To appreciate the effect of modern society and its philosophy of life on the legal standing of today’s woman, it is necessary to review some historical background. This is of particular importance for the correct application of halachic rulings in real-life situations.
The artistic and scientific reawakening of Europe in the mid 1600s C.E. initiated vast intellectual, ideological and societal changes. In the process, an agrarian-based, family-oriented, religious society was gradually replaced by an industrial, secular and genderless one.
Until about 250 years ago, society was based on social structures that produced the stability necessary to run an agrarian economy. With the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism, things started to change dramatically. One of the key differences between an agrarian society and an industrialized, capitalistic one is the concept of stability.
A capitalist system must give entrepreneurs sufficient chance for creativity, status and opportunity to transform societies. The innovations and discoveries of past centuries had as a prerequisite the liberalism of an economic system that allowed change. This is not to say that prior to the Industrial Revolution the world was necessarily a more stable place than it is today, but it was a world that believed in stability; and the single most important factor in that stability was the institution of family.
From a business perspective, family is no different from any other enterprise that distributes responsibilities among the co-workers according to their abilities. In a family-based agrarian enterprise, both men and women produced goods in their homes while tending to their farms and their children. Although traditional, gender-based divisions of labor dictated women’s tasks, the contributions of wives and daughters were vital to the economy of pre-industrial communities even in urban settings.
With twenty-first-century eyes, it is tempting to look at women of earlier times as struggling against a social system dominated by men, but this image is incorrect. While men certainly dominated the public space, and it is largely their names and deeds that are recorded for us, women wielded their influence primarily behind the scenes; but they often labored in public, too, usually as the agents and partners of their husbands.
Women have always been responsible for the business of everyday life: bearing and raising children, feeding, clothing and sheltering. It is work that in a wage-based economy tends to be dismissed as being of little value; but the average man of the past, particularly in an agrarian-based economy, knew how valuable it was. In reality, the woman dominated the household and ensured the stability of the delicate social fabric.
To maintain a functioning economy, it is imperative that the legal system protect the natural rights of the worker and prevent any unfair treatment. Historically, a woman’s property was often, but not always, under the control of her father or, if she were married, her husband. This did not mean that the husband was free to do with it as he wished. In fact, common law early on required a private interview between a judge and a married woman to confirm her approval of any trade or sale by her husband of her property. In principle — although the details of the law are different — Torah law rules similarly.
It is true that women’s rights and input in the public arena were limited. It was only in the past century that women gained voting rights, for example.
Gradually, as the primarily agrarian economy was replaced by a sophisticated global system, a conservative social structure gave place to an ideologically genderless social order. More and more, men and women began neglecting their homes and families to acquire wealth, prestige or some form of greater power, or to pursue personal pleasure. Equal education of women became a universal value, creating a demand in terms of career opportunities, respect, and influence. The phenomenon of dual-earner couples redefined the time-honored division of responsibilities within the household; at the same time it diminished the status of a woman who stayed at home and kept house. Finally, women’s rights became a political issue, and women’s rights organizations the self-appointed representatives of a liberal social order.
A publication of a well-known women’s rights organization has the following to say: “Although no woman is forced to take on the responsibilities of family life, no woman needs to be exploited... Women’s liberation means you decide what will fulfill your life as a woman.” What may sound like a demand for fairness is in fact a call for a different social order, with a different set of priorities. It is needless to say that this social order and these priorities are not in consonance with the Torah’s worldview.
The “right” to choose an individual path has far-reaching consequences on the individual’s legal rights. A simple example is the right to assets brought into the marriage. Here is an excerpt from an insurance agent’s advisory article. “Even if you have the most stable marriage, you may encounter difficulties when finances enter the picture. After all, when you were single, you probably managed your finances in a way that was comfortable for you and you alone. As a married individual, you need a system for budgeting money and paying bills that both you and your spouse agree on.” The article continues by advising the soon-to-be-married individuals on how to protect their assets with an eye on the possible — and sometimes probable — dissolution of the marriage. In other words, marriage in this setting, unlike marriage according to the Torah, is not a fusion of individuals in all aspects of life; it is a stage of cohabitation that shuns a full union.
Safeguarding Torah standards in an open-ended culture is an awesome task. The principal characteristic of the Jewish woman, the kol kevudah bas Melech penimah, requires a suitable social structure that preserves those values without compromise; and an observant Jewish woman must not be pressured into a lifestyle that imperils her spiritual sanctum. The legal rights of such a woman are not well represented by secular women’s organizations, which have considerable political clout but are on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. The change of moral principles is often ratified by a legal code, making it even more difficult to resist this environment.
Freedom and equality in a secular society are synonymous for legally backed dissolution of moral boundaries on the one hand and legal enforcement of halachically unacceptable behavior on the other. A case in point is a decision by a local high-school principal in Florida “to do away with a discriminatory dress code.” This decision was applauded by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida that counseled the school’s students about their constitutional rights to privacy, liberty, and First Amendment protections.
This might be in sync with a trendy style of behavior but certainly undermines old-fashioned moral standards, besides contradicting Torah values. The social pressure of such an environment on a Torah-observant individual is not difficult to imagine.
(For the sake of fairness, it should be noted that the same constitutional arguments were used by the Attorney General and Agudath Israel of America to defend the rights of a religious female student who objected to a course requirement to wear immodest clothing.)
This evolution of social order and values has had a formidable effect on Torah-committed Jewish society. The change in people’s mindset did not bypass the Orthodox community. Many strictly observant women pursue full- or part-time careers outside the confines of their homes. Although ideally that is only an ex post facto accommodation, necessary because of the ever-growing expenses of raising a Jewish family, in practice it has become an accepted way of life.
The woman in the workplace, single or married, is not anathema; it is a given. In fact, a girl of marriageable age is expected to be a partial breadwinner, at the very least.
A legal effect of this development is the rights of spouses or their heirs. That and its impact and challenge for Torah true Jews is the subject of the next article.