We’re all women now. Well all right, not exactly, but quarantines and other health guidelines are drawing many of us away from commitments outside of the home, including minyan three times a day.
Women may or may not embrace domesticity, but traditional sources do associate women with the home. The Talmud often refers to a wife as debeit’hu, literally ‘of his home,’ and even reads the word “ohel” (tent) as a euphemism referring to a woman (Mo’ed Katan 7b). Women are given precedence in three mitzvot— separating challa, candle-lighting, and nidda— that, in the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, “are the three pillars upon which Jewish home and family life are based” (Iggerot Melech 2, p. 399). Mishlei adds a note of responsibility, or even authority: “Chochmot nashim banta beitah,” “the wisest of women built her home” (Mishlei 14:1). (For more on this, see here and here.) Even in secular contexts, for better or worse, home responsibilities still fall heavily on women.
Suddenly, thanks to COVID-19, men find themselves more often close to home, and the religiously observant newly face the challenge of praying and connecting to God without synagogue or physical community.
Now, over the past decades, one of the most contentious questions within Orthodoxy has been how women, emerging more and more from domesticity, should serve God in communal contexts outside the home.
This question has become particularly acute as, in many communities, the locus of Judaism has shifted away from home and toward school and synagogue.
Thanks to COVID-19, the message that there is more to avodat Hashem than public ritual, typically directed at women, has become more relevant for men. They may find women’s insights into maximizing private prayer particularly helpful now. On the other hand, men may also gain added appreciation now for why communal channels of avodat hashem can be so important to women.
Many women need to recalibrate their Jewish practice in light of Coronavirus restriction as well. So, too, those of us with children have to take back fuller responsibility for “ve-shinantam le-vanecha,” “and you will teach them to your children.”
What is the significance of Judaism more weighted toward the home?
Within the home, absent the external motivation of the synagogue framework and social reinforcement to which many of us have become accustomed, we need to find internal motivation to persist in pursuing acts of Torah, prayer, and loving-kindness. The atmosphere of the home itself can help us find it.
At home, little moments and interactions accumulate to reflect greater values and purpose and love and fear of Heaven. Home-life rooted in Torah gives us strength to meet the responsibilities and uncertainties bearing down upon us with clarity and even joy.
Community at its best is a wider arena in which to apply values learned and practiced at home, in solidarity with others, especially fellow members of the covenant. The mezuza on the doorpost marks the home as a place of Torah, and reminds us to take Torah with us “be-shivtecha be-veitecha uv-lechtecha ba-derech,” at home and on the road.
In the wake of Coronavirus, the home has inarguably moved front and center in our lives. Now’s the time for all of us to become reacquainted with its spiritual power, to reconsider the balance in our lives of external and internal, and to learn from each other.