Why Orthodox Women Must Receive an Education
Dresden, Germany – The Sabbath is over late here in Germany. It ended at almost 11pm. I addressed a Jewish conference of hundreds of men and women in this country that has become synonymous with Jewish devastation but is experiencing a Jewish rebirth. I have been lecturing in six European cities over the past week and a consistent theme has impressed me: the seriousness of young, European Jewish women in discovering and advancing their knowledge of Judaism. Many are university students who devote huge swaths of available free time to attending classes on a religion with which they were not raised.
Six of my nine children are girls. I am a feminist in that I believe the obvious: that women are capable of all the things men are, and need to develop their potential in the same way – the most important being in education. Three of my daughters were educated in seminary in Jerusalem at Mayanot, run by my close friend Rabbi Shlomo Gestetner. When I was searching for an appropriate seminary to educate them, he said the magic words: we take a woman’s mind seriously.
Their Jewish knowledge has gained much from the time they spent there. More extensively, they have been fortunate to have either received a degree, or be currently pursuing one, at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for women. My daughters were raised to take the acquisition of knowledge seriously. But I’m also a Rabbi who is Chabad and believes in the values of our community, namely, that men and women marry young and that marriage and children are life’s foremost blessings.
So what is a young woman to do? Go to college or get married? And while they need not conflict, they often do, and one must choose. In Chabad young women marry men who often go soon thereafter to the four corners of the globe. That means interrupting an education.
Orthodox couples also believe in having children early in the marriage, and a pregnant undergraduate, or a mother who is still a student, can find finishing a degree an insurmountable challenge. There is also the issue of young couples needing to earn an income after they marry and being a student is not life’s most lucrative pursuit. Then there is the challenge of some young men feeling uncomfortable with orthodox women with secular degrees. The men are getting Rabbinic ordination and remain confused as to why a woman would need a college education.
If I want to be uncharitable, I could go further and say that some orthodox men are uncomfortable with women who want a career. Isn’t being a wife and mother enough? I have devoted my life to extoling the virtues of marriage and children. Family should always take precedence. But strong marriages are built on independently-minded women. A woman who is not a person in her own right – aside from the obvious abuse that such capitulation entails – becomes a bore to herself and those around her. A spouse morphing into the identity of their significant other is bad for them and bad for the relationship, leading as it does to stultifying monotony and routine.
We are, each of us, possessed of a dual identity. We are links in a higher continuum of existence where we are expected to contribute to something than transcends our individuality. As Jews we are expected to build families that lead to the continuity of an ancient people. We are expected to have children, which is especially important for the only religion in the world that does not proselytize and which is dependent on its birthrate for survival.
But we are also individuals in our own right, with our own dreams, aspirations, and talents. Healthy marriages are made of the dynamic tension, which comes from the healthy friction of two opposites in constant interaction. Uniformity is good for an army. It’s terrible for a marriage. And if we want strong unions in the Jewish community, we must welcome, rather than ever resist, a woman’s education and knowledge base.
At our recent Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala, sponsored by our organization This World: The Values Network, we honored my wife Debbie for 25 years of service to the Jewish people, beginning with her co-founding the Oxford University L’Chaim Society with me a quarter century ago.
In my introduction I remarked that I am often asked what I most regret in my years as a Rabbi. I said that the answer was obvious. I should have listened more to my wife, my superior in wisdom and values. My wife and I could not be more different, and I am often puzzled as to why when it comes to choosing a spouse so many search for a doppelganger rather than the Biblical “ezer kenegdo,” a soul-mate who is one’s opposite.
As I raised my older daughters and as they got closer to marriageable age, they often teased me as to why I learned Torah with them most nights, and pushed them hard to read history and focus on writing. “Don’t you realize, Tatty, that the men who are looking for wives these days often care far more about a woman’s dress size that her knowledge-base?” “No doubt there are many men like that, Baby girl,” I would tell them, the orthodox community not being immune to such superficiality. “But you don’t want a man who has no appreciation for your mind since that means he also means little appreciation for his own.”
Marriage provides life’s greatest beauty. But it’s one that can only be fully realized with two people who spend a lifetime seeking to know each other, infused with curiosity for all that surrounds them, making life into an endless journey of discovery rather than a destination easily reached.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network, the foremost organization influencing politics, media, and the culture with Jewish values. He has just published Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.