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Femininity Fulfilled

Michal Eisikowitz

As she encounters unprecedented levels of independence, education, and prospects, how does today’s frum woman balance that reality with the traditional Jewish understanding of femininity?

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

shiur

NEW APPROACH Miriam Kosman says her approach is entirely different — she is unquestioning of Chazal and doesn’t allege that the Divinely tailored, timeless system needs “adjustment” for modern times. “As a maamin, I questioned from a very specific perspective: It’s Torah. It’s perfect, it’s just. How do we understand it?”

M iriam Kosman once received a call from a mother of a large family. “I love being a mother,” the woman hesitantly shared. “But I have a strong male side.”

"What is your strong male side?”

"I love to learn"

"Why is that a male side?” Mrs. Kosman countered. “Why isn’t that a human side? Why shouldn’t you love to learn; you have a brain and a neshamah!”

This wasn’t the first time the speaker had addressed the concern — and it wouldn’t be the last.

A long-time outreach presenter, Bnei Brak mother of a large crew, and Bar-Ilan University doctoral candidate, Miriam Kosman speaks annually to hundreds of religious and secular listeners about a range of Torah topics. As the years go by, she’s noticed a growing confusion about traditional gender roles.


“There’s a lot of mixed messaging out there,” Mrs. Kosman reports. “As they become more financially successful and educated, as they face the transition from intensive seminary or secular learning to managing large, young broods, many frum women start wondering: What is expected of me? What is the ideal I’m to be striving for?”


The conflicted feelings are what spurred Mrs. Kosman to pursue a decade of study on the topic, culminating recently with the publishing of her Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism (Menucha Publishers) which includes haskamos from Rav Aharon Feldman, Rav Ahron Lopiansky, Rav Todros Miller, and Rabbi Avraham Edelstein. Scion of a renowned Torah family and wife of a prominent maggid shiur, she approaches the topic with a unique blend of mesorah, intellect, femininity, and creativity.


“In real life, the frum woman — as compared to women in any other society — probably has the best chance for a fulfilled life, good marriage, and a framework of meaning and purpose,” she contends. “But as women’s roles have expanded, they tend to define themselves less exclusively by their family life.”

In the past, society’s expectations of women jibed with the timbre of Chazal: woman as the homemaker, facilitator, caretaker. In contemporary times, however, these expectations no longer dovetail. To resolve the contradiction, chareidi society has generally responded with the “different-but-equal” assertion, contending that while men and women, do, indeed, have inherently different missions, each is equally significant.

But, asserts Mrs. Kosman, while different but equal may be true in the ultimate sense — in that a person is judged only based on his particular mission — there’s no getting away from the fact that there’s an intrinsic hierarchy in Judaism… and men are higher on that hierarchy.

“Men have more mitzvos, men give thanks for not being created women, men are the ones charged with Torah study, men are the poskim and leaders, parents are enjoined to pray for a ben zachar,” she offers in illustration. “Perhaps most tellingly, the pasuk tells us that after the cheit, ‘he will rule over you.’ That is definitely hierarchical.”

Mrs. Kosman notes that there are numerous ways of understanding these facts, many of them quite compelling. “But in the aggregate, it’s hard to maintain that we’re talking about a real equality here.”

The Open-Orthodox world, mimicking Reform and Conservative, has responded to this post-feminist conundrum with an apologetic tack: Judaism is indeed patriarchal, this is a big problem, we need to change as much as we can to modernize. That’s why, according to Mrs. Kosman, this sector is constantly pushing the envelope, often well beyond halachic bounds: women as rabbis, women as poskim, women as baalei tefillah. There’s an observable discomfort with what’s perceived as a flawed, chauvinistic system.

Miriam Kosman says her approach is entirely different — she is unquestioning of Chazal and doesn’t allege that the Divinely tailored, timeless system needs “adjustment” for modern times.

“As a maamin, I questioned from a very specific perspective: It’s Torah. It’s perfect, it’s just. How do we understand it?”

Mrs. Kosman’s thesis — laid out almost lyrically in her book — is clear and heavily sourced.

 

It posits that everything in this world is either female or male in nature. Masculinity is the arrow-like energy of achievement, progress, acquisition, and conquest. Femininity, by contrast, represents the internal force that takes pleasure in being rather than doing. Symbolized by the static circle, it is the receptive, concave force (nekeivah) that embraces relationship. Shabbos and tefillah, for example, are manifestations of the feminine force; in these endeavors, we stop doing, accomplishing, and progressing in order to enter into relationship.

Who is the ideal Jew? A spiral; a combination, Mrs. Kosman says. He understands that in this World he must do and do — but ultimately, it is all for one purpose: relationship with G-d.


On a practical level, men are charged with the “doing” sphere — they’re under a constant state of mitzvah obligation. Women, conversely, are obligated in most mitzvos, but their overriding task is to create deep, meaningful relationships — with their husbands, children, and most of all, G-d. All people, however, have aspects of both forces and need to express both. The most arrow-oriented person needs to rest on Shabbos, and the most circle-focused person has a responsibility to do the many mitzvos asei.

“From this perspective, being a man or a woman is not about roles; it’s about an overarching attitude toward life,” Miriam Kosman says.

“What if we prefer the male force?” many girls ask her. “Why can’t we choose the path that speaks to us most?”

This is a common point of contention in both directions. After giving a recent talk, for example, Mrs. Kosman met a father who poured out his angst.

“My wife is a doctor, I am a nurse,” he began. He was a natural nurturer: He preferred staying home with the kids. At shul board meetings, he found it frustrating that members were always talking about how to generate more money; he was concerned about the kind of welcome newcomers would receive. His first wife pressured him endlessly to make decisions, take charge, earn more money. When they eventually divorced, he got custody.

“My whole life, I feel like I’m fighting to be allowed to be this way,” he shared. Was he obligated to repress his feminine nature?

No, Mrs. Kosman replied, unequivocally — that’s why this wider paradigm is liberating. There is no such thing as a purebred male or female; in fact, many men are far more feminine than many women. And in day-to-day life there’s tremendous room for fluidity. At the same time, the physical world reflects the spiritual world: the body you were put into is the medium with which your neshamah interacts with this world.


“Many women are not born with well-developed femininity, and the inverse is true too,” she asserts. “You’re charged with cultivating and incorporating these traits into your life on some level. It takes real work.”

Are certain occupations inherently gender-specific?

“Not necessarily. It’s not about what you do; it’s how you do it,” Mrs. Kosman contends. “Almost any task can be approached from either a circle or arrow perspective.”

  

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