Women serving as breadwinners is not a contemporary novelty. The Mishna (TB Kesubos 59b) considered it incumbent upon active homemakers to contribute to the family income in order to avoid the spousal tension bred by his earning money and her spending it. The Mishna also recognized that even absent economic pressures, it may be important for women to use their talents productively lest their lack of engagement lead them to immorality (afternoon soap operas?), or drive them crazy (בטלה מביאה לידי זימה, בטלה מביאה לידי שעמום). While in Mishnaic times “women working” meant עושה בצמר, spinning wool at home, the considerations addressed by the Mishna remain completely relevant, even as they present differently today.
My mother לאוי”ט always worked. This was partially driven by economic necessity, as my father was a congregational rabbi and we lived modestly, but it was also motivated by my mother’s awareness of her natural gifts and by the opportunities that her own education had given her to develop those gifts. Nevertheless there was no question that her role as a wife and mother was central to her life and mission. While she helped out my father by adding her part to the support of the family, and while she was an educator par excellence, first and last she was the עקרת הבית, the active and present mainstay of the home.
By contrast, my father שליט”א – who was a present and involved father – primarily identified himself by his work outside of the home. This was the case both in terms of the idealism of his עבודת הקודש, the sacred calling of the rabbinate, and in the fulfillment of his role as a father. In his view providing for his family was his responsibility as a father, and this would inevitably take him away from the home.
Their approach was classic and worked well, demonstrating that mothers can work outside the home and raise wonderful families if they and their husbands “get it right”. But it appears to me – as a parent, as a teacher, and as a communal Rav – that the assumptions that informed their approach have gone by the wayside, with very serious implications for our families. Fathers often do not assume the ultimate responsibility to provide, and mothers are frequently less focused on their critical role in the home. And we are paying a very steep price for this, in terms of the health of our families and the proper development of our children.
Some suggest that these challenges mandate a radical rethinking of communal approaches. Perhaps the yeshiva world needs to reconsider the broad promotion of Kollel life, and the modern Orthodox world needs to revisit its encouragement of women’s pursuit of careers as a means of self-fulfillment. Perhaps all of us need to dial down our consumption and expectations to reduce the need for substantial dual incomes. While I believe that all these points need to be considered, radical change does not come quickly, and is rarely introduced effectively from the outside.
Instead, I would like to focus positively on two universally cherished but recently neglected ideals, and propose ways that we can effectively focus our attention upon them in a manner that will ultimately accomplish real change. Both apply equally to men and women, though the first will be weighted towards the woman and the second to the man.
Homes Without Walls
The Talmud describes a man without a wife as lacking a wall (TB Yevamos 62b). This echoes an image drawn by Yirmiyahu HaNavi (Yirmiyahu 31:21) of man surrounded by a woman. This seemingly strange image actually describes a critical aspect of home and family life.
We all live within walls. Beyond our walls we confront society, struggling, competing, advancing our causes and defending our positions in an environment that is not ours alone, where we are vulnerable and exposed. Within our walls we are at ease, safe and secure. A primary function of a home is to provide that safe haven, that sense of security. For children and adults the home should be a refuge of comfort and warmth where they are nurtured, cared for and understood as individuals, and where there is no need to struggle or compete for attention.
Walls serve a second function as well, defining a controlled environment. While an education can hardly be considered complete if it does not equip the student with the ability to faces challenges beyond its walls, a strong education requires a period of immersion within walls, where the messages and values are clear and undistorted by other distractions and competing messages. And while education as book learning has for the most part been outsourced to schools, education in terms of how life is lived remains firmly within the purview of the home. To provide this critical component of education, it is necessary to create a clearly defined home environment where these invaluable lessons of life can be absorbed.
These ideas are supported by a widely-discussed study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (http://www.casacolumbia.org/articlefiles/380-Importance%20of%20Family%20Dinners%20IV.pdf). This study concluded that the single most effective parental undertaking to reduce the risk of their children’s pursuit of behaviors such as alcoholism and substance abuse is to eat family dinners with them. This reflects both logic and what many of us observe, that children provided with the presence and the attention of engaged parents almost invariably enjoy a greater sense of security, confidence and self-worth, and assume clearer values.
While both parents share the responsibility of providing children with a sense of security and self-confidence, this role is the mother’s primary task (ביתו זו אשתו). The same mother who was granted by G-d the unique physical capacity to carry, protect and nurture the child thru infancy, was also granted the unique emotional capacity to protect and nurture the child into adulthood. In fact, the husband needs his wife’s support and care as well, as his involvement in the competitive and confusing world outside the home tends to leave him vulnerable and distracted. It is essential for him to have a secure home to return to, where he can feel appreciated and supported and where he can reconnect to the core values of the family.
The challenge of creating a nurturing and wholesome home environment has grown increasingly daunting, even when the mother is home on a fulltime basis. In today’s hi-tech, hi-connectivity world that boasts of universities, stores, schools and synagogues without walls, the walls of our homes have grown increasingly porous, penetrated by both personal and mass communications to the point where it is increasingly difficult for parents to define their own home environment. And hi-tech aside, parents of larger families face greater difficulty in devoting the necessary attention to each of their children such that he or she will not have to struggle or compete for it.
