Rav Soloveitchik and social issues: Gender Roles in the Torah Family

A woman's contribution to the Jewish home was more important to the Rav than career aspirations.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

Defining male and female roles- a perennial question

The rapid, ongoing social changes of our surrounding secular society, makes ever present and always relevant, the question of defining the proper social roles of men and women in Torah family life. For example, recently the American Modern Orthodox rabbinical body (the RCA) voted to prohibit women from being ordained as rabbis and performing rabbinic functions in a modern orthodox synagogue. Reports were that the vote was close, and that the decision may be compromised in the future. It may bring to a head the looming split between the Modern Orthodox movement and Open Orthodoxy. 

Rav Soloveitchik uses the weekly Torah portions concerning Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebecca, to discuss how the Torah defines the male and female roles in Torah oriented families. This article will present highlights of the Rav’s discussion, and suggest certain implications for our current grappling with this crucial question.

Abraham and Sarah: Nomadic teachers of ethical monotheism

Abraham and Sarah worked together as nomadic teachers, of equal stature and importance, in order to promote the revolutionary message of a moralistic G-d who provides, and enforces, an ethical code in human history. They taught Abraham’s self revealed understanding of G-d’s role in the world, though G-d did not actually speak to Abraham until he was 75.

The Rav writes: “Abraham searched for G-d without His help, proving his existence through nature….Abraham could neither point out….miracles to prove G-d’s existence. Yet despite the obstacles, Abraham and Sarah built a loyal following who shared his religious teachings. These are the souls that THEY acquired in Haran.” Abraham taught the men, and Sarah made the message relevant to the women. Sarah was a prophetess.

`Abraham and Sarah: Covenantal parents together with G-d

And when Abraham and Sarah arrived in the Land of Israel G-d revealed himself and formed a covenantal community with them  G-d bound himself in eternal obligation with two nomadic husband and wife preachers of ethical monotheism. In response, they jointly submitted and committed themselves to G-d’s mission and code. They were no longer nomadic, individual teachers, but partners with G-d. Being covenantal partners with G-d changed, and added new meaning, to Abraham and Sarah’s marital relationship and parenthood.

The Rav writes: “With the emergence of Abraham and the founding of a new kind of community, the covenantal one, the vague role of fatherhood and the all-absorbing experience of motherhood were redeemed. Fatherhood in the covenantal society is the great educational commitment to the mesorah…a message, a code, a unique way of life ….In the covenantal community the father is promoted to teacher….(and) the barren woman (Sarah)…can attain covenantal, if not natural, motherhood.”

When G-d then allows Sarah to become a biological mother and to give birth to Isaac, the Rav writes, “Sarah redeemed the motherhood experience by taking a natural reality and changing it into commitment…Abraham and Sarah (new names) symbolized the exalted idea of covenantal fatherhood and motherhood.”

Abraham and Sarah: Covenantal gender roles

The Rav uses Abraham and Sarah’s covenantal parenthood to teach the differing content of their family gender roles.  The Rav poignantly writes:”There is a distinction between the mother and father’s educational mission within the covenantal community. Father’s teaching is basically an intellectual nature…The teaching must be strict, exact and conscientious. However Judaism is not only an intellectual tradition but an experiential one…There is beauty, warmth and tenderness to Judaism…All this is to be found in the maternal domain. The mother creates the mood…She tells the child of the great romance of Judaism. She somehow communicates to him the tremor, the heartbeat of Judaism, while playing, singing, laughing and crying”. (Commentators, and the Rav himself, point out that the above is also a description of the gender roles of the Rav’s father and mother.)

Abraham’s historical, covenantal role ceases with Sarah’s death

The Rav writes, “Sarah was not only Abraham’s mate, but comrade as well. Together they discovered G-d, a new morality, and together they joined the covenant….Abraham mourned Sarah …as a colleague, teacher, and co-founder of the Mesorah…Upon Sarah’s death Abraham lost his mission.”  Abraham lived 38 years after Sarah’s death, however without his wife, the Rav notes, he retired as an actor on the stage of covenantal history.

