are only his since he needs to go to work too. She said when she was first married it was very clear who had to do what and this at least was not a source of conflict.
There are a growing number of rabbis in liberal Orthodox schools that are now allowing their girls to wear tefillin, a religious garb that was traditionally worn exclusively by men, for a good part of our history only during morning prayers, and according to the early authority who wrote the Targum Yonatan on the Humash (five books of Moses,) the tefillin actually constitute men’s apparel. I understand why they are doing it. The world is becoming more egalitarian. The girls in these schools are going to all the same colleges as their non-Jewish peers of both genders, can hold any job they want, can wear whatever they like, and the girls want the same channel to spirituality that the boys have. They see it as sexist that the boys do it and they don’t. Funny how many of the high school boys I worked with gave me such problems about putting them on. But that’s another story.
What these well-meaning teachers and administrators don’t realize is that they are setting these girls up for unnecessary difficulties later on in life. There’s a reason that women are except from time-bound commandments in Jewish law: because they have other commitments when they have families that they have to meet. Not everyone can do everything and just get to do what they want, because the unpleasant things get ignored. As unpopular as gender roles are, they solve a lot of conflict because everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing and there’s no need to discuss, negotiate, or fight about who is supposed to do what. Everyone has their job in the house, and for the husband it’s keeping the time-bound positive commandments and for the wife it’s taking care of the kids.
Here’s a hypothetical situation: A husband and wife share a pair of tefillin. At $500-1000 a pair (easy) this isn’t hard to imagine. The wife forgets to put the husband’s tefillin back in his usual spot and he forgets to bring them to morning services. First off, they will both have done something wrong religiously: the husband will not have fulfilled the mitzvah (commandment) of tefillin and the wife would have been the cause of him missing the mitzvah. Now, where it really gets bad is the subsequent argument. The husband will get mad at the wife for him missing his mitzvah because he knows full well he is obligated and she is not. She will get mad at him that he’s not respecting her spirituality because her rabbi said it was okay and she’s been doing it forever and how dare he come home and pull this sexist garbage that his mitzvah takes precedence over her spiritual needs! And it does just have to be about tefillin. It can be about allocating time for prayer and Torah study for both partners as well as funds. I already know one of failed marriage where the wife’s insistence on expressing her religiosity in these manners was a major stressor. It definitely wasn’t the cause of the conflict but it provided an outlet that really should have been an area of their lives where they should have been able to avoid it pretty easily.
My rabbi Rav Ephraim Greenblatt zt”l lamented about the skyrocketing divorce rate. He said when he got started he only saw a few Jewish divorces a year, and by the time I met him it was numbering in the thousands. The one reoccurring theme that many of us in the rabbinic world see is this increased sense of yesh, the belief “I” am the center of everything, that I have to be the one to do it rather than whatever it is getting done. A far better lesson could be taught by these well-meaning rabbis is to tell the girls “Listen, I know you want to do this. I just don’t want to see you get confused and after 5-10 years you think that you have to when you don’t, and then getting all upset when real life gets in the way of you doing so. Work on those ways of serving G-d that you will be able to carry with you wherever life takes you.”
The best thing we can teach our students, male and female, is the lost concept of a sense of obligation. Sometimes this involves self-sacrifice, another concept that is alien to this generation. The students already understand self-actualization; we need to teach them communal responsibility, and this move does not further that goal.