“I’m supposed to want to get married and have kids.”
“What other way is there for a woman to be holy and useful in the frum world? I feel like a total failure and that there is just so much wrong with me.”
Did that make you cringe? I hope so.
I cringed. I was, in fact, devastated when a 30-year-old woman expressed these thoughts. It was a conversation involving several women who shared their uncertainties about marriage and motherhood – whether they would find “the one,” whether they even wanted to, whether they would ever have children, whether they felt suited for the job anyway.
“What other way is there for a woman to be holy and useful in the frum world?”
If the message we are sending our young women is that they have no holiness, no purpose, other than to gestate and raise children – I submit that we are doing something wrong and we need to fix it.
Certainly, reproduction is holy and useful to the world, and I can even see where material might be found to feed the notion that it’s the only worthwhile path for women. Right there in this week’s parsha, for instance, Rachel exclaims to her husband, “Give me children, and if not, I am dead” (Bereishit 30:1). Rashi comments that we learn from Rachel’s words that anyone who doesn’t have children is considered like dead. So clearly, Rachel’s example teaches us that a woman without children has no purpose and may as well be dead, right?
Would we ever want our daughters to think that way? How about those of our daughters who date for years, watching as all their friends get married and wondering if their day will ever come? How about those of our daughters who do get married, but struggle with infertility, listening as their friends share their joy and sense of fulfillment (and sleepless nights and angst and worry and the entire all-consuming roller coaster of parenthood), wondering if their day will ever come?
Do we really think the Torah wants those girls to grow up thinking that way? As if there’s only one thing G-d wants of them, and if they can’t do it, they cannot achieve holiness or serve any purpose in the world? As if, even if they ultimately do find a partner and are blessed with children, nothing they may have done during all those years was worth anything? Not holy or useful if she wasn’t married with children, right?
As it happens, if we look at the Rabbinic sources behind Rashi’s comment (Bereishit Rabbah 71:6, Nedarim 64b), we might notice two important details: (1) it’s not about women specifically, but about any person, man or woman; and (2) childlessness is only one item in a list of four states that are considered “like death,” and I think it’s pretty clearly not to be taken so literally. Would we say a person – man or woman – who has tzaraas, or who is poor or blind, has no purpose in life? Maybe we should delve in a little more deeply before teaching that exclamation of Rachel’s, or that comment of Rashi’s, to impressionable young women as if it represents the sum total of their divine mission in life.
Turning to another oft-cited biblical paradigm: Years ago, I was horrified to hear a (male) scholar deliver a shiur describing female identity as totally bound up with being mothers. I knew there were women in the audience who never had children, or who were struggling to have children, and I couldn’t imagine how anyone could have the nerve to stand before a group that might include such individuals and announce that their lives had no meaning. (Lest we think I misunderstood him – several other women expressed similar reactions to me afterwards. And if even one woman could have come away with that idea, there was a problem with the shiur!) One of his central texts was a midrash describing Chana’s prayer for a son, which relates her words as follows: “Master of the universe! Everything you created in a woman – You did not create anything without purpose. Eyes to see, ears to hear, a nose to smell, a mouth to speak, hands with which to do work, legs to walk – and breasts with which to nurse… Grant me a son, and I will nurse with them!” (Berachos 31b) The speaker offered this prayer as proof that all women are maternal by nature, and are unfulfilled without children.
Perhaps he didn’t notice that there are multiple body parts mentioned in Chana’s prayer; even she, even in the depths of her emotional prayer, realized that she, like all women (and like all men), had other functional body parts, and other functions to perform with them. That G-d created women as whole people, more than a reproductive/feeding system, and bade us live whole, holy lives.
Perhaps he forgot that although we learn many details of formal prayer from Chana, the Gemara deems her prayer for a son as too personal to serve as a model for the emotions we should have in our prayers (Berachos 30b). Chana’s sense of bitterness was unique to her and cannot be assumed to be representative of all people or even all women. She davened from the depths of her soul, about the contribution she knew she could – even should – make to the world, but the very depth of that feeling means we can’t impose it on anyone else.
Perhaps he also forgot that male and female were created b’tzelem Elokim before the female was ever identified as “mother of all life.” That she was, first and foremost, simply isha. Or that many of our biblical heroines are celebrated for accomplishments that have nothing to do with motherhood.
Perhaps it didn’t occur to him to wonder why, if the sole purpose of womanhood is to produce offspring, that is not our only mitzvah. Why it is not, in fact, technically our mitzvah at all.