Isaac and Rivka: in time of crisis, the woman is better suited to seize the leadership role

With the coming of Esau and Jacob to maturity, and Isaac’s desire to bless them and pass the covenantal duties on to the next generation, a critical crisis arose. Rivka was convinced that Isaac misunderstood Esau’s true nature, and that Esau could not be trusted with the tasks and responsibilities of creating a prophetic family that would live by, and continue to teach, the Abrahamic/Sarah message of ethical monotheism.

Rifkah better understood than Isaac did the reality of the natural-social world. She thus dramatically took the initiative and the leadership role, and acted to ‘force G-d’s and Isaac’s hand’. She made sure that Jacob received the covenantal blessing and mission, and also received the material blessings necessary to implement that mission. As the Rav explained above, the ‘;experiential-existential ‘ wisdom of the mother Rivka  was more appropriate and truer, in time of covenantal crisis, than the intellectual-metaphysical wisdom of the father Isaac.

The Rav writes: “The woman is a crisis personality….The greatness of the woman manifests itself at the hour of crisis, when the situation does not lend itself to (the man’s intellectual, analytical) piecemeal understanding, but requires instantaneous (experiential) action that flows from the depths of a sensitive personality. G-d gave woman binah yetarah, an additional measure of understanding over men” And this crisis-based binah yetarah is what caused Rivka to act and succeed in having Jacob receive the covenantal blessing.”

The Rav writes:”Rivka knew ….that Jacob would inherit the covenantal destiny…Rivka (better than Isaac) knew that Man is both a metaphysical as well as a secular being (and thus Jacob must receive the covenantal blessing).  Rivka knew the falsehood of  Isaac’s hope that Esau’s materialistic-sensual nature (secular) could  attain the spiritual (metaphysical) attributes necessary for leading the covenantal community.

Yosef and Tonya Soloveitchik: covenantal partners

Many commentators point out that the Rav’s above description of the covenantal mission and gender roles of the patriarchs and the matriarchs ‘also’ very aptly describes the Rav’s own relationship with his wife. The Rav speaks about this relationship with openness uncommon to a Torah Giant. He openly admitted that he ‘worshipped’ his wife, and was existentially lost without her (my terminology).

They both  ‘left Haran (Eastern Europe)’ to go to Weimer Republic Berlin in the 1920’s to attain  doctorates in philosophy and in education. They became comrades in teaching Torah when the Rav became the Chief Rabbi of Boston in 1931. Tonya became the leader and builder of the Boston Orthodox day school which combined Torah and secular education. Most of the Rav’s important Torah lessons  (but not shiurim in Talmud) and sermons were first shared with his wife for her critical comments.

All of the Rav’s description of the transcendent spiritual meaning inherent in  true, intimate marital (I-thou) relationships seem to be a very transparent description of his own marriage. It is said the the Rav said kaddish for two years after he became tragically widowed at an early age (67) - so great was his sense of loss.

The relevance of the Rav’s teaching for our current debate on Torah family gender roles

Liberal rabbinic disciples of the Rav, such as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, cite the Rav’s support for combining Torah and secular education for both men and women, and the role model of his wife’s active teaching and communal leadership, as signs that he would support the expansion of the teaching and leadership roles of women. The Rav’s more conservative rabbinic disciples believe that he would sternly oppose granting rabbinic functions to women because the Rav constantly argued that the halacha must evolve slowly and cautiously, and in line with rabbinic legal precedent.

I believe that the Rav teaches us that:

1)  Women must be encouraged and trained to assume significant teaching and communal roles in modern Orthodox life.

2) Men and women have very distinctly different religious-spiritual personalities. Men and women will teach a single, eternal Torah in different, but complementary, ways.

3) The family is as an important religious, educational framework as the school, if not more so. Mothers and fathers make different, but complementary, contributions to family religious education. Experientially and spiritually the mother’s role is more decisive in determining the quality of the family religious education than the father’s contribution.

In summary, I believe that the Rav would conclude that if the woman’s communal teaching-leadership role comes at the expense of her home-family teaching role, priority should be given to her home-family teaching role. This is because that the women’s home-family teaching contribution is more uniquely influential than the father’s in determining the child’s religious development. In a harsh, secular world, we desperately need the religious education instilled by the family. The religious home, in a lonely, atomistic secular society, is our life-saving, Ultimate Shelter.