When economic demands or career responsibilities draw mothers into the world outside the home, it increases the difficulty of creating the proper home environment. The demands on a mother’s time and attention affect her ability to be both physically and emotionally present for her family. And as she finds herself struggling for position in the world outside the walls of the home, it can hardly be expected of her to simultaneously serve as the walls of that home.
While these challenges seem daunting, sustained awareness of the issue coupled with achievable practical adjustments can lead to significant improvements. Parents, educators and rabbonim should focus far more attention on the importance of building a solid and secure home life; on parents being there for their children and on spouses being there for each other. Young women’s educational institutions from right to left should invest more time, energy and resources on educating and imbuing their students with an understanding and an appreciation of their critical role as engaged wives and mothers, alongside whatever other aspirations they encourage. Young women would then be able to make their life choices balancing career aspirations with the incorporation of a primary and irreplaceable role within the home.
Men – young and old – also need to be taught about their personal responsibility to participate actively as husbands and fathers in the creation of a solid home life, and to enhance their appreciation of the irreplaceable role their wives will need to play within the home.
Sustained discussion of specific, achievable and universally-valued practical adjustments could include addressing the following: Identifying careers and work schedules that allow mothers to be present when children leave to and return from school; weekday family dinners; husbands establishing their learning seder or working overtime early in the morning to allow for evenings at home; seriously limiting personal and work related telephone calls and smartphone use while at home with the family; limiting teens’ connectivity to enhance their being in touch with the messages of the home; halachic awareness of appropriate family planning practices; and using Shabbos as a time to strengthen home and family, rather than for limitless programming and social opportunities.
I believe that these discussions can have a profound impact. Instead of trying to address or alter the powerful factors leading women to work outside the home, it may be more productive to consider how we can help families “get it right.” By focusing attention on these values, we can create a greater appreciation of the choices that lie before them as they seek to achieve the ideal balance between work and family.
The Rambam (Hilchos De’os 6:10) provides an invaluable description – in the form of a negative definition – of the role of a husband and father. He writes that the Halachic category of an orphan towards whom we must act with extra sensitivity applies to orphaned children until they reach the age where “they do not need an adult to rely on, to raise them and to take care of them”. As the Torah consistently groups together the widow and the orphan, it seems fair to say that both as a husband and as a father, a man’s role is to be reliable and responsible, a source of strength and material security to his wife and children. And of course, before being a source of support and security to others he has to first establish his own sense of personal responsibility and independence.
Rav Yitzchok Hutner frequently taught that the impact of giving Torah to the Jewish People was that it changed humankind from being the objects of G-d’s indulgent kindness to their becoming self-sustaining (Pachad Yitzchak RH 4, Shavuos 8, etc.). Indeed, Rav Hutner taught, our claim to life itself is the value of self-sufficiency (שונא מתנות יחיה), as man alone was created with Free Will such that his fate is his own doing, rather than something arbitrarily granted him by an indulgent G-d. Hence the core principle of Nahama d’Kisufa (see Ramchal’s Daas Tevunos no. 18, citing the Talmud Yerushalmi), “One who eats something that is not his is (should be?) ashamed to look his benefactor in the face.”
It is widely recognized that these values of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility do not permeate the contemporary atmosphere. The economy is largely driven by mounting consumer debt, as individuals borrow at unprecedented levels in order to enjoy luxuries that they have not earned. Well-meaning parents freely provide their children with everything they themselves never had. The level of expectation mounts as the work ethic weakens.
The consequences of this trend are not limited to the financial realm. In marriage, for instance, a work ethic is essential to a couple’s ability to overcome the inevitable challenges in a developing relationship. Will the young couple have the ability to work to make things better, or is working to effect change something they are unused to?
Likewise, religiously we are often not called upon to demonstrate self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. While a half century ago a young man or woman studying in a Yeshiva or day school was making a conscious, often heroic decision that had to overcome internal and external resistance, today due to our burgeoning numbers and social strength, such decisions follow the path of least resistance.
We seem to be carrying the next generation as financial, emotional and spiritual dependents. This does not bode well for them as individuals, nor does it provide them with the necessary experience and character to position them as providers and supporters for their own families. While this is a concern all around, given man’s role as the provider and the one his wife and children are to rely upon, it would seem even more essential to the education of young men that their desire for self-sufficiency and their level of discomfort with dependence is enhanced, and that they are given more opportunity to lead and support others.
I would suggest that certain specific practical adjustments are clearly in order. Across the spectrum of the observant Jewish community young people should be given the chance to start out with less reliance on parental support. Parents can do much to build the sense of responsibility in their children by how they provide for them. Instead of credit cards and late model cars, children can be given a fair but limited budget and can be taught to do without the so-called finer things that they may see their parents enjoying, as they must learn that those things are the rewards of one’s own hard work. All involved with young people should stimulate their sense of responsibility by giving them spiritual or material responsibilities, within the family, school or community.
