A few days ago, Rachel Goldberg-Polin – the mother of 23-year-old Hersh who has been held hostage by Hamas since October 7 – was interviewed on a podcast to which I listen regularly. Since Rachel is American, highly intelligent and well-spoken, she has largely become the public face of the hostage families. Indeed, she (along with her husband Jon) has met with President Biden and the Pope, she was featured on the cover of Time Magazine, and she spoke at the “March for Israel” rally in Washington DC. Thus, it is important that we listen very attentively to her thoughts and comments on the hostage crisis.
In the course of her interview, Rachel said that, to the best of her knowledge, the war cabinet and all the people involved in the negotiations are strictly men, which she finds very disturbing given the complexity of the situation. “There is a perspective that you don’t get when you don’t have women in a room, and there is also a perspective you don’t get when you don’t have a mother in the room… it is a different voice,” she claimed.
Now, whether she meant it or not, her words “a different voice” appear in the title of a book by Carol Gilligan that has particular relevance to Rachel’s critique of the way in which the Israeli leadership is dealing with the hostage crisis.
Gilligan wrote “In a Different Voice” in response to the theory of moral development propounded by the preeminent American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, which was described in his unpublished 1958 dissertation. Kohlberg argued that there are three levels in the moral development of children, each one involving two stages, and that children gradually progress from one level to the next. At first, children make decisions based on the benefit that accrues to them personally. Thus, they will do things for which they are rewarded and avoid things for which they are punished. As children mature, they begin to think in terms of social norms and relationships. Thus, they will try to act in ways that conform to conventional notions of good and bad, and they will do things that enhance their relationships with others while avoiding things that could potentially cause them harm. The next stage in moral development is characterized by the ability to think broadly about what is good for society as a whole, such as obeying laws. The highest level of moral development is achieved when a person is able to think abstractly about the law and its founding principles and then to critique it if a higher good may be achieved through other means. According to Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, girls, on average, scored lower than boys.
This theory became normative until 1982, when Gilligan published her book. Gilligan claimed that Kohlberg’s research was conducted exclusively among boys and that it reflects a distinctly male perspective. While it may be true that, for men, conformity to rules and abstract thinking is the highest level of moral reasoning, for women the highest level of morality is caring for others and fostering and preserving relationships. Thus, in her book, she followed Kohlberg’s categorization of levels and stages within moral development, but she changed the hierarchy and considered personal involvement, caring for others, and self-sacrifice, on a higher level than detached rational thinking.
Based on Gilligan’s theory, we can now understand the fundamental flaw in excluding women from the discussions and deliberations around the hostage crisis. Men will most likely be guided by detached, rational thought and analysis rather than by empathy, caring and sensitivity to the pain and suffering of the hostages and their families that increase with each passing day. Thus, given what is at stake to the families and to the country at large in this heart-rending situation, it is simply unconscionable that women are not an integral part of the conversation and the negotiations for the release of the hostages.
Gilligan’s theory may also shed light on a monumental event described in Parashat Shemot that we read this week. The Torah tells us that Pharaoh was disturbed by the rapid growth and expansion of the Israelite people living in Egypt. In an attempt to limit their proliferation, he decided to subject them to oppression and forced labor. When that didn’t work, he reduced them to slavery and, when that too failed, he ordered the Israelite midwives to put every male newborn to death.
Now, it is entirely conceivable that had Pharaoh issued the order to men, they may have calculated that since disobeying Pharaoh would spell disaster for all the people, it is morally better to kill half of the children in order to save the rest. Pharaoh, however, made the catastrophic mistake of making this demand of women. For, as we saw above, from the perspective of women nothing can be more immoral than willfully perpetrating violence against other human beings, let alone murdering innocent babies. Thus, despite the potentially severe consequences, for these women there was nothing to even think about; they simply refused to obey Pharaoh’s orders. And in retrospect, we need to be grateful because, by their refusal, they helped pave the way toward the redemption of our people.
The message is, therefore, abundantly clear. When we are grappling with moral dilemmas of the highest order, women must be included, and their voices must be heard.