(January 14, 2016 / JNS)
When taking a look back at both Jewish history and Jewish tradition, one is able to witness remarkable changes not only in how our lives have changed on the practical level, but also how tradition has evolved to better match technological or social advancements. Perhaps this understanding can be best appreciated when analyzing the changing role of the Jewish woman in her greater society—while still strictly adhering to halacha (Jewish law) and norms of privacy and modesty.
Even more so, this trend can potentially be understood most remarkably when we look at modern Israeli society and how it has changed in a very short period of time.
The age-old traditional perspective on the Jewish woman offers a diminished role for the woman in relation to her male counterpart. This dates all the way back to Adam and Eve, when man was “awarded” with the role of the worker or the “breadwinner,” whereas the woman was conversely “punished” to bear the pains of childbirth and assume the responsibilities of a homemaker.
Over the generations, this dynamic created a situation in which the woman was subjugated into a lesser role in society, so that an inherent “inequality” existed between the genders.
It is therefore remarkable to look at Israeli society today. Some 70 percent of women in Israel are gainfully employed. And without entering into the debate over the wages of men and women, 30 percent of women are in management positions on par to, or exceeding, the rank of men in comparable fields. Even if these numbers seem lower than they should be, one would be wise to look even just 15 or 20 years back—when less than half of Israeli women were working in steady jobs and the number of female executives was miniscule.
Some might assume that this transition required that women—and mothers in particular—lessen their commitment to family and Jewish values. I would argue, however, that pursuing a career can be as esteemed a Jewish value as education or child-rearing. Within career development exists ideals such as building self-esteem, pursuing independence, obtaining a new skill set, and many other concepts that are connected to becoming a stronger person, and indeed, a better and more committed Jew.
This mindset has become increasingly embraced within Israeli society—and hopefully Jewish society in general—over a period of no more than 10 years. The understanding has become that even while we as women must remain excellent mothers, and the welfare of our children remains paramount, this can and should go hand in hand with realizing our potential as career-seekers.
As such, take a look at the Israeli workplace today, and you will witness an encouraging picture in which women—including many women who by no means are sacrificing their religious observance and commitment—have positioned themselves at the highest levels. Corporate executives, factory managers, top-tier physicians and researchers, inventors, professors, journalists, security personnel—the list goes on and on. All these women have been able to find a way to achieve the heights of professional success while still managing the role of mother. Often, this entails a several-hour break later in the day, when the home-making role takes precedence, and then we return to our professional passions.
Admittedly, there is still some societal tension on these issues in Israel and elsewhere, and perhaps that tension is higher than the norm within the more religious and socially conservative elements of the Jewish community. But the message that professional ambition does not necessarily require a family sacrifice needs to be reinforced. Rather, the message of the Jewish career woman in 2016 is to take pride in all aspects of our traditional and modern existence.
That ancient perception of the woman being “punished” by being positioned in the mother’s role must be adapted for a new reality, and indeed, we can rejoice in the fact that alongside the challenges of motherhood, we can proudly and ambitiously pursue the challenges of professional careers. This is no longer a conflict, but instead the very realization of what it means to be a Jewish woman who embraces all the skills and talents that Hashem has given her.
Tzofia Hirshfeld is director of external relations for Israel’s Tzohar Rabbinical Organization, which recently hosted a conference focusing on the topic of “Mother at Work”.