Charedi Feminists? Hardly

Many people that read this blog know of my admiration for Rabbi Avi Shafran. Although he is often harshly criticized for his outspoken views by some critics to his left, I am not one of them.  As I have said many times, I tend to agree with the majority of Rabbi Shafran’s views.  And for those times I disagree, I still appreciate and respect his perspective. His latest article in the Forward, is one of those times that I disagree.

Rabbi Shafran tries to make the case that the Charedim are the most feminist of people.  His reason? It is because the women in this community do what feminists all over the world think women should be doing: working.  And in many cases Charedi women work at decent jobs requiring great skill and education. They are in fact being trained to do so by innovative programs that they take advantage of.

Well, it is true that Charedi women work. But does that make them feminists? Hardly. They work not because they want to lead more fulfilling lives in equal measure to men. They work to support their families, because their husbands don’t. Their husbands learn in Kollel.

Somebody has to support the family. So the women do it. Is that feminism? Not only isn’t it feminism it is hardly even Jewish for women be the breadwinners. The Torah is very clear about who that is supposed to be. It is men. ‘B’Zeyas Apecha Tochel Lechem’ – ‘by the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread’ (Bereishis 3:19). That ‘curse’ is explicitly directed towards men. Not women. And yet today, it is by the sweat of the woman’s brow that bread is eaten in the Charedi world. So please let us not call this feminism. It is instead an Olam HaHafuch. A world turned upside down.

Had these women decided to work to supplement a working husband who was not making enough to meet the needs of his large family, it would be understandable. But to place the entire burden on women for her family’s sustenance is unfair – and I dare say even anti family. If men are in Kollel and women work all day, there is not much time for family.  Nor do most women make nearly enough to support their usually large families. Hence the crushing poverty affecting so many families in the Charedi world.

Besides, I’m not even sure why Rabbi Shafran would even want to characterize any part of the Charedi world as feminist.  Feminism is anathema to the Charedi world.

Rabbi Shafran touches upon a subject that is a constant source of frustration for me.  Here are his words:

The Haredi dedication to Torah-study (and concomitant shunning of military service) is disparaged, or at least viewed with condescension. The size of Haredi families is regarded with looking-down-the-nose disapproval. And, of course, the seemingly self-imposed poverty of so many Haredi families along with the low employment rate of Haredi men are beheld with deep displeasure, if not disdain.

No one should look down their nose at Charedim for any reason. That is certainly not how I look at them. But there is definitely a legitimate problem that remains unaddressed. It isn’t dedication to Torah study that is disparaged. It is the idea that every Charedi man has to do it to the exclusion of all else.  And the fact that when one finally leaves that world of full time Torah study to go to work they are ill prepared to do so.

The fact that there are programs that train Charedim after they leave Kollel is a good thing. But it is not nearly enough to cure the poverty that is built into the system. There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that the lack of any preparation for the workplace during the high school years (and beyond) contributes mightily to the lack of decent jobs available to Charedim that find themselves in the job market. And thus their increasing poverty rate.

And shunning military service is not something for anyone to applaud. As I have said many times, the elite of the Torah world should be exempt and supported. It is vital to the Torah world to have high caliber people studying Torah. But the rest (majority) should be required – same as any other citizen – to serve their country at some point.

So I part company this time with Rabbi Shafran. First for characterizing Charedi woman as feminists. They are not. And more importantly for what I believe to be an erroneous understanding of what upsets even those of us who value Torah study – same as they do.  We are not upset at their values. We are upset  about the intransigence of a Charedi leadership in perpetuating a system designed to save Torah study form extinction – that has long ago fulfilled its mission. Torah study has been saved. It is no longer in danger of extinction.

And yet the leadership acts as though the slightest change in it will cause its destruction. And that in my humble opinion makes their current paradigm a greater existential danger to the Charedi world than does the one they think they are fighting. Because it isn’t only their material welfare that suffers. Poverty can destroy their spiritual welfare too.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.