It was one of those moments when a parent’s world stops spinning and seems to reverberate with one two-fold question: What have I been doing wrong, and how can I do it right?!
I give a weekly class examining various topics about women and halakha (Jewish law). One week, my then-8-year-old daughter—knowing we cover different topics, but blissfully unaware of any controversy surrounding them—very sweetly asked what the current topic was.
“We’re talking now about minyan…you know what that word means, right?”
She defined it pretty accurately: 10 men, required for public praying.
“Right. So we’re looking at different sources, trying to understand the whole idea of minyan, and why there are some things we only say if there’s a minyan. And also questions like why it’s specifically 10 men, and not women.”
I didn’t want to phrase it as “why we don’t count women,” because I’m wary of planting seeds of discontent. But I mentioned the question because I am interested in raising a thoughtful child, who notices things and questions and examines them.
“I think I know why it’s men,” she said, looking shyly proud of herself for having an answer to suggest.
I smiled. “What do you think?”
“Maybe because men are more special. Because they were created first, and they have more mitzvot (commandments).”
Oh. My. God.
Did she really just say that? And did she really just say that as if there’s nothing wrong with it? Like it doesn’t bother her at all to think men are more special than she is, by virtue of their being male? She’s just OK with that?!
One of my oldest and dearest friends, hearing about this conversation, commented, “You probably died a little inside when she said that!” She knows me very well.
The eternal, central question of my life as an educated, happily modern-Orthodox mother: How do I instill in my children a respect for traditional Jewish values and laws, alongside skills and interest in critical thinking and questioning? How do I help them appreciate nuances that, honestly, come naturally to me? I do believe men and women are different, and have different obligations—and the way that plays out in Jewish law is not inherently misogynist, though it is often misunderstood and misapplied, in all directions, for a variety of societal reasons.
But how do you convey that perspective, with all its nuance and detail, to a child?
In the moment, I quickly made a few decisions.
1. I was not, at that second, prepared to ask her if she was OK with the idea of men being more special. I didn’t want to start her out with ideas of negativity, that she should feel insulted by the implications of what we do.
2. I responded to the “more mitzvot” part first, because it seemed easier.
“You know, having more things to do doesn’t make people special. It’s doing them that makes you special. What if I had four jobs, but did my best at all four, and someone else had four hundred jobs, but didn’t do any—who’s more special?”
She dutifully responded that I would be more special. (Maybe I shouldn’t have put myself in the example!) I can only hope she got it. As I hope she will grow to appreciate her Jewish responsibilities as an honor, I also pray she will always understand that the number of responsibilities does not make her better or worse than anyone else—nor anyone else better or worse than she.
3. I made another snap decision not to say, “Well, God made Adam first, but it wasn’t good enough; only Eve made things perfect.” Too much room for, “We’re better!” “No, we’re better!” “Men were just practice!” etc. I’m sure she’ll pick up those perspectives, with all the potential for snark, without me.
I did, however, decide to share with her a quick perspective from midrash about Creation:
“You know, some people think God didn’t actually create men first. Depending how you read the biblical verses, it could be that He first created a person that was sort of boy and girl in one, and then separated them because it would be better to have different kinds of people, working together.”
This midrashic tradition provides one solution to the apparent contradictions in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis, and I find it quite powerful to consider that those contradictory accounts are designed to highlight God’s choice to not make us all the same, but to create us in ways that would complement each other. I hope my daughter will grow to appreciate the potential inherent in all the different relationships available to her in this world of diverse, equally valuable, humans.
This conversation occurred on a Friday night, and the majority of my waking hours for the rest of Shabbat were peppered with thoughts about it. Did I make my points clearly? Did she get it? Were there other points I should have made? Should I bring it up again, or wait for her to bring it up again? What else should I say, and when, and how?
I keep thinking about my own parents, and my own growth. What did they say, or do, that led me to feel so confident and empowered as a woman, not at all threatened by, or resentful towards, the halakhic system I hold dear? Is there some formula, and how can I recreate it for my own children?
This conversation actually occurred many months ago. The topic hasn’t come up on its own, but I think about it often, and finally brought it up to ask my daughter’s permission to write about our talk. She said I could, and also assured me that she no longer thinks men are more special. What she does think, I’m not sure. What she will think, I can only do my best.