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Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum

``The claim that ultra-Orthodox Jewish women freely choose to bring 12 children into the world is about as solid as the claim that there are women who freely choose to become prostitutes or paid surrogate mothers. If it were not for their emotional misery and if it were not for the social pressure they are under and the state of abject poverty in which they live, ultra-Orthodox women would not opt for a life of slavery. It is doubtful whether most ever had the opportunity to make any personal choices whatsoever in their lives.''

So writes Orit Shohat in Ha'Aretz about large chareidi families. For sheer condescension, her description of the mindless, bovine existence of chareidi (fervently Orthodox) women would be hard to beat.

From her writing, one must guess that Shohat has never had a serious conversation with a chareidi woman (perhaps she assumes that they are incapable of it). Surveys of Israeli society regularly show that the most devoutly secular and those furthest to the left on the political spectrum - i.e., the typical Ha'Aretz reader and writer - are the least likely to know well anyone who differs from them politically or religiously. Some clearly prefer living in claustrophobic boxes of like-minded people and passing judgment on the lives of others, to actually learning something about those whom they purport to describe.

Granted, chareidi women do not spend a lot of time deciding which restaurant to eat in tonight, or whether to take a ski vacation or have another child. But there are other choices in life than those between various material pleasures.

The upbringing of each child involves countless decisions and a great deal of wisdom. Does Shohat think that children in large families raise themselves, or that within each family they are all raised the same way? Dr. Yitzchak Kadmon, executive director of the National Council for the Child, recently exploded this myth as "complete nonsense." And Professor Menachem Friedman of Bar Ilan University characterizes chareidim as "excelling" at child rearing (yes, I know many do not), due in large part to the community's great emphasis on children.

One group of chareidi woman who have incontestably made large lifetime decisions are those who were not raised in observant homes. Rutgers sociologist and self-described feminist Debra Renee Kaufman interviewed 150 baalot teshuva, most of them veterans of the women's movement and the sexual revolution, for her book Rachel's Daughters. Unlike Shohat, Kaufman was not interested in polemics, but in honestly listening to what her subjects had to tell her.

And what she heard bears little resemblance to the emotional misery and cow-like existence assumed by Shohat. Rather than the strictures of Torah Judaism being something that these women had to overcome on the road to religious observance, they are all quick to point out that "the most valued part of their lives has to do with their lives as women within Jewish orthodoxy." Not one expressed any doubts about her "theological equality in Orthodox Judaism" or doubts that she is as "capable and worthy of spiritual bonding with G-d as men are."

Upon entering the Orthodox community these women found themselves for the first time members of a community in which the traditional "feminine virtues" - modesty, the centrality of home and family, sharing rather than competing - are those emphasized by the society at large. As a consequence, they are "able to make demands on men as husbands and fathers in ways they believe less possible in the secular world."

Orthodoxy empowers them. "Before I became Orthodox," one woman told Kaufman, "I was male-identified. You know: what's male is better. Not in Judaism. If anything, it is a bit reversed." Orthodox women engage in a daily round of communal activities dominated by other women.

Many find that their female friendships are deeper than in the past because they no longer "compete with one another for men's attention." One teacher of the laws of family purity reports secular Jewish women "brought to tears by the thought of a society in which every move is not subject to the lens of male appraisal, and where they may be truly free to be themselves."

Even the laws of family purity, with their mandated periods of sexual separation and coming together, are experienced positively. "The family purity laws are so in line with me as a woman. . . [I]t is commanded that I not be sexually taken for granted, that I have two weeks each month for myself," one woman told Kaufman. Going to the mikveh, these women feel "connected to history and other women."

Because their intimate lives are wholly reserved to a private domain, Kaufman discovered, "the baalot teshuva seem to stimulate and deepen their sense of sexuality." After decades of marriage, Orthodox women still report experiencing the excitement of new brides upon returning from the mikveh.

In a Los Angelos Times first-person feature story, a former "Cosmo girl" describes her Orthodox wedding: "After the ceremony, before the dancing...Aaron and I went to a separate room to spend a few private moments. There, he held my hand for the first time. That small gesture had a richness and intimacy I could never have imagined."

Doesn't sound so bad. Maybe Ms. Shohat would like to meet a few observant women.

Copyright 2000 by Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum. We welcome your comments.



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