By Micki Lavin-Pell
Women’s roles in Jewish life have been evolving and changing throughout the course of history. Many changes in the world such as environmental, technological, and social have enabled women to create and take on new and exciting roles. Changes relate to how women wish to be perceived both by themselves, through the eyes of other women and through the eyes of men. This is strongly interlinked with what contributions they wish to make both within their homes and communities, and within society at large. Roles that women play are also influenced by how they want to occupy themselves and spend their time.
Throughout Biblical history, women have played various roles in their marriages in order to get their needs met. Their roles are always in relation to the men in their lives rather than having to do with their own individuality. This may have something to do with the passage in Genesis suggesting women were created for the purpose of being their husband’s ezer k’negdo, (help-mate) rather than being created for their own sake. Some of the roles women play in the Bible include lying, scheming, and supporting. A few examples of lying include: when Rebecca puts forth Jacob for the eldest’s blessing, when Sara try’s to get Abraham to leave Hagar, and when Hannah goes to the Great Temple to pray that she fall pregnant, when her husband ignores her wishes.
Of course, there were several women both of whom are mentioned in midrash rather than in the text itself, who also played more supportive roles such as Devora, the Judge (who balanced her own career as a prophetess and judge while enabling her husband to grow in Torah learning), and the nameless wife of On Ben Peled (who schemes in order to get her husband drunk to keep him from getting involved with potentially dangerous behavior with Korach).
Unlike women in the Bible, in the 21st century women are playing many different roles at once. Some of the varied roles include the career woman, the pillar of the community, the organizer of charity and social events, the learned religious role-model and the host of Shabbat and holiday meals. The focus is more on being a better individual, which then has the potential for creating greater influence, rather than on being good and right for the purpose of helping someone else.
Still, as women achieve, many remain with the constant struggle regarding how to balance their needs as women with the many roles that they wish to play both in and outside the home. This is coupled with a desire to have a special and satisfying relationship with God, in addition to having a satisfying relationship with their husbands and children.
Religious Jewish women in the 21st Century have devised many ways to negotiate the delicate balance within their lives and juggle their ever-growing list of needs. While many women believe they need to be Superwomen and do it all and do it right, (struggling to let go of their domestic duties while taking on the myriad other roles), others have found different ways of balancing their many tasks. Many women have discovered that the secret to having it all lies in including others in their achievements and being able to let go of some of the demands they place upon themselves.
In order for religious Jewish women to create a healthy balance between their career, relationship, family and religious life, women first need to understand what vision they have for their lives. Far too many people (men and women alike) expect their partner to know how they want their lives to look. Still others get caught in the web of trying to make sure they have enough of the means to live, but abandon thinking about what their vision is.
By getting their husbands, friends and families on board, women need not live a harried and stressful existence. Arlie Hochschild, author of the Second Shift,described the challenges that women experience when they attempt to take on a career as well as continue their household chores and parenting roles. She looked at the price these women pay with their health and the negative effects it has on their relationships. Arlie Hochschild’s conclusion is that when women suffer everyone around them suffers too.
Women in the 70s and 80s were trying to do it all. Many feared that if they gave up their careers to raise a family, their careers would pass them by. Women in 2013 have the luxury of being able to develop a career while having a family, then decide to continue or focus on the family. This is because motherhood is now seen as an incubator of fantastic professional skills, rather than a hindrance to one’s profession. The choices of how to strike the work/family balance are numerous, especially since women no longer have to work tirelessly to prove their worth in society. New changes in the way many careers are structured, where women can work around their children remotely from home offices, also gives women a degree of flexibility that they have never encountered until now.
Women need to acknowledge their self-worth and reject the feeling that they have to do everything immediately in order to justify their existence. They need to relax, and allow themselves to rest on the laurels that other women have laid for them. They can know that, God willing, they should have many years of good health ahead of them, and they need not do everything at once. They can plan ahead their most precious goals and achievements, and include time and space for their many friends, children, parents and husband as well.
Men of course cannot be left out of this conversation. Their roles have evolved as well. After all, being married to dynamic women who want to achieve more than just taking care of household duties requires a fairly forward forward-thinking man. Men, therefore, have had to rethink their own male models and rewrite them so as to maintain their feelings of masculinity while paving the way towards enabling their wives achievements and ensuring their homes are happy and well balanced.
In turn, men need to acknowledge that their self-worth is not only tied up in the money they bring home, but rather in the presence they create in the family. Far too many families are growing up with absent fathers, because the fathers are preoccupied with earning enough money at the expense of being a strong presence in the family context.
If women can allow themselves to feel confident with the choices they make regarding the roles they take on, they should be able to breathe a sigh of relief; they should be able to rest secure in the knowledge that they will be able to achieve their hopes and dreams over the course of time, with the help and support of those around them, rather than all at once.
Tips on Creating Well-Balanced Couple and Family Roles
- Do not take on everything all at once.
- Write a list of priorities.
- Delegate tasks in a way that is meaningful and that creates buy in by all the members of the family.
- Talk through how you want to create your personal life vision with your husband and family.
- Create ways to meld your life vision with that of your husband.
- Communicate your vision to all of the members of the family.
- Ensure everyone feels that they have a significant role to play.
- Balance your needs with those of others to ensure as many needs get met at the same time.
Micki Lavin-Pell is a Marriage and Family Therapist and Director of Beineinu (division of IYIM) an organization dedicated to creating healthy relationships. To learn more about how to create a successful and dynamic Jewish family, contact her via www.relationship-renovation.com. (Special thanks to Malka Melanie Landau, PhD, and Gila Fine for their contributions to the article).