In Torah-only Yeshivos that do not include a career track, young men should be encouraged – by their Yeshiva and by their parents – to discuss how they intend to support their families. They need to take seriously the language of the Kesuba marriage contract where they commit to “serve, honor, feed and support their wives as is the loyal custom of Jewish men.” It must be made clear that it is not their parents’ or in-laws’ responsibility to support them, and that if their idealistic bride wishes to follow the path of the wife of the sainted Chafetz Chaim and manage the store so that her husband can study, she will not be fulfilling her own responsibilities but rather she will graciously be doing her husband’s job for him.
Educationally, the community and its parents, educators and Rabbonim should focus far more attention on the importance of self-sufficiency, personal responsibility and leadership as core values and as critical factors in decision-making, be it regarding education, career, lifestyle or family. Thus for example sustained emphasis can be placed on the aforementioned values of living within one’s means and of limiting financial dependence on parents, government programs and others. Additional stress should be placed on formulating a personal ambition and on goal-setting beyond simply going with the flow of communal expectations, as well as on finding the ways in which each person can contribute meaningfully to the betterment of others.
An excellent illustration of the encouragement of a mindset of broad personal responsibility can be found in a system established by the father of the Yeshivos, Rav Chaim of Volozhin, zt”l. Even as Rav Chaim created the framework to significantly expand the population of older yeshiva students, he imbued them with a sense of mission in their studies. The students were made to understand that their studies were not for their own edification, but that through their Torah learning they were actually sustaining the entire world. Thus Rav Chaim established a schedule whereupon Torah was being studied by some students of the yeshiva during every single hour of the day, so that they would “keep the world going”. This inevitably produced in the students a mindset of global responsibility in their learning and living. They understood that they were not escaping to engage in study for themselves, by the grace of others, but that they were actively engaged in the world’s most vital activity (See Sanhedrin 99b:אפיקורוס כגון מאן אמר רב יוסף כגון הני דאמרי מאי אהנו לן רבנן לדידהו קרו לדידהו תנו אמר ליה אביי האי מגלה פנים בתורה נמי הוא דכתיב אם לא בריתי יומם ולילה חקות שמים וארץ לא שמתי…).
In more recent times Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l encouraged Yeshiva students to tithe their time, dedicating part of their day to helping weaker students (שו”ת אגרות משה אה”ע ח”ד סי’ כ”ו). The Klausenberger Rebbe zt”l, in a program popularized recently thru the Dirshu movement, instructed his followers to set specific goals for themselves in their studies, and created a system of tests and degrees (Chaver, Moreinu) that would encourage meeting those goals. Others more focused on in-depth learning encouraged their students to produce written summaries of their learning and novella, Chiddushei Torah. And Rav Aaron Kotler zt”l, in an address at the founding of the Yeshiva in Philadelphia, spoke of the task of the Yeshiva students as role models for the world around them in their outstanding dedication to Torah (משנת רב אהרן מאמרים ח”ד ע’ רנה-ו).
One way or another it seems that these leaders understood that Torah study will produce a student of stature where the student studies in a framework that encourages his personal productivity and responsibility. We must seek similar approaches in order to create more fully developed and responsible young men.
Summary and Conclusion
Shifts in bread-winning responsibilities do not on their own account for the recent negative trends in family life and structure. The greater issue is the neglect of certain core values. As such, much can be accomplished by restoring these important values as part of our children’s education, and our familial and communal mindset. Specifically, we must cultivate a heightened awareness of the integral value of a strong home life, and of the indispensable role of engaged parents – especially wives and mothers – in creating that home. Likewise as a community and as individuals we must build character, and specifically the character of our young men, to celebrate the values of independence and self-sufficiency, and to cultivate a sense of responsibility for themselves and others.
I will conclude by sharing a letter I wrote some time ago that expresses these values simply. The letter is addressed to a groom, but its message is for both young men and women as they set out to build their homes.
Dear Chosson, עמו”ש,
Mazel tov and welcome to our family. We want you to know that we will be there for you in any way we possibly can. Please feel welcome to approach us about anything and everything. We have limited resources but we have an unlimited desire to be there for our family, and you are now a part of our family.
We have only one request of you. Please tell our daughter every chance you get that you value first and foremost her role as your wife and as the mother of your children. Tell her that you view her as your בית, as the one who is tasked with making your home a place of security, tranquility and purity for you and for your children. Tell her that you – as the man of the house – are the one responsible for going out and providing for the family, and that if she wishes to help in that realm you will appreciate it and accept it only to the extent that it does not materially detract or distract from her main task as the עקרת הבית, as the anchor and mainstay of your home and family.
Chosson – this is a tried and true formula. Our fathers conveyed this message to our mothers, and we have lived our lives in the same way. We are very happy with the results. בעז”ה you will be too.
Mazel tov. We love you.
- This characterization of women as nurturers would seem to be implicit in the Talmudic passage in TB Sotah 21a, crediting women with enabling the Torah study of their husbands and children. This general understanding of the role of woman was emphasized in the writings of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Collected Writings Volume 7), and Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohein Kook (see Maamarei haRAYA”H p. 189). ↑
This article was originally published in Klal Perspectives, Winter 2012.