Monday, December 12, 2016

Is women's subordinate position obligatory, the optional ideal or temporary?

"She Should Carry Out All Her Deeds According to His Directives:" A Halakhah in a Changed Social Reality

by Rabbi Yosef Bronstein is a professor of Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women and Isaac Breuer College of Hebraic Studies (IBC) Honors Program.

Similarly, our Sages commanded that a man honor his wife more than his own person, and love her as he loves his own person ... And similarly, they commanded a woman to honor her husband exceedingly and to be in awe of him. She should carry out all her deeds according to his directives, considering him to be [like] an officer or a king. She should follow the desires of his heart and shun everything that he disdains. This is the custom of holy and pure Jewish women and men in their marriages. And these ways will make their marriage pleasant and praiseworthy.

— Rambam, Hilkhot Ishut 15:19-20

In his description of the ideal Jewish marriage, Rambam differentiates the interpersonal relationship between the husband and wife from the proper hierarchy that is to be put in place. While on the interpersonal level marriage is defined by love and mutual respect, the decision-making authority remains with the husband. The wife is enjoined to act in accordance with her spouse’s will, even in instances where she disagrees. Practically, this would mean that if a couple disagrees on issues ranging from where to live, choosing a school for their children, to simply whether or not to invite guests to a Shabbat meal, the final word would be the husband’s.[1] Obviously, this description does not accord with the manner in which Western society conceives of an ideal marriage.

As is often the case, Orthodox rabbis in modern times have grappled with this problem. Does Rambam really mean what he seems to imply? If so, are his words binding for all generations? Out of this conundrum, at least three distinct interpretive approaches emerge. Part I of this essay will outline these interpretations. Part II will then use this case study to analyze a broader conceptual issue. Though these interpretations originate in an attempt to resolve a single point of conflict between one line of Rambam and a social reality, important methodological and theological assumptions can be identified in each approach. In particular, I will analyze a central debate between R. Soloveitchik and R. Kook regarding how to navigate conflicts between the words of Hazal and a changed social reality.

Part I: Three Approaches

Rav Avraham Arlinger
The simplest approach to unraveling the tension between the Rambam and contemporary mores is to undermine the validity of one of these two poles. In this vein, R. Avraham Arlinger, the former Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Kol Torah and the author of the popular series Birkat Avraham, forcefully rejects Western society’s conception of the authority-dynamic within a marriage and instead advocates adhering fully to the words of the Rambam. He writes the following:

In Tanna de-Vei Eliyahu [it states] “a proper woman is one who performs the will of her husband,” and it is cited in Rema in Shulhan Arukh (Even ha-Ezer 10:9). It appears that, since this is the way Hazal defined a proper woman, and without this quality she is not acting properly, it is fitting to educate girls from their young age for this [role], against the spirit of the time that women are partners with equal rights. Rather, they should act in accordance with the wisdom of Torah in all matters, i.e. that they are secondary (tefeilot) to men. Modesty regarding clothing is insufficient; [women] also need modesty of the mouth and heart, recognizing that in the future they will act based on their husband (see Rambam, Hilkhot Ishut 15:20), even regarding cases where her father’s behavior is different than the husband’s.[2] [...]

R. Aharon Lichtenstein
A second approach disentangles the tension by neutralizing the import of Rambam and relegating this halakhah to the realm of rabbinic advice which is not normative. While most of Rambam’s Code is clearly intended to be binding law, the above passage is introduced with the relatively rare phrase “the sages commanded.” R. Mordechai Willig, among others, surveyed Rambam’s usage of this expression and concluded that it refers to rabbinic advice as opposed to “a formal issur.”[4] Therefore, while Hazal, the Rambam felt, counselled a wife to ultimately submit to his opinion, this is not an obligatory model for Jewish marriage. As much as the original model was based on the counsel of the sages and not strict halakhah, a contemporary Torah sage can offer differing advice based on the changed societal circumstances.[5]

R. Aharon Lichtenstein presented a similar line of interpretation, though one broader in its scope.[6] He notes that there is little material in the Gemara regarding the proper relationship between husband and wife, and much of what does exist is internally contradictory. Even regarding the stories and statements that are recorded, R. Lichtenstein writes that traditional Jewish interpretation has not deemed them to be fully normative:

There exist, admittedly, some directives regarding some of these concerns. For the most part, however, they have been relegated to the realms of devar ha-reshut, an area not axiologically neutral but neither fully normative, with regard to which personal preference, with a possible eye upon meaningful variables, is characteristic. In a word, they are subject to the discussion, predilection, and decision of individual couples ... My point is simply that there is room for flexibility and mutual choice. Whether the character of a marriage is dictated by convention, contemporary mores, or conscious limning is another matter.[...]

R. Yehoshua Shapira
A third approach contends that the Torah allows for—and even anticipates—major developments in the husband-wife relationship over the course of history. Rambam, in the twelfth century, wrote that the husband should have the final word when disagreements arise. Situated as we are in a different stage of history, this position maintains, we need to find our marital guidance embedded in other Torah statements. For example, R. Yehoshua Shapira, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ha-Hesder Ramat Gan, was asked the following question:

“A proper woman performs the will of her husband.” [Does this mean that] a woman needs to be completely nullified without desires?

He responded as follows:

The Torah’s statement “and he will rule over her” is a curse and not a blessing. Throughout all of history this curse lay strongly on humanity and diminished the female personality. In a non-negligible way it caused the male to act like a ruler, causing, at times, the development of bad character traits. Towards the redemption we merit the removal of the curses in Genesis. [The curse] “[b]y the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread” is continuously dissolving.[7] Also, a large percentage of the dangers of childbirth and the pain of “in pain you will bear children,” is being solved with the help of medicine. So too regarding the verse “and he will rule over you.” We correctly feel that the change is taking place in our midst, but nowadays it is accompanied by a sense of anarchy as is the way of any fruit that the hard shell precedes the growth and only afterwards comes the sweet fruit about which the prophet said that in the future “female will encircle male.”[8]

R. Shapira sees the changes in Western society’s conception of the ideal power dynamic between husband and wife as the slow dissolution of a divine curse. Rambam records that a wife should submit to her husband’s will in part because of Eve’s punishment. This was reflected in the structure of marriages throughout history. Much, though, has changed. Nowadays, as the ultimate redemption draws near, the power of the curse is waning and the “pre-curse” reality of the ideal, separate-but-equal relationship is set to emerge. In such a reality, clinging to older sources as our sole navigational tools would be a rejection of redemption’s social manifestations.[...]

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