Certainly, various halachic obligations are set aside in favor of caring for children; certainly, Jewish halachic and hashkafic traditions value having and raising children.
But can we not muster sufficient complexity of thought to encourage and celebrate marriage and motherhood, while also encouraging and celebrating each woman’s development as her own whole person? To recognize the importance of personal effort towards finding a spouse and building a family, while also recognizing that some people put in those efforts without success, and G-d must have a plan for them too?
(While I’m at it – can we remember that no single person has ever been “helped” by random people telling them what they’re doing wrong, and no childless couple has ever achieved pregnancy by being asked “what are you waiting for?”)
“What other way is there for a woman to be holy and useful in the frum world?”
The same ways there are for men: by observing mitzvos, striving to be a good person, doing G-d’s will, making the world a better place. Do you think only a man’s prayer or Torah study can be holy or useful? Do you keep kosher? Observe Shabbos? Give tzedakah? Avoid wearing shaatnez? What are those mitzvos, if not holy marks of a holy life?
Living on my own in New York before getting married, I once shared a woefully depressing seudah shlishit with a group of single girls (I can’t call them “women” – they clearly thought of themselves as “girls”) who could not seem to talk about anything except how much better Shabbos would be if only we were with families. If not our own, as wives and mothers, then at least to be visiting a family and experience a “real” Shabbos! Nebach, being still single meant we might say our own kiddush – using our holy words to sanctify our holy meal. Nebach, we sang zemiros ourselves, in praise of the holy day G-d shares with us. Nebach, we bought and cooked special Shabbos food only for ourselves and maybe our friends, not for a husband or children.
Did they really think the lack of husband and children rendered our Shabbos meaningless?
If I can indulge in a little meta-self-referencing, I recently wrote this:
Several weeks ago, I wrote about some of my struggles in attempting to balance shul-going with bearing, birthing, and/or caring for young children. I received feedback from, and was thrilled to engage in some wonderful, thoughtful discussions with, several readers who suggested that if only today’s mothers would accept the maternal role G-d gave us, we would be happy staying home from shul.
For many women, acceptance of that maternal role is indeed totally fulfilling. If those girls I ate with are now mothers, I can only imagine they must be thrilled to focus primarily on caring for their long-awaited families. (Or not, because motherhood is hard and there are a million factors and sometimes even if you love it you also want to get out and see another human, except maybe your kids can’t handle shul…but I digress.) I commend those women and their choices (not that they should care what I think).
For myself – I do accept my role as mother, gratefully, and I also I want my children to see that I do other important things too. I want them to see me prioritize prayer, though I’m also kind of glad they saw me miss davening mincha recently (first time in years!). I hope they see my prayer as my holy responsibility, even as they realize my holy responsibility to them that day made it impossible. Not impossible, actually; I could have planned better, and I tried to let them see that too. I want them to see me as a whole person, with religious duties, who strives and makes mistakes, who is first their mother but not only their mother. I want them to see all that complexity because I can’t guarantee what courses their lives will take, and I want them to appreciate the depth and complexity of their own holy responsibilities and opportunities.
I want them to know that doing G-d’s will wherever they are in life is more holy and useful than sitting around on a Shabbos afternoon pining for children they may or may not one day be granted.
And beyond my own family – I find it tremendously important, too, to maintain women’s shul attendance as a “thing.” Even if many individual women cannot or choose not to attend, for whatever reason – let’s publicize, however we can, the potential for both women and men to live holy lives and do different kinds of holy things, whether before, after, during, or without young children.
The Mishna in Sanhedrin (4:5) expounds at length on the significance of G-d’s choice to begin humanity with one human. One reason offered is “To tell the greatness of the Holy One, blessed is He, that [while] a human mints multiple coins from one mold and they are all identical to each other – the King… minted each human in the mold of the first human, and not one of them is identical to another.” As Rambam points out, this variety among humankind is found in both physical appearance and personality, often shaped by life experiences. Presumably, having or not having children would be included among the life experiences that shape who we are underneath the basic form that makes us human. And as the Mishna continues, “Therefore, each and every person is obligated to say, ‘The world was created for me.’”
Each and every person – not each and every man, nor each and every mother with children – is worth an entire world.
Let’s look for ways to make that clear in our communities, before we raise another generation of women who think their potential for holiness and usefulness rests anywhere other than inside their own, individual, unique hearts.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.