Gendered Expectations and the Experience of Children
Something critical is missing in the impassioned discussions over tensions within the Orthodox world. Beyond the philosophical and halakhic divisions and debates over the she-lo asani ishah blessing and women’s participation, little or no attention has been paid to the actual experience of people, especially children.
What do children experience in regard to gender and appropriate gender roles? Do they truly believe or understand that God created men and women with differences, with different roles, but that neither men nor women are “better” than the other in some fundamental sense? That God is neither male nor female? Now, I could be far off the mark, but I do not imagine that most of our children have absorbed such sophisticated theological concepts.
What, instead, do they think and experience? Do young boys and girls genuinely hear the she-lo asani ishah blessing and understand it according to the most common explanation, that it refers to the additional mitzvos incumbent upon men? Or, do boys and girls alike learn from this and other words and practices that men are better than women in an essential sense? That, while we are all created in the image of God, men are more so than women? That at the banquet in the next world, men are sitting at the table and not women? That only a man has the potential to achieve the status of a Gadol in any sense?
In brief, when boys say she-lo asani ishah, do they really believe they are better than girls? And do girls also believe this when they hear it?
As a member of an OU shul with a YU Rabbi, with a daughter (in an Orthodox Jewish high school) studying Gemara in the same class and at the same level as boys, I can only guess at the gender expectations of my daughter’s peers, the ones with whom she went to elementary school, a mixed Haredi and Modern Orthodox one.
As far as I can tell, the normative, expected course for these girls is graduation from high school, followed by a year at seminary, possibly a college degree part-time, and marriage and children not too long after the completion of high school. They will not become Talmudic scholars, even if more capable and inclined than many of the boys. (And these girls, even the most brilliant, will not become doctors, neither of Medicine nor of Philosophy.) In a world where this is the epitome of a life in this world, what does she-lo asani ishah mean, and what effect does it have on girls and boys?
At the least, I would suggest, we not rush to condemn Rabbis or laypersons who express their discomfort with a blessing like this and imagine a different world—one remaining squarely within the four amos of halakha, if not quite adhering to what most of us feel is traditional. We should dan lecaf zechus, give the benefit of the doubt, and take these people at their word, that they are committed to a life of mitzvos and Torah. That their concerns, even anguish, is not unreasonable. That they not be pushed out of the tent of Orthodoxy.
The last question, one for which I have no answer, is whether or not—if such experiences are genuine—whether or not these facts should influence how we understand and even rule on the matter? And maybe, I might humbly suggest, the values our children experience and learn could be considered, even by poskim, in determining whether or not reciting the she-lo asani ishah blessing is necessary for men to remain within the tent of Orthodox Judaism, on an equal level with keeping kosher and keeping Shabbos. If this blessing, in fact, contributes towards inculcating a set of beliefs none of us hold—including that men are in some essential way “better” than women—is that itself reasonable cause for its reconsideration?
Alan Krinsky, PhD, MPH, works full-time as a Senior Analyst in the field of healthcare quality improvement, and is also a writer. He was previously a monthly columnist for Rhode Island’s Jewish Voice & Herald, and his essays have been published at The Huffington Post, in The Providence Journal, and on the online version of The Forward. He lives with his family in Providence, RI and currently serves as the President of Congregation Beth Sholom.